Nancy Roman, the World Food Program's director of communications and public policy strategy, talks to children during a visit of WFP operations in Sudan. The WFP is rethinking how to prevent and mitigate food emergencies in a new framework. Photo by: Emilia Casella/WFP

The world’s largest food aid agency is in early stages of rethinking its strategy for averting future food crises. Such a threat cannot be downplayed especially if the global downturn persists.

The World Food Program is proposing an “anti-famine mechanism for the 21st century,” which combines the lessons it learned over the last half-century of responding to food emergencies with new tools and approaches for tackling chronic hunger, according to Nancy Roman, WFP’s director of communications and public policy strategy.

Roman, a former executive at the Council on Foreign Relations and journalist, discussed this new framework on a phone interview with Devex. She also talked about WFP’s current situation in Darfur, collaboration with telecommunications firms, cellphone fundraising campaigns, and plans to partner with nutrition and food companies.

Could you elaborate on the new “anti-famine mechanism for the 21st century” proposed by World Food Program chief Josette Sheeran?

Sure, I’m happy to. What we have observed in just looking at hunger is that… WFP was created as a food surplus distribution agency, and it was a means of sharing some surplus food in the developed world with the developing world that needed food but didn’t have it.

There is no surplus food anymore, so basically people either give us money or they take their own money and purchase food that they give to us, but there is no surplus food to distribute. So that fact in combination with the fact that over a half-century of doing business, you understand hunger more deeply. You understand both the ravages of hunger in terms of the damage it does on the human level, robbing people of their physical resiliency and mental capacity. You also understand what it can mean in terms of movement, migration and civil unrest. So you get smarter about how the ravages of hunger… and you get smarter about what really works, to alleviate hunger and to provide hunger solutions.

The thinking behind the “anti-famine mechanism” is to say the world has charged us with the responsibility that there won’t be famine — there is global consensus on that — but that instead of just being the 911 when a famine does come, to really think proactively as the world’s largest agency fighting hunger, we can help governments and others like companies and individuals provide food security for their own population.

We are at the very early stages of both assessing what we currently do — and we do many things from helping governments procure food to helping government to undertake vulnerability analysis of their populations, and to help figure out what are the tools to fill the gap … sometimes it’s food assistance and sometimes it might be cash and vouchers as it is in Burkina Faso. We are looking at an advanced purchasing facility that will allow us to purchase food ahead in anticipation of the work that we do and get it to the beneficiary more quickly. It’s really just a “global think” to how to get ahead of the hunger curve; we are at the early stages of this thinking.

What structures are needed going forward to actually implement such a new mechanism?

Well, some of the ones I just mentioned, like the advanced purchasing facility. It’s not so much structures as it is understanding what governments are currently doing and what they want to do, and doing the gap analyses and then figuring out what tools to apply, which can range from cash and vouchers to helping governments with purchase or helping governments use school feeding programs as a social safety net. There are many numbers of tools but first you must determine what the vulnerabilities are and what the government approach is for providing food security for its people.

What are WFP’s contingency plans to get aid back on track in Darfur, and what type of cooperation do you need from the government of Sudan?

Well, as you may know, we are continuing to provide food assistance. We are fortunate that because of good work on this end, we had pre-positioned food and we have been working with our partners who remain to do the one off-food distribution that would make sure that people have food. But, of course they need other things — water and other services — to be really well positioned. Our mission is to feed as many hungry people as we can, and we hope that the government [of Sudan] will allow us to do that.

In terms of how WFP has been building the anti-famine mechanism and using, for example, local food purchasing programs, under what conditions has this worked and where doesn’t it work that well? Do you need to truck food in from outside sources?

Good question. There are two things happening. One, we are one of the largest procurers of food in the entire developing world. In 2007, we spent $612 million buying food in the development world, and in 2008, we are spending right around $1 billion, and we are on track to spend more than that this year. We do it of course when food is available and when prices are in a range that allows it to make sense. Obviously, if you could buy food in South Africa and use it in Africa, that makes more sense than buying it in Brazil and shipping it to Africa. So we do that whenever we can.

