The Saddest PDF in the Whole Internet

Cross posted on the

Is it normal to find yourself getting weepie over data? That’s the question that stalked me as I leafed through this brutal PDF from the World Food Programme innocuously titled RESOURCE SITUATION UPDATE, 27 JUL 2014.

In unadorned table format, the PDF lays bare the alarming underfunding facing 20 out of the 22 Emergency Operations WFP runs (red in the map above) and 54 out of its 55 Protracted Relief and Recovery Operations (orange above.)

Resource Situation Update

These ops range widely in size: from punctual incursions like the $2.9 million operation in Cuba (just over half funded) to the mammoth $1.5 billion EMOP for Syria, which is $776 million short of its target. Only the Super-Typhoon Haiyan-hit Philippines and the geostrategically important operation in Iraq’s Al-Anbar province have reached full funding.

Altogether, WFP needs $5.55 billion to run the EMOPs currently underway. They’ve raised just $3.16 billion of that.

But the EMOPs aren’t actually the worst of it. The emergencies are largely “Brand Name Crises” that receive substantial media coverage, mobilize smaller (but also nimbler) International NGOs and have a potential to generate substantial private donations. They’re awful but, by and large, they are not forgotten.

No, the real Valley of Tears is further down in the PDF, when you get to WFP’s list of 55 – fifty-five!“Protracted Relief and Recovery Operations,” the chilling bureaucratic euphemism for a forgotten crisis.

Here we’re dealing with places where hunger is chronic, WFP engagement long-running, and news coverage basically non-existent. These are places we long ago forgot faced chronic food insecurity, if we ever knew it in the first place: Kyrgyzstan. Senegal. Ecuador. Western Algeria. Myanmar. Mauritania. Yemen. When was the last time you read a story about the humanitarian crises there?

It’s hardly surprising that WFP’s PRROs suffer funding shortages that are much worse than its EMOPs. Together, WFP figures it needs $10.56 billion to attend to its PRROs. It’s raised less than half of that: just $4.5 billion.

In some cases, the funding gaps are just abysmal:

The standard advice in advocacy circles is to “put a human face” on the crisis you’re dealing with, to humanize it, to turn it narrative and personal so it’s compelling and “connects”. I understand why professional fundraisers come to that conclusion, yet you really have to wonder at the ethics of it. Any one crisis you focus on means shunting 76 other Emergencies or Forgotten Crises out of the spotlight. Seeking to raise money crisis by crisis quickly turns into a battle royale for clicks, sympathies and dollars. And it’s not hard to see what it takes to “win” that competition: light skin, telegenic hunger and media coverage.

It is not humanly possible to “engage” with 77 stories at the same time. It just isn’t. The engagement model of donor mobilization isn’t tenable. It really has to go.

4 thoughts on “The Saddest PDF in the Whole Internet”

  1. I was interested in the stats for Zimbabwe in particular. The pdf link shows that the program is until 2015. It must, at least it would be thought reasonable, that any stats should be revised dependent on change of circumstances for the better. This year or rather rainy season in Zimbabwe, ending in March 2014, resulted in a larger than usual harvest, to state it mildly. To put it more commonly the rainy season was a bumper and regarded as the best in 20 years. Nearly everyone in the country got free seed from the government so should have more food than usual.

    I do think there is a big difference between refugee situations and drought situations. The former you are right to report on in the way that you do. But in the latter it has to be reviewed every year dependent on the main variable which is the annual rainfall.

    This brings in the main point that the organisations responsible for these non-refugee situations make appeals based upon genuine need but do not revise down the need in the appeal when the circumstances change for the better. Hence they can appear, well intentioned though they are, to be potentially profligate. They would actually spend the money if they got it even though the circumstances had changed for the better and the money should be directed somewhere else.

    I do accept that this comment may need amendment based on the fact that all identified appeals in the pdf may be refugee situations. If not then the pdf should be amended.

    1. There’s a huge variety of different local circumstances – not just refugee situations and IDP situations, but also places facing desertification, places with chronic instability/rebellions, places where deforestation has led to simultaneous drought-propensity and flash-flood propensity because soils can’t hold the water that does fall, places where crop-diseases are rampant and yields are terrible even when the rain is good, places where land scarcity leaves people with farms to small to support normal-sized families…you can go on and on down the line.

      But from what I can see, these PRROs tend to be approved and then extended for further 12-month periods as needed.

  2. Totally agree that the public (DEC, etc) fund-raising model of mobilisation / engagement is flawed, especially for chronic crises – which are far more common, as you highlight.

    It would be interesting to hear from official (i.e. state) donors on their motivations for responding to WFP appeals. I think this is not well-known (which may simply mean I don’t understand it enough!). Geo-political interests, and possibly peer-influence are factors (most other donors have chipped in, why not you?), but I wonder too how far the credibility of the WFP’s appeals, or the relevance of their response plans, affect the levels of contributions. Donors may agree that a serious food problem exists in country X, but may question whether $40 m is the right level of severity, or WFP the right implementer. (NOTE: I’m not meaning to single out WFP, whom I quite like and respect, but to make a point about that the agencies, and the nuts and bolts of their appeals, may also matter to the bottom line).

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