On a dusty plain in northeastern Uganda, two women have come to blows. One shrieks as the other shoves. A volunteer from the World Food Program (WFP) has called one of them forward to collect an emergency food-aid ration, but both women want it. "They have the same name," explains local administrator Teko John Bosco.
He laughs uncomfortably and scans the teeming plain. More than 2,000 residents of this parish, Lokali, have come to collect food aid on a hot Saturday in May, and though the crowds have dwindled as the sun sinks and people drag or carry home their sacks a month's ration of mostly corn, with some beans many recipients remain. They stand or sit in groups, waiting for food if they haven't yet been called, and arguing over how to divide the rations they've received. At the center with the food stash, police clutch assault rifles to scare off bandits, as well as sticks to beat recipients who try to steal. With just a few dozen sacks remaining, would-be thieves sprint in as a pack, and more join in as the numbers swell. "It always happens this time of day," Teko says. The officers thrash them all old women and children too until they drop the sacks and scatter.
Extreme hunger, and the scenes of desperation it causes, is shockingly common. WFP, the U.N. food-aid agency, reaches more people than any other humanitarian organization in the world. It plans this year to feed about 90 million in 78 countries; almost all of the recipients hover on the brink of starvation. Here in Karamoja, in Uganda's semi-arid northeast corner, food distribution is now a daily ritual. In its 45-year history, WFP has handled war, famine and just about every other kind of disaster, natural or made by man. But Karamoja is pretty typical. After years of drought, the soil is little more than sand. Goats and cattle are gaunt from lack of grazing and the sorghum crop is failing. Armed cattle rustlers roam the region, making the roads too dangerous for most travel. Commercial transporters refuse to haul in WFP goods, despite escorts from Uganda's national army. Yet the biggest challenge the Rome-based agency has ever faced, executive director Josette Sheeran announced in April, came this year: the exploding price of food.
WFP had planned in 2007 that $2.9 billion donations that mainly come from rich-world governments should cover operations for 2008. By late March, rising food prices meant those same operations were going to cost an extra $500 million; by the end of April, the estimated shortfall was $755 million. Donations have trickled in and, to fill the gap, Saudi Arabia pitched in a windfall $500 million in late May. But if prices stay high and agriculture experts believe they will WFP will need to raise those extra hundreds of millions, year after year, just to maintain services at their 2007 level. Yet the organization faces new demands from people whom, a year ago, it did not expect to have to help.
"What we're seeing is that people living under $2 a day are giving up health care and education," says Sheeran. "Those living on under $1 a day are giving up protein once a week or vegetables." And those on 50¢ a day or less, like the people of Karamoja, are simply cutting out meals. Men and women say they were eating at most once a day before WFP came with its meager rations. "We've just been surviving selling firewood and burning [wood to make] charcoal," says Cecelia Amaitukei, a Lokali food-aid recipient.
In the past, such economic activity might have been enough to keep a family eating when its own crops died. This year, the labor isn't worth enough to buy real food. The women take their firewood and charcoal to local brewers and trade it for the grainy residue of beer instead. Then they eat that. Death rates in the local hospital's child-malnutrition program are twice the level they were in 2006-07. "We would have had more deaths," says James Lemukol, the hospital superintendent, "if there were no [regional] intervention from WFP."
Karamoja is not like most of Uganda. In fact, precisely because it is so varied, the small east African country is a good example of how WFP's worldwide operations have been hit by high food prices. WFP buys more food in Uganda than in any other country in the world. Most of the land is lush and fertile, and the government is stable; President Yoweri Museveni has ruled since 1986. Last year WFP's administrative center in the capital city Kampala, then responsible for 11 countries in eastern and central Africa, handled some 15 million recipients and about one-third of WFP's annual global food distribution.
Sitting at his desk in Kampala, Uganda Country Office Director Tesema Negash rattles through the groups that make up the roughly 2 million WFP-aid recipients in the country. There are more than 170,000 refugees from neighboring countries, and nearly 1 million who have been "internally displaced" in northern Uganda by a long-running guerrilla war. Then there are the residents of drought-stricken Karamoja, as well as pregnant and nursing mothers and HIV/AIDS patients. A ballooning food budget, coupled with the off-again, on-again nature of donor funding, have threatened nearly every Uganda program at some point this year. "Prioritization is extremely difficult for us," Negash says, "because all these categories, all of them, they're almost totally dependent on us."