By Corinne Fleischer, Director of Supply Chain, World Food Programme | October 17 2016
Syria, Yemen or Haiti: humanitarian crises, natural or man-made, protracted or punctual, keep tugging at humanity’s conscience – and at its purse strings. This seemingly continuous stream of emergencies carries a heavy cost in lost lives and lost dollars. And even where the roots of the crisis are ostensibly political, the underlying causes will frequently include competition over scarce resources, the fallout of a changing climate, or profound economic dysfunction. If we are to quash this spin cycle of emergency interventions, ever more onerous amid shrinking budgets, then we must shift from tackling the effect to addressing the cause; from giving relief to building resilience; and from a logic of aid to one of investment.
This is all the more urgent as the Sustainable Development Goals commit us to exacting outcomes. In the precise stringency of its 169 targets, the 2030 Agenda is not unlike a business development plan. This doesn’t just mean that the private sector – with its vast resources of expertise, creativity and money – must be heavily involved: it also means that institutional donors and multilateral agencies must think more like the private sector; and that national governments must lead and facilitate reforms that allow such perspectives to take root.
We at the World Food Programme (WFP), whose mission is to end hunger and malnutrition, have understood this for a while. And even as intervene again and again, with governments and other actors, to deliver life-saving assistance, we’re working hard to ensure that we won’t have do so indefinitely. What we have understood is that weak supply chains foster food insecurity, and ultimately disaster and strife; and that to truly support people, we must join forces – with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and other UN agencies – to strengthen markets in ways that further development.
Millions of people are made poorer by the inability to grow, move and sell food efficiently. Most of the hungry poor, in fact, are smallholder farmers: all too often, they produce barely enough to feed themselves and their families – if that. Lack of access to credit or insurance means that a harvest lost to El Niño (as is now the case across southern Africa) may push entire communities into hunger. Inadequate storage can cause up to one third of a harvest to succumb to pests, rot or inclement weather. Poor transport links impede trade. Prices are volatile and often unaffordable.
This is why, as big buyers of commodities in developing markets, we strive to help smallholder farmers increase their yields, reduce post-harvest losses and promote sustainable demand. Our global food requirements act as a catalyst; engagement in local networks eases our task. We combine our own buying power with that of the private sector – not just to purchase from local farmers ourselves, but to allow them to access markets beyond WFP. We seek to turn smallholdings into viable businesses, by connecting them with providers of loans, quality seeds, equipment and storage units. We negotiate to assure demand and spread risk across value chains, so that customers will commit to acquiring agreed quantities. This creates stable, predictable outlets for farmers. The supply of, and demand for, reliable produce dramatically strengthens the fabric of regional and national agriculture systems.
Our US$3.5 billion worth of supply chain costs, much of which is spent locally, gives us scope for action. Our demand for goods and services means we can contribute to more efficient transport and commodity sectors; safer, better-quality food; lower costs; and higher purchasing power for entire communities. By providing cash assistance, we help retailers in remote areas improve their own supply chains. With our support, contracted retailers optimize their transport and bulk buying strategies; cut their costs; reduce shelf prices; and enable those in need to buy more nutritious food. In Jordan, we have boosted the purchasing power of 80,000 Syrians in Zaatari camp by nearly one tenth, freeing up money for refugees to satisfy basic needs. Experience suggests that even in challenging environments, our interventions can ripple out widely. We team up with local banks, shop keepers and mobile service providers. This spurs healthy business ecosystems; it stimulates demand; and it helps meet this demand by way of locally produced goods and services.
After decades of humanitarian practice, this much is clear: crises will no doubt recur through our lifetimes, demanding emergency responses. But we must all work to ensure that they become fewer and fewer; and that when crises do occur, structures are in place to ride them out. Markets certainly have their flaws. They do not hold the solution to all ills. But no successful society has been built on charity alone.
Ms. Corinne Fleischer, a national of Switzerland, was appointed in 2015 as the Director of Supply Chain for the World Food Programme. Prior to this, she was the Director of Procurement from March 2013 to October 2015.
Ms. Fleischer joined WFP in 1999 as the Procurement Manager in Ethiopia. She then served as the Chief of Donor Relations for Asia based with WFP’s Regional Bureau in Bangkok in 2001. Starting in 2007 she moved to WFP Sudan as the Emergency Coordinator for Greater Darfur and from 2010 served as WFP’s Deputy Regional Director and Director of Operations.
Prior to her career with WFP, Ms. Fleischer ran her own business in East Africa, carrying out architectural projects for various diplomatic missions as well as business re-engineering projects with international corporations.
An M.A. graduate of University of Geneva, Ms. Fleischer started her career with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Sudan. She is fluent in French, German and English.