It’s important, though, to know that given our total body of work, we could not purchase all of our food in the developing world because there isn’t that much that exists. So one of the things that we’re involved in that we are excited about is that we have funding from the Gates Foundation and Howard Buffett Foundation to work with small farmers and help them figure how to get production up so that we can buy directly from small-holder farmers. And we have pilots in 21 different countries where we’re trying to take different and creative approaches to helping farmers to be able to produce in a way, giving them the security of a contract, so that they can make the investments they need to make.

I’ll give you just one example. In Mozambique, we have a pilot running were the Food and Agriculture Organization teaches farmers to sort and dry legumes and other things. The International Fund for Agriculture and Development is lending so that they can get the equipment necessary to do this, and then we are the end market. So they know they will able to sell once they acquire the skills and equipment that allows them to control for quality. So those are the kinds of projects that we are undertaking.

But if WFP becomes the market for these food stuffs, is there a plan to eventually transition small farmers from selling just to the WFP to the private sector?

Well it’s a great question. I oversee our private sector fundraising. Both government and the private sector and individuals are going to have to be a part of the solution. This issue is too big for governments alone, or companies alone, or individuals alone. But if government, companies, individuals and foundations band together, I think we can really lick this problem. And even though we are in the throes of the economic downturn, what I’m seeing is companies that are really understand powerfully that hunger is a true problem. It’s a problem in the world just from the perspective of being human, but it’s also a problem from the business perspective that creates real volatility and civil unrest in many of the developing countries where they ultimately hope to work in and provide goods and services in. I think we will see greater corporate participation, but I wouldn’t want to see that in lieu of government participation but in addition to.

In some ways everyone needs to step up. This is a time where everyone needs to step up. We’ve made huge progress in 40 years in cutting the proportion of hungry in half, and with the high food prices of 2007-2008 followed by the economic crisis right now, there is real vulnerability around the world — people are hungry. And the world — governments, companies, individuals and foundations have to step up and make a renewed commitment to fight hunger or it could spiral out of control.

In terms of the private partnerships that WFP has been establishing, are there any sectors or industries where you guys would like to see more private sector participation that you may not be getting right now?

We are very interested — we are seeing interest, but we are very interested — in nutrition and food companies…for obvious reasons. Telecommunications companies [are] very important because communication is central for obvious reasons. I would say those are the two primary sectors that we think are important.

Interesting. Could you elaborate more on the telecom side?

Well, for example, we are a partner with Vodafone and we’ve been working with them to help develop an SMS campaign. And we did one SMS campaign when the cyclone hit Myanmar. We did an SMS campaign in Italy [with a different company] and we raised 350,000 euros in a short period of time to help feed hungry people in Myanmar. We’d like to work with telecommunication companies, and Vodafone is very interested in doing a partnership with us. We think it has huge potential to reach people on the individual level who are willing to help out like we saw they were with Myanmar.

Is there any work with the telecom side in developing countries?

Well at this point, it’s on the donor side, but I do think there is work to do in the developing world as well.

Directly related to WFP’s work?


What exactly would that be?

Well, I don’t want to get too far out on a limb here, because we start straying into IT and I don’t oversee IT. But communication is essential. When you’re running an emergency operation, to be able to communicate effectively on the ground is critical, and we do a good job when we currently lead the communications cluster in emergency situations now. So I believe there are ongoing discussions about ways in which to improve that.

How do larger organizations — or smaller ones already based in the developing world — get involved or work with WFP and what are you looking for in their capabilities?

We work with thousands of NGOs around the world. So we work probably with many of your [Devex] small NGO members. It’s really just a matter of if there is a fit. We are the heart and the arteries, and these excellent NGOs around the world are the last mile of capillaries. They are excellent and critical in our work: They know these communities and villages so deeply and well. So it’s really a point of positioning and whether it’s a good fit. The country directors themselves make those determinations on the ground.

About the author

  • Oliver Subasinghe

    Oliver joined Devex in late 2008 as an international development correspondent and researcher. He previously served as a microfinance fellow for Kiva in Kenya and Uganda. During his tenure, he worked with Kiva’s field partners to improve their operations and governance. Oliver holds a master's in business from the College of William & Mary.