September 16, 2009 / 2:44 PM / 10 years ago

UN food aid hits 20-yr low as hunger soars

* UN World Food Programme faces major funding shortfall

* Needs $4.1 billion for 2009 budget

(Adds details, quotes)

By Sharon Lindores

LONDON, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Food aid is at a 20-year low despite the number of critically hungry people soaring this year to its highest level ever, the head of the United Nations relief agency said on Wednesday.

Josette Sheeran, UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) executive director said the WFP is facing its biggest ever challenge.

"The problem with the food crisis and the financial crisis is that it has silently permeated throughout the world with the world’s bottom billion (in terms of poverty) selectively hit the hardest because they’re the most vulnerable," Sheeran told Reuters in an interview.

The number of hungry people passed 1 billion this year for the first time, she said, adding the WFP has barely a third of the funding it needs to feed 108 million people this year.

To date the WFP has confirmed $2.6 billion in funding towards its $6.7 billion budget for 2009.

It would take less than 0.01 percent of the global financial crisis bailout package to solve the hunger crisis, she said.

Sheeran plans to take her message of the urgent need for funding to the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh on Sept 24 and 25 and to the UN General Assembly.

"We would like to see a bold vision," she said, adding that the hunger crisis can be solved. Even last year the world produced enough food to feed everyone - the question is getting it those who need it.

"We need a commitment that emergency needs during the next two years will be met," Sheeran said, adding the WFP expects it will need another $6.7 billion next year to tackle the crisis.

REACHING OUT WHILE CUTTING BACK

The WFP helps feed those deemed most desperate — about 10 percent of the total in need. In this year’s best case scenario the WFP will reach 8.5 percent of those in need, Sheeran said.

The WFP has had to cut rations to some of the world’s most hungry, she said, noting that one in six people go hungry.

In October the WFP is preparing to reduce rations in Kenya, where drought and high food prices have pushed almost 4 million more people into hunger. [ID:nLP271044]

The WFP’s Guatemala programme, which provides food supplements to 100,000 children and 50,000 pregnant and lactating women is "hanging by a thread," the organisation said. [ID:nN09346536]

In Bangladesh, the WFP reaches barely 1 million of its targeted 5 million people who can’t afford to buy food for their families.

Of particular concern are the needs of pregnant and lactating women and children under the age of two, Sheeran said.

Some developed countries have spent trillions trying to stabilise the economy, and have had to tighten budgets.

All of the WFP’s funds are donations. The organisation has no base level funding. As such, Sheeran said the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and Europe have been champions.

"What we really need is for them to stay the course," Sheeran said.

Sheeran said the US has "stepped up" to boost its emergency food aid funding this year.

The UK has put $70 million towards WFP so far this year, compared with $169 million in 2008, a Department for International Development (DFID) spokesman said.

Last year the WFP received $5 billion in voluntary funds.

(Editing by Peter Blackburn)



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