By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Mo., April 7 (Reuters) - Moves by the United States to provide more cash instead of commodities to fight a growing world food crisis are welcomed, but more is needed, a U.N. World Food Program (WFP) official said on Tuesday.
"Just because food prices have come down doesn’t mean the crisis is over," said Allan Jury, WFP director of U.S. relations.
The United States provides a little more than half of the world’s food aid, with an operating budget for food aid for fiscal 2008 of about $2.5 billion.
This year, WFP is projecting its needs will total nearly $6 billion, compared with about $5.7 billion in 2008.
The United States comes under frequent criticism because it is the only major donor that provides most of its food aid in the form of commodities rather than cash, a policy that benefits U.S. farmers. The food aid can be more beneficial if it is purchased locally or regionally in the area of the need, rather than in the United States and then shipped overseas, critics charge.
U.S. officials have acknowledged the criticism and have been working to make changes.
A new four-year, $60-million pilot program for just such local and regional purchases is getting under way with funding from the 2008 Farm Bill. And the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is spending about $145 million for local procurement projects to bring aid to people in Somalia, Ethiopia, Nepal and elsewhere, said Dirk Dijkerman, an assistant administrator with USAID.
The moves are "a start in the right direction," but more is needed, Jury said.
"Most of the donors give us cash. The U.S. is one of the last that gives us any kind of commodities. We would very much welcome if the U.S. was able to join the flexibility of other donors," he said.
Consistent funding is needed as well, Jury said. For the last several years, U.S. aid has relied greatly on emergency supplemental funding appropriations that make it difficult for programs to make effective and efficient food aid delivery plans, he said.
The ranks of the hungry grew by 115 million people over 2007-2008, bringing the total who need food assistance globally to 963 million at the end of 2008, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
Food prices have come down from last year, but the food crisis is continuing amid this year’s global economic downturn, and donations are expected to be down, Jury said. . "The world made an extraordinary effort last year. Many food operations for WFP nearly doubled the donations to us to about $5 billion. Making sure that continues in 2009 when the need is just as high is a big challenge," said Jury. "Now, broader economic and financial crises capture a lot of attention but frankly the vulnerability of hungry people is just as great this year." (Reporting by Carey Gillam; editing by Jim Marshall)