Home The Washington Diplomat June 2008

In War Zone, Afghans Also Fight for Bread

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Countries where the global food crisis has led to riots, strikes, deposed prime ministers and other unrest read like a litany of the world’s intractable trouble spots: Haiti, Indonesia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Bolivia and Uzbekistan, to name a few.

In developing nation after developing nation, millions who were already living on the edge of hunger have been pushed into such desperate acts as feeding their children with mud pies, as in Haiti.

Wealthy nations have taken note, worried that hunger-based instability could spread and provide a potential breeding ground for crime and terrorism. Foreign Policy magazine recently reported that Pakistan’s high wheat prices contributed to the defeat of President Pervez Musharraf’s party in February’s elections and up to half of the country’s 160 million citizens are now facing food insecurity.

But neighboring Afghanistan — chronically food insecure due to a highly arid climate, transportation difficulties, corruption, crime and terrorism— has been relatively quiet on the security front, although Afghanistan certainly hasn’t escaped this “silent tsunami,” as the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) describes the global food crisis.

To assess the unique challenges that Afghanistan faces in feeding its population, The Washington Diplomat recently spoke to Rick Corsino, WFP country director in Afghanistan. A WFP employee since 1993, Corsino is well trained to head the Afghan mission, having served in WFP positions in such famine-ravaged countries as North Korea and other developing nations in the Caribbean, Asia and Africa.

“We have been a partner with the Afghan government from the beginning,” said Corsino, who was preparing for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai on the food crisis in Afghanistan, where hunger has threatened millions as prices for wheat, the country’s key staple, have spiked.

Despite a good year for Afghanistan’s cereal crops in 2007, prices increased approximately 60 percent in 2007 and another 70 percent to 75 percent in the first three months of 2008, leading to an almost tripling in price. This rise was due in part to an approximate doubling of world wheat prices in the past year as demand for biofuels and animal feed climbed and wheat crops in other countries failed. The average Afghan now spends up to 75 percent of their income on food, according to the WFP.

Fortunately for Afghans, their government recognized the problem last December and made a million appeal for international food aid in January, which was met by Canada, the United States and European nations. Corsino praised Karzai’s government for its foresight in addressing the problem — before the global food crisis made headlines around the world.

“They knew this problem was brewing and have been very active in addressing it, removing an import duty on staple foods and getting an agreement with international financial institutions to use some of the national treasury to buy food abroad to distribute to the hungry. They are also trying to establish a grain reserve, but that might not be the best idea at this time due to record high prices,” Corsino said.

“The government acknowledges the added difficulties caused by very low wages for public service jobs in this crisis,” he continued. “Teachers have demonstrated a willingness to stop work due to their low wages and decreased purchasing power. The government has in place plans to increase salaries of public servants like teachers and policemen, but it will require some more time.”

And the WFP, which maintains nine offices around Afghanistan, has been a key partner in the government’s efforts. The group recently distributed 30,000 tons of food to approximately 400,000 Afghans affected by the record wheat prices and plans to distribute another 88,000 tons by July to aid the 2.5 million Afghans now classified as “food insecure.”

But for Corsino and his WFP colleagues, the key challenge in alleviating Afghanistan’s food shortages has been transportation. In addition to the country’s notoriously poor roads and rugged terrain, food convoys face the continual threat of attacks from shadowy groups. In May 2007, the WFP suspended convoys along the southern ring road in Afghanistan after a series of such attacks. Even after shipments resumed in July, attacks continued, including one in Nimruz province that resulted in two police and 13 assailants dead and a loss of 40 tons of food.

“The main difference is access, both in terms of getting food to Afghans and getting WFP staff around the country. This is mainly due to physical insecurity due to criminality and lack of Afghan government ability to project control and authority in remote provinces,” Corsino said.

“Lawlessness along the road forced us to all but stop moving along this route to the west, as convoys were being attacked by various groups. We’re now getting some Afghanistan national police help in escorting convoys, [but] we’ve been careful not to affiliate ourselves with international military organizations,” he added. “However, we alert ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] of major convoys, which then increases their watch on the convoy’s route.”

But the food crisis appears to be playing a somewhat more limited role in Afghanistan’s overall security situation. The Taliban is still trying to overthrow President Karzai — as evidenced by the near-miss assassination attempt in late April — but they don’t seem to be using food as a vehicle in their campaign.

“In terms of the Taliban using the crisis to win hearts and minds, we have seen nothing of the sort,” Corsino said. “Insurgents tend to not want to be associated with taking food from communities, [whom] we work with to coordinate relief efforts. Sometimes food taken by insurgents is won back when communities that know what happened and who did it approach the culprits.”

In fact, the crisis may have unexpected benefits on the security situation. That’s because some poppy farmers are turning toward the production of legal crops as food prices have skyrocketed and opium prices have bottomed out. “In the past, poppy cultivation has brought seven times or greater return for farmers than wheat production, but the increase in wheat prices may be providing a greater incentive for some farmers to switch to legal crops,” Corsino noted.

The Financial Times reported in April that the country’s opium crop may even decrease by up to 50 percent from last year’s record crop of 8,200 tons. However, higher food prices may conversely encourage more poppy production, as Afghans look to the country’s undisputed cash crop to feed their families.

Poppy harvesting could be one of many measures that desperate families resort to in response to the food crisis, which “has created the classic coping issues that you see elsewhere when people are dealing with food shortages,” Corsino said. “People are sacrificing discretionary expenditures for school and medical care to help ensure they have enough food. We are seeing farmers sell or eat assets like their crop seed and livestock. We are also seeing some internal displacement, but there has actually been some inflow of Afghanis from Iran and Pakistan despite the food crisis.”

Afghanistan relies heavily on neighboring Pakistan for its wheat supply, which is also a major reason for the rise in prices. “Over 70 percent of food products imported into Afghanistan come from Pakistan, where prices for wheat are controlled by the government, [which] also banned the export of wheat earlier this year,” Corsino explained. “As a result, wheat sells at below world rates in Pakistan, leading to, amongst other things, smuggling of wheat into Afghanistan, where it can be sold for higher prices after traders have exacted considerable premiums.”

But the average Afghan sees none of this benefit. “We were in a community outside of Kandahar recently and met with several families. One man said their diet is now basically just bread and buttermilk. They get meat just once a month and vegetables from time to time,” Corsino recalled. “Staples such as cooking oil are up about 100 percent in the last 18 months. At the same time, there has not been corresponding increase in income for the population, so 2.5 million Afghans that had been on the borderline of food insecurity have been pushed into food insecurity.”

About the Author

Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999