Food For Development

The Birth of World Food Programme

Photo by Hanna Morris on Unsplash

For the first half of the twentieth century, the global food aid debate was governed by a paradox. In 1913, two German chemists, Fritz and Carl Bosch had successfully synthesised ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen on an industrial level. This mass production of ammonia served as a highly utilised crop fertiliser world-wide, resulting in massive increase in global agricultural production. The world had never seen such a huge surplus of food. In the west, governments were running out of storage. The food was abundant.

At the same time, humanity had never seen so many mouths hungry. Around half of the world’s population was either undernourished or malnourished. In the poor countries, starvation was the biggest cause of death. While food was getting rotten in the warehouses of rich countries, people were dying of hunger everywhere else.

For experts like Sen, the solution was clear.

Binay Ranjan Sen was in his office when he received the call from the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York. President Eisenhower of the United States had just presented a proposal to the UN General Assembly asking them to develop some sort of multilateral arrangement on food aid to the poor countries. The final vote on the proposal would be held on 27th October 1960.

Sen was required to come to New York immediately.

Sen was the head of UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). FAO’s main tasks were data gathering and introducing new agricultural technologies in underdeveloped countries. Sen’s aim was to establish FAO as a major force in battling malnutrition and hunger in the world. He was the first non-western head in FAO’s history, and was chosen to bring a third world perspective into the organisation. He was born in the Indian state of Assam in 1898. After graduating from Oxford University, he joined the Indian Civil Service in 1922, under British rule. When India gained independence in 1947, he was named ambassador to Washington. But it was his role as the commissioner during the Bengal famine, which killed a million people that inspired him to forge a United Nations campaign against food hunger.

Sen was expecting such a call from the UN but not until after the US presidential election. During the 1960 election campaign both Senator John Kennedy and vice-president Richard Nixon had shown willingness to tackle global issues through UN’s multi-party framework. For both, finding a solution to the food aid problem was a key priority. This provided the biggest opportunity for Sen because the US was the largest provider of food aid, and as the most powerful member of UN member-states, played a key role in framing and directing the decisions on multilateral food aid.

For Sen, it was a big news.

As soon as he gets off the phone, he walks to the window in front of his desk. His office was located on the top floor of the FAO headquarters in Rome, overlooking the Baths of Caracalla and the Circus Maximus, in one of the most scenic parts of the city. As he gazed around the scenic view, the memories of the Bengal famine come back to haunt him. But what kept him awake at night was the inadequate mechanism to tackle future famines and natural disasters. Once a reporter asked him what was his biggest fear as the FAO director? He replied “ it was the survival of that huge portion of human race that lives one drought, one flood, one crop failure away from starvation.” Then he turns around and through the glass door sees hope, in all the FAO employees working tirelessly to beat global hunger.

Everyone at FAO agreed that the solution to the food aid paradox was the transfer of resources from the developed world to the underdeveloped world. But instead of food aid going towards feeding hungry as its main purpose, it should be used as an investment mechanism to promote increased productivity. In their view, food aid could provide hungry people the necessary time either to increase their own agricultural production or provide the required sustenance to spur the production of some other product to be used for food. In their view, this provided a sustainable path for underdeveloped countries to eradicate hunger and malnutrition.

In theory, the solution to the food aid paradox was clear. But it was no easy task to bring countries together in signing a multilateral pact directed towards these goals. Many of Sen’s predecessors lobbied countries of the rich world throughout the decades, without success. But they all had kept the issue of global hunger at the forefront of the food aid debate by publishing many reports over the years.

At last, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution which gave FAO the responsibility to make a recommendation on a multilateral agreement that would allow the use of the ‘largest practicable quantities of surplus food as a transitional measure against food hunger. Practically, leading the way to fight global hunger.

Sen was in tears.

In April 1961, government officials from 12 countries gathered at the FAO headquarters and were split evenly between developed and developing nations. It had been 6 months since UN gave Sen the responsibility to find a multilateral arrangement to food aid. He had gathered the panel to listen to their respective recommendations and find a workable agreement.

It was the sixth day of the meeting and many officials were losing hope in finding a consensus. The cynicism was understandable, this was not the first time FAO had instigated such a meeting. Many key officials were leaving after the first hour of the meeting, leaving their deputies to sit in gruelling 10 hour daily processions.

But for Sen this time was different, at least that’s what he was telling himself.

During his recent visit to Washington, Sen had met George McGovern, the new head of the US Food for Peace Organisation. It was the largest food aid organisation in the world. It was impossible to create any multilateral agreement without McGovern’s backing. After the meeting, Sen told his deputy at FAO that they finally had a friend in the White House.

McGovern was leading the US delegation at the meeting. But he was nowhere to be seen.

Time was running out.

Born and raised in a small rural community in South Dakota, McGovern saw first-hand the poverty of the farming community through the economic depression of the 1930s and the decline of farm incomes. He also witnessed the growing paradox of accumulating agricultural surpluses at a time when hunger existed at home and abroad. McGovern’s overriding philosophy throughout his public life was support of the American farmer, the constructive use of food surpluses and resolving international problems through the medium of the United Nations.

While he was not seen at the meetings, behind the scenes McGovern and his team were working on bold steps that would transform the future of food aid.

It took people of his own delegation by surprise at what he was proposing. There was no prior discussions. And for them FAO was appointed to provide advice not to present government positions. Everyone agreed there was not enough time for any proposals, except McGovern.

He persisted and ordered his team to work on a proposal.

When Kennedy appointed McGovern to lead the US food aid programme, he was given the task of finding the effective use of US food surpluses to fight global hunger. For the President, the importance of the task was as such that McGovern’s office was located in the executive building of the White house.

Having an ear of the President helped. While his team drafted the proposal, he took necessary clearances from Washington. He was given full backing by President Kennedy.

The next day, McGovern was scheduled to provide US recommendations on a multilateral arrangement on food aid.

Word had gotten out and suddenly the room was full to capacity.

Then on 10th April 1961, McGovern stood at the podium and made an offer to the other delegations. He was proposing a three year experiment with the initial backing of $100 million (USD) in cash and commodities. Completely run under the guidance of FAO that will primarily tackle emergency needs, and other small initiatives at FAO’s recommendations. It would be a truly multilateral organisation with contributions by many countries. After three years, there would be an examination of the effectiveness of the approach, and based on that further permanent arrangements and expansion of the programme could be made.

The World Food Programme (WFP) was born.

Since those initial experimental years, WFP has come a long way. It is the leading humanitarian organisation providing food assistance to 100 million people in 88 countries each year. In the process, saving and changing many lives, rebuilding communities devastated by war. In 2020, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in combating global hunger.

Sen retired from FAO in 1967, spending the rest of his life in his native Calcutta doing social work.

McGovern left the US Food for Peace organisation in 1962 to become US senator from South Dakota.