Deciding how to distribute international food aid is hard enough in the best of times, and those questions only get more difficult when bullets are flying.
“The main concentration of world hunger now is in countries that are struggling with conflict,” said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger advocacy group.
Beckmann and a panel of speakers discussed the role of food aid in war zones at the Food Tank Summit on April 20 in Washington.
The number of people in extreme poverty has dropped by half since 1990, though 1 billion people are still in grave need of food and basic supplies, said Beckmann, a Lutheran pastor who was a World Food Prize recipient in 2010.
Conflict countries can be sources of immigrants and terrorists who come to rich countries, so “their problems are also our problems,” Beckmann said.
Perhaps the most immediate challenge is delivering food around maneuvering armies.
In Syria, ISIS has seized some food shipments and tried to impose conditions on the operations of aid organizations.
“There are massive denials of access,” said Allan Jury, vice president of the World Food Program USA, a nonprofit that supports the United Nations World Food Program.
The World Food Program tries to reach 4.5 million people each month in Syria. Usually, it can get to 4 million, Jury said.
The nonprofit Oxfam America had to stop shipments to North Korea after the food kept getting hijacked by the military, said Ray Offenheiser, the aid group’s president.
It was morally unacceptable to feed soldiers who were starving their people, Offenheiser said. “Literally the population was eating grass.”
Even when food can get to refugees, Beckmann said, the U.S. is not providing it in the most efficient way.
Currently, the U.S. buys food grown in the U.S. and ships it to the foreign country.
Beckmann wants the United States to provide monetary aid, such as debit cards, that recipients of the aid can use to buy food available where they are.
Most Syrian refugees in the country of Lebanon are housed in urban or semiurban places, not camps. When refugees can use aid money to buy from Lebanese stores, they are seen as customers who are building the economy, not as a financial drain, Jury said.
More than 1 million Syrian refugees are living in Lebanon — roughly one-quarter of the host country’s population.
The American Farm Bureau Federation has criticized moving to monetary donations, saying cash can too easily be used for nonfood purchases.
Except for the United States and Japan, all major food donor countries already emphasize monetary aid.
In Japan’s case, food aid is a way to dispose of rice it is required to import under a trade pact, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Responsibility for U.S. food aid is currently spread across many agencies. “No one owns food security in the U.S. government,” said Johanna Mendelson Forman, an adjunct professor at American University.
Food aid could be handled better by centralizing operations in one agency, similar to what former President George W. Bush did with AIDS programs, Forman said.
Countries should consider building into trade agreements a requirement that they alert their trading partners before instituting an export ban, said Cullen Hendrix, director of the Environment, Food and Conflict Lab at the University of Denver.
This policy can give importing countries time to plan for an alternative food source, rather than getting blindsided, Hendrix said.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Congress has not yet ratified, includes this consultative process, Hendrix said.
Natural events such as droughts may also fuel conflict by hurting poor countries’ farmers.
Between a three-year drought and the end of government subsidies, 800,000 farmers lost their livelihood in the years before the Syrian civil war began, said Lauren Herzer Risi, a senior program manager at the Wilson Center, a congressionally chartered policy forum.
Many poor, war-ravaged countries are expected to be hit particularly hard by the effects of global warming, Beckmann said.
In South Sudan, tribes compete over cattle and water supplies. Aid distribution needs to be perceived as not favoring any of those groups, or it could re-ignite conflict, Jury said.
Aid groups have about six months after fighting stops to get things right. “Food security is often an afterthought” during that time, Forman said.
Sometimes farmers can return to their land after a war. Other times, “the land may be mined. There may have been other groups that have moved in,” Offenheiser said.
Many conflict countries dropped their ag extension services in the 1980s or 1990s, so farmers do not have much technical assistance when getting back on their feet, Offenheiser said.
The causes of poverty are complex, so it is easy to wonder if food and development aid can do much good, Beckmann said.
Still, countries such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia have made great strides against poverty and hunger, he said.
The goal of food aid programs is “not that we can solve all their problems, but we can help,” Beckmann said.