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Drought, Global Financial Crisis Signal Hunger Alert, Budget Shortfall in Kenya

As leaders begin gathering in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for Thursday’s opening of the G20 meeting of developed and emerging nations, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) is calling attention to a funding shortfall in Kenya.

Sharply rising food prices and the world financial crisis are making it necessary to reduce the daily rations of needy Kenyans by early next month unless donors make up a $277-million funding shortfall in this downturn economic year. WFP North America chief spokesperson Bettina Luescher warns that such a deficit could leave some 3.8 million Kenyans malnourished and searching for drought relief.

“Funding is down all over the world. We are making a really urgent appeal to the world leaders this week to come up with money so we can feed the hungry. We have an unprecedented situation worldwide. A billion people are going hungry. But this year, we’ve received only about a third of the money that we need to feed all the people that we at the World Food Program need to bring help to,” said Luescher.

For Kenya, WFP has only received eight percent, or $24 million of the $301 million anticipated for feeding close to four million in Kenya over the next six months. Although some countries report progress in recovering from one of the worst economic crises in decades, G20 leaders are said to be proceeding cautiously with the generous pledges they have made in previous years for funding projects and helping developing countries meet millennium development goals (MDGs) by the year 2015.

In the case of Kenya, which has shouldered a heavy international burden of caring for hundreds of thousands of displaced Somali civilians and other East African refugees, U.N. food coordinators have played a prominent role working with Nairobi officials to help the hungry. The WFP’s Luescher says making up the budget shortfall is simply a matter of political will.

“Last year, the world governments were so generous and enabled us to feed more than 100-million people. This year, we have to give the urgent appeal that we’re in the middle of a perfect storm. You have this drought in Kenya. You have the financial crisis. Laborers that have gone abroad are not sending as much money back home to their families. So all of these things are coming together to turn it into a real crisis,” she observes.

As an example of the 100-to-120 percent rise in food costs over the past year and the diminishing values food production is posing for Kenya’s population, Luescher cites the case of a rural goat herder.

“The sale of one goat in Kenya used to buy a 90 kilogram bag of maize. And now, it takes four goats to get the same amount of maize. So what we are seeing as people are selling their livestock, those livestock are not nearly as valuable as they were in the past,” she points out.

To counter rising rates of malnutrition, Luescher says the food agency is working closely with Kenyan government officials. Both WFP and the government are operating school meal programs to keep children in school, promote take-home rations for their families, and discourage Kenya’s rapidly growing numbers of youth from abandoning their educational pursuits in order to become breadwinners for their relatives.

Health issues have also arisen because of the drought, which has left farmers with barren fields and caused grazing lands to be littered with the carcasses of dead cattle. For Kenyan city dwellers also, Luescher says soaring food costs are posing new hunger challenges for the urban poor.

“Compared to a few years ago, your bag of rice or maize is double what it once was, but you live on an extremely tiny income of less than a dollar a day. You simply cannot afford the food that’s on the shelf. That is in a sense a new phase of hunger, the urban poor. Traditionally we have often dealt especially with the rural poor. But we’re seeing more and more over the last one or two years that the urban poor cannot cope with the situation any more,” she says.

In Pittsburgh this week, the WFP and other international agencies will try to ensure that progress achieved over the past few years by developing countries will not be reversed by the temporal strains of a food crisis, a drought crisis, and a world financial crisis.