Lack of money for World Food Program threatens to magnify famine in north Nigeria

A woman from Chad, forced to flee home as a result of conflict or food shortages. (WFP/Marco Frattini)

The World Food Program is running out of money in northeastern Nigeria, potentially cutting off support for millions of people on the brink of famine.

The WFP, an arm of the United Nations and the world’s largest food relief organization, currently provides limited food and nutrition to more than 1.2 million people at risk for hunger in three states of northern Nigeria. That funding will run out by mid-May, an unnamed source told Reuters.

“We do have some food already in place, and we have planned ahead so we can tap other stocks quickly once the needed funding comes through,”  WFP spokesperson Elizabeth Bryant told Humanosphere. “Nonetheless, WFP has already started cutting some food rations to respond to the funding crunch.”

Money and access are the two biggest challenges to the humanitarian response in northern Nigeria. More than $200 million is needed to provide for everyone in need across northern Nigeria through September. Only 14 percent of the $447 million the program needs for the year is currently available, WFP says.

Food aid is reaching only one-quarter of 4.7 million people currently facing hunger – a number that will drop if more money does not materialize. It already cut its nutritional support to stretch supplies due to the finding shortage and now worries it may have to “deepen those cuts” in the coming months.

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WFP is worried that it will have to stop delivering the specialized nutritional product Plumpy’Sup, Bryant said. It is a peanut-based supplement given to children to help fight malnutrition. Packed with nutrients, fat and calories, the product is an important tool in preventing deaths caused by hunger – and longer-term adverse developmental impacts in children who starve but survive.

WFP hopes to reach up to 1.8 million people during the peak of the lean season – a period that usually starts in July but is expected to begin in May this year. The UN program is starting to ration its existing food supplies to reach an additional 100,000 people in April. The expansion means tens of thousands of people living in Nigeria’s Borno and Adamawa states who critically need food will get the aid, for now.

But that may be a temporary relief if more money is not forthcoming.

WFP distribution in the Bosso camp for Nigerian refugees, in Niger. (Credit: EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie)

Donors and aid groups met with WFP last week to discuss the funding issue. Sources told Reuters that some raised concerns about the lack of planning on the part of WFP on how it will continue to work if the money dries up. Local and international aid groups often partner with U.N. agencies to carry out programs, so cuts to WFP impact many humanitarian groups in the region.

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Bryant says WFP is ready as soon as the money arrives. It has food stocks in place and ready to deliver as soon as donors deliver on the budget. In the meantime, ration cuts and limited nutritional support are the only way the agency can continue to reach more than 1 million people each month.

“WFP is confident donors will come through with support, but we are pressing the message that it is essential this happens quickly, so we can reach people who desperately need assistance now and in the coming weeks in a timely manner,” she said.

There are parts where groups can bring little or no supplies due to the Boko Haram insurgency. The Islamist terrorist group is a leading reason why nearly 2 million people are displaced in the region. Cutting off communities and forcing people from their homes makes families more vulnerable to problems like drought.

There are concerns that the funding problem in Nigeria could ripple across the Lake Chad region. Neighboring Niger, Cameroon and Chad are impacted by the problems in Nigeria. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are living in the countries as they also deal with an increasing number of people internally displaced. More than $1.5 billion is needed to support more than 17 million people in the region, says the U.N.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.