Commentary: FedEx to the bottom billion

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large  |  Dec. 12, 2008 at 10:26 AM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- Almost 1 billion people have been hit by this year's global food shortages, says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The number of undernourished, the FAO said, rose by 40 million, following a 75 million jump the previous year.

Before the global food crisis there were 850 million chronically hungry people in 2003-05. A decade ago, the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals called for halving world hunger between 1995 and 2015. Soaring food prices and the global financial crisis have pushed that goal off the charts as no longer achievable. This would have required investing $30 billion a year to boost agricultural output.

But it isn't happening. In sub-Saharan Africa one in three is suffering from malnutrition. In Indonesia and the Philippines, palm oil went for the quick buck in synfuels, and now oil prices have collapsed, adding misery to what the World Bank called the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In 2009 U.S. oil demand is anticipated to drop to the lowest level in 11 years. The World Bank also forecast the commodities boom of the past five years, which boosted prices 130 percent, was now "at an end." Wall Street analysts disagreed; the gobbledygook held that "downward movement was a course correction in an upward trend."

Oil, according to Wall Street, would stabilize at $75 a barrel while food costs would still be 60 percent higher than in 2003. But the World Bank still sees world trade -- the engine of growth for most developing countries -- shrinking for the first time since 1982.

The woman in charge of feeding the world's hungry calls the World Food Program a "FedEx to the 'bottom billion.'" Josette Sheeran's WFP can reach any point of the globe within 24 hours with lifesaving food. Its 10,000 employees are known as "the humanitarian Green Berets." The WFP has been feeding 3 million people a day in Darfur, where 41 of its drivers are missing in action. Twelve of its "Green Berets" were killed in action so far this year. And volunteers for hazardous duty keep stepping forward from all over the world. The WFP's global network moves food by plane, helicopter, train, boat, barge, donkey, camel, mule, airdrops -- whatever it takes.

But now, for the first time, there is a major problem in finding the food to buy and then rushing it to where hunger is on the verge of famine. The WFP's budget doubled with food prices to $5 billion. Sheeran found herself battling the three Fs -- the food crisis, the fuel crisis and the financial crisis -- as they intersected in what she calls the perfect storm. The WFP is one of the largest grain buyers in the world, and Sheeran was hit by food and commodity prices shooting up faster than they had in 30 years; from 2002 to 2007 they doubled.

In the 30 years since the 1974 food crisis, declining food prices and increasing abundance had given the WFP cushions and safety nets galore. But as Sheeran took over the WFP in April 2007, she saw food prices doubling in six months. It was a silent tsunami as 20 million people were added to emergency rosters. These were the desperately hungry. The WFP was suddenly feeding one school meal a day to 21 million kids in central Africa. It was the only meal they got. And even that got cut back to half a cup so that they didn't have to cope with starvation.

Sheeran's goal is a world where food security, "which I define as affordable access to adequate nutrition ... is not thrown into question every time the world goes through a rocky situation. This is about a stable world," Sheeran said.

"Forty governments were threatened with being overthrown over the food crisis," Sheeran said in Washington recently, "and these weren't the dictatorships where people don't dare march, but the emerging new democracies where good leaders clung to the next rung up the ladder of democracy.

"The United States, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, has been feeding one out of every 200 people in the world. The program is supported in churches, mosques and temples in equal measure. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah wrote WFP a personal check for $500 million, the biggest check in U.N. history. But President Obama is now faced with a formidable challenge. By 2050, the world will eat more food than the world has consumed in the past 10,000 years. And the world is no way near ready to produce on that level," says Sheeran, "so this is to Mr. Obama what landing on the moon was for President Kennedy."

The world now endures 10 times the natural disasters of the 1980s. The WFP used to be 20 percent emergency operations and 80 percent developmental. Today it's 90 percent emergency, chasing killer storms the world over. While food prices have dipped of late, the WFP's purchases are still at last year's level.

Three of the four countries with the highest portion of malnourished children in the world are in Asia -- Bangladesh, India and Nepal; Ethiopia is the fourth. In India alone, there are 200 million undernourished people, says Sheeran. Hardest hit are the dollar-a-day poor who spend more than half their income on food.

Sheeran's WFP doesn't worry about Wall Street and Main Street. Her "Green Berets" are embedded in places with no street.

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