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In many of the humanitarian emergencies Oxfam responds to around the world, food is often one of people's most urgent needs, but they can't wait months for it to be shipped from abroad. Through years of experience, Oxfam has developed an array of solutions that allow it to respond to food crises quickly using tools that can also help strengthen local markets.
It's these experiences that have helped convince us that our current system of international food aid needs to be reformed. It needs to be faster, more flexible and cheaper. Instead of dumping surplus domestic production as "in kind" food aid, donors should provide cash for governments and aid agencies to buy food locally. This is usually more efficient and better for local agriculture.
Here are some examples of how this kind of aid can work during humanitarian crises.
In the North Bank Division of Gambia food shortages are a constant threat as people struggle to manage the delicate balance between their needs and what the environment can provide. Will there be enough rain to allow crops to grow? Will locusts devour whatever villagers manage to coax from their fields?
A simple solution promoted by Oxfam's local partner, Agency for the Development of Women and Children, or ADWAC, takes the edge off those questions: If villagers had a way to save some of their food and seeds at the end of each harvest, they could have a reserve to fall back on during times of shortage. The trick was to get started.
ADWAC's plan called for building and stocking four cereal "banks"—tidy white structures the size of small houses which can hold up to 30 metric tons of cereals—located at strategic points around the communities. Villagers then formed committees to manage the stored supplies. Those who borrow from the storehouse during a food shortage are obliged to repay the loan and tack on a little extra, too, so that the project can grow.
Now, if drought should shrivel their crops or pests consume them, villagers can turn to that bank of grain, avoiding the need to eke what they can from an overstrained environment. The bank will help them weather tough times.
Inside the Dasilami storehouse one day last year, the sweetness of harvested grains filled the hot dry air. Heavy sacks—they weigh just under 200 pounds—stuffed with corn and millet were stacked nearly to the ceiling. Outside, in the shade of a tree laden with mangoes, Nyima Filly Fofana, a mother of nine children and an organizer for one of the cereal bank management committees, talked about what it was like one year recently when both locusts and drought hit the area.
"We experienced a very bitter time," she said. "The family was hungry." In times of food shortages, Fofana's family manages by selling the salt she harvests from mud flats near her home and by eating whatever vegetables they can grow in their garden. But if such trouble should strike again, this time Dasilami has the seeds of a solution—one that can now spread to other villages, too.
"Our worries will be temporarily solved," said Fofana, clapping her hands at the thought of the white building gleaming there in the sun, stocked with grain. "We'll have food. Therefore our families will not cry. Our stomachs will no longer go empty."
Vouchers revitalize markets
When a catastrophic earthquake hit northern Pakistan in the fall of 2005, it left three million people homeless and more than two million people needing food aid to survive the winter.
Around the devastated town of Balakot in the Northwest Frontier province, Oxfam organized a program that provided families with vouchers to use among a selected group of merchants. Not only did the vouchers offer earthquake survivors the chance to make their own choices about which goods would best meet their needs, they helped to revitalize local markets by boosting commerce and allowing traders to rebuild their businesses.
For one young boy, the program helped restore a sliver of normalcy to his life by allowing him to buy familiar goods.
"My father was killed," he told an Oxfam staffer at a general store in Balakot. "My mother is very ill. She has asked me to buy flour, black tea, and sugar."
The program, which also included the distribution of some cash and building materials, reached more than 48,000 people, giving them a real say in the kind of help they received.
Culling herds, helping traders
Before a lack of rain shriveled the pastureland in Niger and swarms of migratory grasshoppers stripped it clean, Koumba Yacouba's family owned a magnificent herd of cows that was 200 head strong. But drought and pest infestation wiped them out in 2005—a story repeated across Niger where untold numbers of herders all depend on their animals for food. The shortage of fodder was the worst in Niger's history.
High cereal prices and decimated herds combined to create a food crisis for 3.6 million people—nearly one-third of Niger's population.
In response, Oxfam and one of its local partners, the Association de Revigoration d'Élevage au Niger, or AREN, set up a $2 million program in southeastern Niger to help nearly 131,000 people. Their weakened herds figured prominently in the effort. The goal was to help reinvigorate the local economy by stimulating area markets.
For a fair price, Oxfam bought cattle that were too emaciated for herders to sell. Cattle prices had plummeted, falling to 90 percent lower than they had been before the crisis. Even healthy animals were fetching only a fraction of their former value: Strong bulls that once went for $500 were being sold off for as little as $18.
Oxfam began purchasing cows from local breeders for $53 a head. That money allowed people to buy food from local traders to feed both their families and their remaining animals.
In addition, Oxfam had the cows it purchased slaughtered in the villages and the meat inspected by vets to make sure it was fit for consumption. In exchange for some of the meat, village women worked to dry or fry the beef which was then made available to hungry families who traded their vouchers for it. People earned the vouchers by working on community improvement projects such as the construction of small reservoirs to catch and store rainfall.
"Oxfam's response is stimulating the economy by trying to use local markets," said Mike Delaney, Oxfam America's director of humanitarian response.
"We cannot believe that we are now able to eat meat," said Khadydiatou Labarang, whose daily diet had been a single meal of millet before Oxfam initiated the program.