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JOHANNESBURG – With more than nine million people in southern Africa receiving food aid from the United Nations World Food Programme this month, the organisation revealed today that many people are being fed only because the agency took substantial financial loans to ensure that they did not starve during the critical lean season, from January – April 2006.

WFP persistently appealed for assistance during the second half of 2005 but late in the year it became apparent that not enough food or cash would be pledged in time to help the most vulnerable people through the worst months of food shortages. WFP resorted to an internal mechanism enabling it to finance immediate needs against expected later donor contributions.

WFP borrowed a cumulative US$ 113 million from this facility between June and December 2005, and has since been able to repay US$ 76 million, leaving an outstanding balance of US$ 37 million. These loans secured WFP’s food pipeline and ensured people received their minimum food needs over the critical months. Their fate would have been uncertain otherwise.

“If donations are not made quickly enough, we have the financial systems in place to help ensure people do not starve. But these loans cannot be repeated if the international community does not step in to repay them,” said Mike Sackett, WFP Regional Director for Southern Africa. “Loans of this magnitude are only taken if serious consequences, such as loss of life, appear likely and there no other options.”

Once the loans are repaid, WFP estimates that it will need up to US$ 93 million to provide food for an average of 5.4 million people from April to December this year. These estimates will be refined following assessments in each country in May/June.

Even though southern Africa is probably heading towards its best harvest in years, several million people will still need assistance over the coming year, particularly orphans and those affected by HIV/AIDS, who do not have access to income or food stocks. However, the agency cannot play its part until the outstanding loans are repaid.

WFP borrowed US$ 108 million from the agency’s internal finance facility, and US$ 5 million from the UN’s Central Emergency Revolving Fund, which was recently relaunched, seeking US$ 500 million for emergency response humanitarian programmes. So far, this fund has managed to raise just over half that amount.

“Donors played a generous and effective role in averting a humanitarian catastrophe in southern Africa over the last year, but we are not yet out of the woods,” Sackett said. “What distinguishes this region from others is that the legacy of HIV/AIDS means food insecurity will remain with us for years. The international community should recognise this and respond in a consistent and timely way.”

WFP is currently feeding about 9.3 million people in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, many of whom are orphans, malnourished children, pregnant or breast-feeding women, or people affected by HIV/AIDS.

The main donations to WFP’s operations in southern Africa since January 2005 include: US$ 149 million from the United States; US$ 37 million from the European Commission; US$ 25 million from the United Kingdom; US$ 17 million from Japan, US$ 14.8 million each from Canada and the Netherlands; US$ 8 million from Algeria; US$ 6.9 million from Australia; US$ 6.2 million from South Africa and US$ 5.6 million from Sweden.