Josette Sheeran
Josette Sheeran

Last month, I spoke to a group of British parliamentarians who sit on something called the International Development Committee. Their role is to scrutinise the work of the Department for International Development. “DFID” – as it is known – is the arm of the British government concerned with promoting development, supporting the alleviation of poverty across the globe, and funding multilateral organisations like the UN World Food Programme.Members of the International Development Committee asked me to travel to London to speak to them as part of their inquiry into the work of the World Food Programme (WFP) and the support it receives from DFID. As part of the inquiry, an open invitation was issued to any organisation or individual with an interest in global food security to contribute written evidence.

It was an opportunity for organisations like Oxfam, who work with WFP, and others who have an opinion about the way we do our work, to express their opinion, and to influence the line of inquiry. Reading the input from these organisations and individuals is a bit like discovering the comments of your teachers after the headmaster has asked them to contribute to your end of term report.

What has been really interesting, is that a lot of the inputs are encouraging, recommending and cajoling WFP into doing more of something that is already very much part of the fabric of our work: the local procurement of food for the hungry.

It is always comforting to hear independent voices recommend something that is so central to WFP’s policy, and in promoting local procurement in developing countries, I think we have been ahead of the curve. Where I would admit we may have been slower – until more recently – is in promoting the extent of WFP’s involvement in local procurement, the fact that we have been doing it for decades, and explaining the reasons why we think it is so important.

As a major player on global food markets, WFP has been in the business of buying basic food commodities from one source or another for pretty much the past forty years. One of our guiding principles is to get the best price for the food we buy, so we can stretch the precious money we receive off donor governments and use it in the most efficient way to feed the world’s hungry.

The experts who run WFP’s food procurement unit realised fairly early on that there were obvious advantages if food could be purchased close to where it is going to be used. Food that is sold by small farmers in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, might not be as cheap as that which you find in the sophisticated North American and European markets, but if you buy locally, you can cut down dramatically on the costs of transport and storage.

More importantly, these savings are among a number of positive advantages that come with local procurement. Foremost among these is the opportunity to use WFP’s local procurement policy as a way of investing in the sometimes fragile agricultural economies of the developing world.

With our “purchasing power” we can make a real difference. In 2007 that meant ploughing US$612 million into developing countries where we purchased more than 1.6 million tonnes of food from small farmers. To put this in perspective, by virtue of our local procurement policy, WFP put more money into Africa in 2007 than the World Bank.

The question we are now asking ourselves is how we can use this big “purchasing footprint” – that stretches from Uganda and Ethiopia to Pakistan, Colombia and beyond – to support small farmers in a way that helps their business grow and contributes to the evolving economies of the developing countries where they live.

Our first step has been to set up a “Purchase for Progress” unit at WFP headquarters in Rome, which is launching a set of pilot activities – primarily in Africa – to explore how we can take this exciting concept further. We want to work with a broad range of partners, including governments, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations, farmers, traders and research institutions to see how we can use WFP’s purchasing power to sustainably develop the agricultural sector.

With the escalation in global food and fuel prices, and the tremendous impact this is having on the hungry in the developing world, this initiative really could not have come at a more vital time. Now is the moment when we can really benefit from a local procurement policy that cuts down on transportation costs and helps to connect farmers in the most vulnerable communities to markets.

The timing of the International Development Committee’s inquiry into WFP’s work coincided with this extraordinary era of high food commodity prices, and gave us a welcome platform to explain not just the role that local procurement can play in helping us to reach our goals, but also the other factors that are making WFP’s mission yet more challenging.

But for everything that local procurement offers, we have to remain realistic that the capacity among the agricultural economies of the developing world is not yet sufficient to support the needs of an agency like WFP which aims to feed more than 70 million people this year. We will continue to focus efforts on using our funding wisely to support small farmers wherever we can and to help them improve their crop yields.

For now though, we have to accept that even in the ideal situation where WFP receives its full budget in untied cash, we would still have to purchase some of our food from markets in North America, Europe and the industrialised economies of Asia.

These are challenging times for the world’s hungry and for the agencies that have been set up to help them. If we are going to protect them we will need to confront these challenges with a variety of tools. Local procurement is one powerful tool among the many we need to use.

Photo by FAO / Alessandra

I subscribe to the ID4D newsletter

Once a week, I receive the latest blog posts!