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WFP warns staff on spending, orders ‘comprehensive review’: internal email

‘We are seeing funding levels drop substantially.’

This is a composite image of two hands wearing surgical gloves. One is emerging from the top of the image and handing down a 10 euro bill. From the bottom there is another hand also wearing surgical gloves about to grab onto the bill. In the background we see a spiral line in burgundy red. Behind the bill is a burgundy square. Composite image: Branimir Balogović/Pexels

One of the world’s biggest aid agencies is warning staff of tough times ahead – mirroring worries across the humanitarian sector as aid groups prepare for a “new normal” and a donor reset that could see funding plummet after years of growth.

In an internal email sent to its 23,000 staff this month, the executive director of the World Food Programme, Cindy McCain, said the agency’s resources “have sunk back to pre-COVID levels”.

WFP saw a record $14.1 billion in income last year – a substantial spike over the $8 billion it reported in 2019, the year before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Last year’s unusually large budget was fed by an influx from the humanitarian sector’s largest donor, the United States government, which stepped up its spending for Ukraine and a global food security crisis worsened by Russia’s invasion.

“This is WFP’s new operating reality – our new normal – and it requires an ambitious agenda for change,” McCain said of the looming budget squeeze in her 6 October letter, which was timed to six months after she took the reins at the global agency. “It cannot be business as usual.”

The letter cited a series of steps the agency will take to adapt: 

  • a “pause” on external hiring at its Rome headquarters and at global and regional offices
  • a “comprehensive review” to ensure “efficiencies”
  • a plan to “develop a more focused program offer” to make it clear “what the organisation does and does not do”
  • an organisational review to “streamline internal bureaucracy”

In an apparent response to recent fraud scandals, including in Ethiopia and Somalia, the letter also cites a “reassurance action plan” meant to boost confidence “that our life-saving assistance is reaching the right people”. Separate documents seen by The New Humanitarian show the plan has identified 31 countries where the risk of fraud, corruption, and aid diversion is seen to be high.

“We are seeing funding levels drop substantially,” a WFP spokesperson said in an emailed statement when asked to elaborate on the review processes identified in McCain’s letter: “No organisation can continue with business as usual whilst funding is diminishing… Reduced funding means our programme of work is being adjusted along with staffing levels in a number of countries as we look at every opportunity for efficiencies.”

The WFP is the humanitarian sector’s most well-funded outfit, taking in more than double what agencies like UNICEF or the refugee agency, UNHCR, received in 2022, according to some estimates. But aid groups say rising needs – driven by conflict, economic turbulence, and the climate crisis – outstrip donor income each year. 

Citing shortfalls, the agency has frequently cut rations in recent years, even well before the pending donor budget crunch. Most of WFP’s income is tightly earmarked by donors for specific causes, and difficult to shift as needs evolve. 

Funding woes echo across the sector

Aid officials have been warning for months that the handful of big donors that fund the bulk of the formal international aid sector are tightening their wallets. But more recent hints – or blunt warnings – offered by diplomats and staffers have indicated the cuts will be unexpectedly deep: in line with pre-COVID-19 funding levels.

“We were expecting some decline, but certainly not so much,” said one humanitarian official, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely.

The UN recorded about $25 billion in humanitarian funding in 2019 – well short of the $40 billion reported last year

Other aid leaders have also spoken out in recent days.

“Some key donors are telling us that their humanitarian budgets, despite more crises, are being reduced,” said Filippo Grandi, who heads UNHCR, addressing the agency’s executive committee or governing body. 

He is, Grandi said, “more worried than I have been in almost eight years in which I have held this office”.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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