Hunger is soaring, and aid funding is stretched across the globe – perfect timing, in other words, for a new leader to take the helm of the UN’s agency for food emergencies.
Cindy McCain begins her five-year term as head of the World Food Programme on 5 April. She slides into a seat held by fellow American David Beasley, the Trump nominee whose brash public style raised both eyebrows and revenue.
The transition comes at a crucial time for WFP. It’s one of the largest aid operations on the planet, and receives more in humanitarian donor funding than any other agency.
Some 345 million people face food insecurity – roughly double what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. But WFP says the funding gulf between what it needs and what it has is the widest in its history, at some $23 billion this year.
This means tough decisions, looming cuts, and pressure to fundraise and chart a path forward under a global spotlight. At the same time, WFP holds outsized influence as a big agency with a wide footprint. WFP’s policies can shape broader humanitarian trends – for better and for worse.
Here are a few of the many issues on McCain’s plate as she takes over:
Hunger levels are through the roof
Simply put, global food insecurity and extreme hunger are at record levels, driven by a mix of conflict, COVID-19, the climate crisis, and economic turmoil.
More people face acute food insecurity than ever before, according to aid data, though this is also a product of more people being counted. At least 132 million people worldwide face crisis levels of hunger, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system, or IPC, which was created to track food insecurity and measure famine.
One of the world’s most severe food crises and underfunded humanitarian responses is in the Horn of Africa. Somalia, in particular, has teetered on the edge of a famine declaration and is facing a sixth straight failed rainy season.
Funding shortfalls mean service cuts
There’s not enough donor funding to cover what aid agencies say they need. As public figurehead and fundraiser-in-chief, it’ll be McCain’s responsibility to lead the charge to fill WFP’s coffers.
The price tag for UN-backed emergency response plans tops $51.5 billion this year, and there’s little chance these appeals will be met in full by the mainly Western governments that fund the bulk of international aid.
WFP says its own funding gaps are hitting people in crises. In recent weeks, the agency has taken to proactively warning of food ration cuts (or “unavoidable reduced assistance”, in agency parlance) in Bangladesh, Burundi, and Afghanistan – flipping the focus onto humanitarian donors. It cut rations in Yemen last year.
“Ration cuts are coming if we don’t have the money to get food to those who need it most,” McCain said in a WFP press release.
The cost of aid is rising as well
Inflation and rising prices are pushing people further into crisis. They’re also making aid itself more expensive, and that’s keenly felt at an agency intricately involved in food, markets, procurement, transport, and logistics.
Rising food and fuel prices have added millions to WFP’s monthly operational costs. Last year, the agency estimated the cost of commodities had increased by $27 million per month, while fuel prices saw operational costs jump by $5.5 million.
Global oil prices and inflation were easing slightly in recent months. But OPEC’s surprise decision this week to cut oil production caused a spike in crude prices. This could again add upward pressure on inflation, heaping more stress on communities in crisis and the aid that’s meant to help them.
WFP has the power to influence
WFP’s sheer size can shape humanitarian trends big and small.
For example, it accounts for a massive chunk of the aid sector’s shift to cash assistance – the push to give aid in the form of cash so that people in emergencies can buy what they need. WFP cash aid alone may represent a third or more of the sector’s total, according to calculations by UK-based aid analysts Development Initiatives.
Similarly, its digital beneficiary management system, known as SCOPE, is used across most WFP operations. Governments and other aid groups have asked WFP to share SCOPE or the technology behind it, but internal audits have raised red flags about the agency’s actions on data security and data consent – whether people who use aid are fully informed of their rights and risks when handing over their sensitive personal information.
Every aid organisation faces these issues. But WFP under McCain is big enough to drive change on its own – or reinforce the status quo.
Read more: What’s on our aid policy radar in 2023
Edited by Andrew Gully.