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Cindy McCain speaks on Ethiopia food aid diversion

Choosing to suspend food aid to a country with millions of starving people isn’t a decision any World Food Programme executive director wants to make. But within her first month at the helm, Cindy McCain was forced to pause WFP food distribution in Ethiopia after reports of wide-scale food diversion. Instead of getting it to people who desperately needed their next meal, Ethiopian officials were allegedly selling sacks of staple foodstuffs on the black market.

An estimated 20 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance.

I discussed the situation in a recent sit-down with McCain, who was just back from a whirlwind trip to Washington.

“Unfortunately we were not as quick to withdraw as we should have been,” McCain tells me. The majority of the diversion was happening in December and January — before her tenure — but the agency didn’t discover what was happening until “much later.”

“This was at huge scale. I can assure you we are doing everything we can now to make sure that this never happens again,” McCain says.

So what does that look like for the world’s largest humanitarian organization? McCain says WFP is revamping how it tracks and traces both food commodities and cash it distributes, all the way down to the beneficiary level. It will use technology to verify identities in real time, and the new protocol will be rolled out organizationwide, not just in Ethiopia.

WFP needs to “be absolutely sure, as much as we can in a country like Ethiopia, that it’s going to where it’s supposed to go,” she says of food aid.

“We owe that to our donors,” McCain tells me. She couldn’t give a timeline for when WFP would be confident enough in its process — and the Ethiopian government — to resume aid.

“The only people that it hurt is the people that are starving,” she says.

The deal is dead

The alarm was swift and widespread when Russia made official what it had threatened almost from day one — pull out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which has allowed Ukrainian exports out of the country. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent prices of staple foods spiking, so the deal between the two countries, with help from Turkey and the United Nations, helped alleviate some of the pain. It allowed over 950 voyages transporting more than 30 million tons of grain, fertilizer, and other foodstuffs to more than 40 countries.  

Russia says the deal has been “halted” until its  “demands” are met — Moscow has long complained that the bulk of grain exported isn’t even going toward countries with the highest populations of hungry people. But the United Nations and NGO leaders resoundingly condemned the decision, warning it will only make things worse for the most vulnerable.

“The Black Sea Initiative has been a lifeline to millions during an unprecedented global hunger crisis,” McCain wrote on Twitter. “Struggling families around the world do not deserve to be collateral victims of this war.”

Tjada D’Oyen McKenna, chief executive officer at Mercy Corps, called the end of the deal “catastrophic,” emphasizing how it could have long-term damage. 

“The consequences of the deal’s failure are grave and extend beyond immediate food shortages and increased prices. Prolonged food insecurity will lead to malnutrition, long-term health issues, and forced displacement affecting millions of people globally,” McKenna said in a statement.

According to the International Rescue Committee, East Africa is poised to be among the hardest hitFood prices are up around 40% this year, and nearly 80% of the region’s grain is imported from Russia and Ukraine.

The stakes of El Niño

Smallholder farmers in Central America are in the crosshairs of the El Niño weather phenomenon, writes Oscar Castañeda, senior vice president of the Americas program at Heifer International, in this op-ed for Devex. He wants to see investment in climate-smart agriculture practices to help smallholders keep their livelihoods and avoid mass migration.

Spending more on resilience and adaptation is vital, he writes: Every $1 invested in risk reduction and prevention can save up to $15 in post-disaster recovery.

By putting information in the hands of farmers, such as weather pattern data, they can adapt their production cycle to maximize the money they can make even as conditions change.

As part of our Food Secured series of content, stay tuned to Devex this week for a visual primer on El Niño and how it will affect the global food system.

Taking stock in Rome

I’ll be in Rome next week for the United Nations Food Systems Summit Stocktaking Moment, the first opportunity to check in on progress from the inaugural summit in New York two years ago. The event, hosted at FAO with the government of Italy, will feature heads of state, U.N. agency leaders, civil society, private sector, and more.

As is typical for a U.N. summit, there’s a whirlwind of plenaries, thematic sessions, and side events. One I’ll be watching in particular will be a session on school meals hosted by WFP, which has stated a goal of ensuring every child in the world has access to school meals. There’s also a session co-hosted with the United Arab Emirates, host of this year’s U.N. climate change summit, on the intersection of climate and food systems. The program will be livestreamed, and you can check out the full agenda here.

Chew on this

FAO is distributing emergency sorghum, millet, groundnut, and sesame seeds to 1 million farmers across 17 states in Sudan. [FAO]

Artificial sweetener aspartame, used in products such as diet drinks, yogurt, and breakfast cereal, is a possible carcinogen, a hazard and risk assessment has found. [WHO]

The International Fund for Agricultural Development invests more than 90% of its climate finance in initiatives that help rural farmers to adapt to climate change. [IFAD]

Source : Devex Dish