The World Food Program, which the UN sponsors jointly with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), began operations in 1963. It has since grown from a small experimental program to become the largest multilateral food distributor in the world. In 2001, more than 77 million people in 82 countries received direct assistance through WFP emergency operations and development projects.
Between 1946 and 1960, several attempts were made to establish an international body to regulate international trade and to deal with surpluses produced by food exporting countries. None of these attempts were successful, mainly because some countries objected to interference in their trade relations. In 1955, a study called, "Uses of Agricultural Surpluses to Finance Economic Development in Under-developed Countries," provided the breakthrough. The report posited that agricultural surpluses could finance additional investment in developing countries without competing with the sales of domestic products or with imports from other countries.
At the 1961 FAO Conference, George McGovern, the head of the US delegation, formally proposed establishing a multilateral program with a fund of US$ 100 million in commodities and cash, to which the US was willing to contribute US$ 40 million. This initiative led the FAO and the UN to establish the World Food Program on a three-year experimental basis (January 1963 to December 1965).
WFP uses food commodities, cash, and services contributed by UN member states to back programs of social and economic development, as well as for emergency relief. At the request of governments, WFP provides food aid for development projects to increase agricultural production, rehabilitate roads and other vital infrastructure, protect the environment and improve health and education. WFP food assistance also provides basic sustenance for refugees and other victims of disasters. The aim of the WFP is to apply food aid in ways that will eventually make the recipients self-sufficient in obtaining or producing food. The success of the program's work should ultimately be judged by the number of people who, over time, are able to feed themselves.
In the first three decades of its existence, the program invested approximately US$ 14 billion (43 million tons of food aid) to combat hunger and to promote economic and social development in the developing world. More than 1,600 development projects and 1,200 emergency operations were assisted by the WFP during that period. However, in the mid-1990s, emergency operations dominated the WFP's work. In 2001 alone, WFP delivered 2.7 million metric tons of emergency food aid to nearly 77 million people in 82 countries.
WFP supplies for development purposes are used in a variety of ways. Early projects included a land-settlement project in Bolivia, the development of nomadic sheep husbandry in Syria, resettling nomads in Egypt, land reclamation and development in Morocco, and land settlement in Tanzania. Other projects contributed directly to the development of human resources by providing food for school children, expectant and nursing mothers, hospital patients, and adults attending education centers.
The program gave special attention to creating employment and income through food-for-work programs. In Bangladesh, a vulnerable-group development project, begun in 1975, continues to provide training in health, literacy, and income-generation for women. Similar projects were started in Bolivia and Mexico, while major land-development programs commenced in Egypt, Sudan, Korea, and China. The largest single dairy project ever undertaken, "Operation Flood," in India, increased milk production by 50% and benefited 30 million people.
Early in its operations, recipient governments had a major problem in covering the non-food costs of a project, including transport storage and other expenses. The early success of the program (28 formal requests for aid in May 1963 rose to 193 requests by November 1964) led donor countries to increase their contributions to cover these costs. Indeed, the WFP's ability to quickly transport large quantities of food, at short notice, to remote areas of the world, is one of its most important areas of expertise.
In 1973 a worldwide food shortage created a serious lack of resources, and the WFP governing body was unable to approve any new projects that year. The number of existing recipients and the size of their rations also were cut. Despite these measures there was a shortfall of 160,000 tons of commodities. A concerted effort was made to find new funds, and in 1974 King Faisal of Saudi Arabia offered US$ 50 million, the largest cash donation ever made. This marked a turning point because the donation came from a nonindustrial developing country that was, and still is, a net importer of food commodities. It also marked an important change in the nature of donations, away from the idea of surplus disposal and toward a wider sharing of responsibility for those in need.
In 1975 the UN General Assembly established the International Emergency Food Reserve (IEFR), to be placed at the disposal of WFP. This reserve, which receives contributions from all governments, has a minimum annual target of 500,000 tons, enabling WFP to quickly respond to emergency situations.
In 1988 donor commitments for development activities reached a high point of US$ 778 million, which represented two-thirds of WFP resources. By 1993 this trend had reversed and emergency situations were consuming more than 60% of WFP's resources. Part of this increase is directly attributable to the program's new relationship with the UN body that supervises refugee relief. In January 1992, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) worked out an agreement giving the WFP the responsibility to procure and deliver food commodities to UNHCR-managed refugee feeding operations.
In the last 30 years, WFP has witnessed the graduation of former food-aid recipients to the status of potential donors. The Republic of Korea, Singapore, Venezuela, Greece, Hungary, and Mexico are all former recipients who now boast growing economies. The program has also developed ways to use its cash contributions creatively. For example, by buying more food in developing countries for relief and development activities it has encouraged and expanded trade between developing countries. In 1993 the WFP was the largest UN purchaser of goods in developing countries.
WFP has its headquarters in Rome and development projects in 82 countries worldwide; the WFP staff numbers more than 5,000, over half of whom are employed on a temporary basis. Permanent staff members (numbering 2,567 in 2001) were employed at headquarters (586 people) and in the field (1,981 people). It is administered by an executive director. Its governing body is the 36-member Bureau of the Executive Board. Half of the members of the board are elected by ECOSOC, the other half by the FAO Council. In 2002, the members of the executive board elected by ECOSOC were: Algeria, Australia, Cameroon, Cuba, Denmark, France, Hungary, India, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, United Kingdom. Executive board members elected by the FAO Council were Bangladesh, Canada, China, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Germany, Haiti, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Romania, Switzerland, Syrian Arab Republic, and United States of America.
In 2001, WFP had US$ 1.74 billion in expenditures. Of that amount, 87% was spent on relief aid, and 13% on development aid. Of the 4.2 million metric tons of food distributed, 2.7 million tons went for emergency operations, while 660,600 tons went for development projects.