Britain threatens to quit UN food agency

By Adrian Croft ,Reuters

LONDON — Britain said on Saturday it could leave one of the United Nations’ agencies fighting hunger unless it improves its “patchy” performance. The threat to pull out of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) follows a review of British overseas aid ordered by the nine-month-old coalition government, which administers one of the world’s biggest aid budgets. By contrast, the Conservative-led government said it would step up support for the FAO’s U.N. sister agency, the World Food Programme (WFP), which it said had performed strongly. The WFP provides emergency food aid after wars or natural disasters whereas the FAO’s work is more long term, helping countries improve farming practice and nutrition. The Department for International Development (DFID) said it would focus on tackling malnutrition and ensuring more people in poor countries had enough to eat at a time when soaring food prices are causing hardship for millions. Britain’s 6.5 billion pound (US$10.48 billion) annual aid budget is one of the few areas that have been spared sharp public spending cuts aimed at curbing the country’s record peacetime budget deficit. But the coalition government of the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat allies is keen to show it is getting value for money from its aid. It spends about 4 billion pounds a year on bilateral aid and another 2.5 billion through international organizations like the FAO or the WFP and has doubts about the FAO’s performance. It has been reviewing the effectiveness of both types of aid and will announce its conclusions next Tuesday. Patchy Performance DFID said it would give regular funding to the WFP in addition to the funds it provides for specific humanitarian disasters, although it did not say how much. The new funding would allow the WFP to prepare better for emergencies, for example by getting food in place before winter snows or monsoon rains made roads impassable, it said. WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran told Reuters Insider TV this month the WFP was short of US$39 million in funding for drought-hit Somalia and food supplies to the country would stop at the end of March unless the program received more money. DFID said it aimed to push forward long-term initiatives to ensure poor people could feed themselves. It said it would back projects aimed at making war-torn Afghanistan 80 percent self-sufficient in food grains by 2016, but did not say what today’s figure was. The Rome-based FAO has been the target of criticism from the United States and others for years. In 2007, a review concluded that the agency risked “terminal decline” after being starved of cash by member states and mismanaged. The agency put in place a reform plan.