On the Front Lines of Global Hunger

06/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By the end of this year, the United Nations World Food Programme will have delivered food to more than 90 million people living in some of the most remote, least developed, dangerous and neglected parts of the world. Our work, our staff and the generosity of governments across the world mean that millions more will live, and many will be given the nutritional building blocks for a better future.

Getting food to the hungry in places like Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq is not like delivering boxes of cereal to supermarkets. Far from it. We often work where nobody else goes. When WFP sets out to get food to the hungry, we must overcome huge obstacles: if there are no roads, we build them, if it is too dangerous to drive food in, we drop it from the air. We are often the first on the scene of a disaster and we stay until we are confident that the people we are helping can fend for themselves. WFP has fulfilled this mandate -- and lost many in the line of duty -- since its founding, following the Marshall Plan, to help a war-ravaged Europe with food.

The front line of hunger is often a dangerous place. Whether it is moving food through checkpoints manned by armed militias, deploying camels, elephants and buffalo to reach the victims of natural disasters, or establishing a supply line of food to millions of people who've been displaced by conflict, WFP has the expertise, the commitment and the sheer humanitarian will to make sure the food gets through.

But make no mistake -- wherever we work, be it in the midst of conflict or in the aftermath of a natural disaster, we demand rigorous accountability and transparency. Checks, balances and standards govern every aspect of our work from the tendering process for transport contractors to the monitoring of food deliveries. Unless we know for sure that the food we buy ends up in the hands of a hungry child, a pregnant mother, or a refugee family, our job is not done.

In addition, we work in a way that reduces dependency and increases self-sufficiency through innovative programs that support local markets, provide food as an incentive to communities to work on recovery activities, and at the same time, we invest around $1 billion a year in purchasing food locally.

WFP is accountable to all of the governments who fund the vast majority of our work and through them we are accountable to the public who elected them into office. Our integrity is paramount. In carrying out our work, WFP submits itself regularly to both internal and external audits. WFP was the first UN agency to make itself compliant to the regulations of the Institute for International Public Accounting Standards.

Why does this matter? The answer is that we are often asked to work in places with failed or corrupt governments, with no established private sector or adequate contractors, and facing great risk and cost to get supplies to isolated communities. Among our many trucking heroes are the drivers who navigate the narrow mountain tracks of north eastern Afghanistan, dropping food supplies for the hungry, before reversing back up the mountains because their delivery points are so remote that there is no space to turn their trucks around. We are proud of our delivery record and the obstacles we have overcome. WFP does not decide where it needs to provide assistance. We serve the hungry and the hungry often live where the roads end.

WFP's mandate obliges it to work in hostile environments to prevent famine and hunger, often placing our staff in mortal danger. This work comes with a risk and sometimes that risk is just too high. For example, in January, WFP took the almost unprecedented step of withdrawing from southern Somalia in the face of threats, intimidation and extortion from armed groups. Our decision left almost 1 million people vulnerable to increased hunger and malnutrition.

Delivering food anywhere in Somalia is the most dangerous of any of our operations, yet our own investigations show that our work in Somalia is saving lives and effectively reaching those in need. Whenever questions are raised about any of WFP's work -- as in the recent case of Somalia -- we conduct our own investigation and welcome independent inquiries. If we discover gaps or losses, we take action, fix the problem and enforce accountability.

Ultimately, we all have to weigh the risks inevitably associated with providing food to people urgently in need in some of the world's harshest places. When the world decides to act, we stand ready to deliver. And we need the support of the world to do this.