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Today, approximately 866 million people go hungry, a staggering figure that represented an increase of about 100-200 million since before the pandemic. There is little talk, but hunger and malnutrition remain some of the most pressing humanitarian problems in the world, which have only been exacerbated by two years of pandemic.

Historically, agencies such as the United Nations World Food Program and the United States Agency for International Development have typically acted to help people at risk of starvation just by sending food – a form of assistance known as “food aid in kind” – in the regions. around the world they need it. But the last decade or so has seen an interesting shift. Global aid groups, along with governments, have increasingly resorted to a different tool to fight hunger: they have been giving money or vouchers to people.

This shift represents a major shift in the focus on global development, and a sign of the growing evidence behind the power of cash transfers to help the world’s poorest.

WFP and the USAID Office of Humanitarian Assistance (BHA), two of the largest aid organizations focused on fighting hunger, have greatly increased cash (either direct cash or vouchers). recipients can use to buy food) as a percentage of their support portfolios over the past decade. Cash is now more than 30 percent of WFP’s $ 6.8 billion and USAID’s recent $ 4.4 billion in food assistance.

What we are seeing from WFP and USAID is just one representative tip of the iceberg of government-sponsored social protection: policies and programs to reduce poverty in different dimensions. While the roughly $ 11 billion spent on food assistance sounds like a lot, it’s only 0.3 percent of the more than $ 3 trillion spent by governments on social and labor protection programs during 2020-2021.

Cash transfers had already been increasingly adopted by governments around the world before the pandemic, and the number of cash transfer programs around the world nearly doubled during the pandemic.

For governments, however, cash transfers are often targeted at multiple levels of welfare. One of the good things about cash is that people can choose to spend it on what they need, whether it’s food, a new roof, medication, or textbooks. To show the growth of cash transfers as a tool to fight hunger, it is useful to look at programs like WFP or USAID that are specifically designed to keep people fed.

Why use cash to prevent hunger?

The shift to cash as a percentage of humanitarian food aid has occurred for two main reasons, Ugo Gentilini, a World Bank social protection expert, told me. On the same subject : Wire WIC for better working families with no food.

The first is a reflection of changes within the recipient countries themselves, as higher levels of urbanization, for example, lead to more stable markets even in the poorest countries to convert cash into food. According to Gentilini, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was critical to using cash transfers for humanitarian assistance. Cash allowed people to get what they needed locally in markets that were not affected by the crisis, and the trend towards cash in humanitarian aid has continued ever since.

The second is the growing evidence that cash serves to prevent hunger and, in most cases, is more profitable than food assistance in kind. Food assistance in kind, while saving lives, often involves sending food from afar and wasting money on transportation and other delivery costs. In some cases, it can even disrupt local markets and farmers ’production.

Cash transfers to fight hunger, whether real cash or food vouchers, also mean that people can make their own nutritionally and culturally appropriate food decisions for their families. Cash-based programming introduces a “sense of agency that brings in a time of great volatility and uncertainty; that sense that you can make decisions about what’s best for your children’s and your home’s diet, it seems very important, ”said Saul Guerrero, UNICEF’s senior nutrition adviser. “Food assistance doesn’t always offer those options.”

Finally, direct cash assistance ensures that people can decide where to spend their money beyond food. In all crises except the most extreme, people’s lives, and their problems, don’t stop just because they are hungry. They have to ensure their children’s education, make repairs at home, get seeds and fertilizer for their farms and more.

Enock Wangila, economic development coordinator for Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid group, told me, “There is overwhelming evidence that unconditional cash transfers are the best way to provide assistance to the most vulnerable, because they are in the best position to understand the needs. they are experiencing and meeting that need. Therefore, empowering people, whether individuals or households, to make that decision about what they need to buy. “

When Mercy Corps offered assistance, including food vouchers and direct cash, in an urban area of ​​Kenya, Wangila said, some people thought they would have preferred to receive the full amount in cash to cover rental costs.

While cash is ideal, food assistance in kind may be needed, Guerrero said, “when there are no functioning markets or when functioning markets are not able to meet the minimum dietary diversity we have. to see available for women and children “. , when people cannot access the nutritious foods they need at somewhat affordable prices.

As climate change threatens the stability of food markets and global agriculture, governments and aid organizations must put social protection at the forefront to address the impending risk of famine.

Cash is likely to play an increasingly important role in this effort. Evidence so far suggests that this is the best, in terms of cost-effectiveness and choice.

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