World food programme explained

  30-Oct-2020 15:09:20

World food programme Nobel Prize Food Hunger

The 2001 War/ Action movie Black Hawk Down based on the civil war in Somalia – started with an interesting headline; it stated Hunger being used as a weapon of war. The warring clans often used to seize international food shipments from Mogadishu port and snatch this aid from their fellow civilians to feed the militants. The long-fought civil war had induced a large-scale famine. Deaths by hunger had overtaken those by the bombs & bullets! Famines & malnutrition have been the sad reality of modern warfare with hunger being the most heinous of weapons.

The United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) won the Nobel peace prize 2020 for their efforts in eradicating hunger and in turn promoting peace in conflict zones.

The WFP has been doing a tremendous and equally difficult job in a lot of conflict zones and poor countries around the world. Let’s get to know their work in detail in the following sections.

Food, Hunger & Food waste in numbers

We live in an enormously imbalanced world today. The richest and the poorest can be found living in the same city, only a few hundred meters apart. On one hand, we observe a record increase in malnourished, on the other, there are surprising levels of food waste and a record increase in the number of obese people. Barring few wealthy nations, the palpability of this irony is stamped on almost all of the countries in the world.

Mankind is producing food at the highest volumes historically and there is enough food to feed humanity until 2050. However, about a third of food produced for human consumption is wasted, and continuing conflicts, power-hungry politicians and corruption are forcing millions to starve daily.

International food aid

Food aid is of 3 types. Programme food aid is a government to government food provided for direct sale in local markets. Programme aid is bilateral and generally includes conditions from donors. Relief/ Emergency food aid is a free food distribution in countries facing food insecurity in times of crisis such as conflicts, calamities and population displacement. Project food aid is targeted at specific groups or projects e.g. school feeding program. The majority of WFP’s work is in focused on relief aid and project aid in some cases.

Inception of WFP

Seeds of modern food aid were sown with the creation of the United Nations in 1945. Former US President Dwight Eisenhower is considered to be the proponent of the idea of UN WFP. In 1954, he signed Public law 480 that institutionalized United states food aid. In his 1960 speech addressed to UNGA, President Eisenhower proposed a workable scheme for distributing food aid via the UN framework. Eventually, the UN World Food Programme was established in April 1961 on an experimental basis for 3 years with 100 million USD funding from the USA.

Key highlights of the WFP operations

WFP, FAO (Food & Agriculture Organization) and IFAD (International Fund for Agriculture Development) are the three UN organizations related to food & agriculture, all based in Rome. One of the common focus areas of these organizations is to eradicate hunger but via different modus-operandi. While WFP works on relief aid, IFAD mobilizes and offers financial resources for agricultural and rural development projects. FAO drives the initiative of food security on a global level.

WFP runs the world’s largest humanitarian operation and it also carries the biggest logistic exercise in the world across industries. WFP distributes aid in form of food packets, grains, cash transfers, school meal programs etc. In 2019, WFP distributed 2.1 billion USD worth of cash & vouchers and 4.2 million tons of food.

UN WFP provides aid in 88 countries and it provided aid worth 97 Mn USD in 2019. Its logistics fleet consists of 5600 trucks, 30 ships & 100 planes on the move on a regular day at work. They distribute ~15 billion rations every year. The logistical might & expertise of WFP is often extended to fellow humanitarian missions & other UN missions as well.

History & achievements

The first significant operation for WFP came during their pilot phase when in 1962, WFP sent 1,500 metric tons of wheat, 270 tons of sugar and 27 tons of tea to an earthquake hit Iran that killed 12000 people. Over the years WFP has worked in multitudes of geography conquering logistical, trade and political challenges, especially in the conflict zones.

Some of the key WFP missions are:

  • Between 1983-85, WFP delivered 2 million tons of aid after the worst famine in 100 years hit Ethiopia

  • In 1989, WFP executed the largest humanitarian airdrop in history involving 20 cargo aircraft. This was the “Operation Lifeline Sudan”. Food packets were dropped for millions of civilians in South Sudan.

  • WFP provided food aid to 1.2 million tsunami victims in 2004, to 4.5 millions of people affected by the Syrian conflict in 2011, to people affected by the Ebola outbreak in 2014, to the Nepal earthquake victims in 2015 and WFP is feeding ~12 million people in 2020 in Yemen thanks to everlasting civil war.

  • WFP in India: WFP has been working in India since 1963 and has extensively worked on reforming the public distribution system. They have brought technological innovation like ~500kg Automatic grain dispensers to allow people to withdraw the accurate quantity of grains. Also, during the pandemic, they have collaborated with the UP government to provide food to 33 lakhs, Anganwadi students.


WFP does not generate any cash flows through its operations and relies solely on voluntary funding from Governments, Corporates, and donations from individuals. (Individuals can donate to WFP here)

The USA has been the biggest donor to WFP until now. They donated 2.7 billion USD to WFP in 2020. India ranks 54th on the list with a meagre 0.99 million USD of funds donated in 2020.

WFP is supported by many NGOs around the world and other UN partner agencies by donating food packets, grains, local access, volunteering etc.

Criticism and Challenges

WFP operates in conflict zones, areas devastated by wars between rival clans and regions of the complex and usually diabolical political setting, and they face criticism from those on the non-beneficial side. They have been accused of corruption, black marketing and criticized that their sourcing methods hamper already weak local markets. WFP since then has resolved to increase the sourcing from local markets and farmers.

WFP faces a challenge from the COVID-19 pandemic as it has disrupted many of their supply chains and restoration of trade links. The pandemic has pushed an extraordinary number of people into poverty and hunger, this can put immense stress on WFP’s funds & food inventory. Climate-change related problems pose potential food security challenges and it is to be seen how WFP plans to counter it.

However, a Nobel win can open gates of more corporate and individual funding to WFP so that the organization continues its impactful humanitarian work and feeds even more people than before.

By: Nishad Patil