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ROME – Facing the enormous challenge of feeding more than 50 million people in Africa this year – in life-threatening crises such as the Horn of Africa – the United Nations World Food Programme revealed today that many people are only receiving food aid because the agency has drawn down substantially from its emergency reserves to stave off suffering and starvation.

Despite persistent appeals to the international community to support its operations across the continent, an acute shortage of project donations has increasingly forced WFP to deplete its own reserves to finance immediate food needs in anticipation of future donor contributions.

“We have put financial systems in place to help ensure people do not starve if donations are not immediately forthcoming. But these internal loans cannot be repeated if the international community does not step in to replenish funds,” said James Morris, WFP Executive Director.

One of WFP’s main internal funding mechanisms is the Immediate Response Account (IRA), a revolving fund, which has allowed the agency to respond rapidly to recent crises including the Pakistan earthquake and crises in Niger and Darfur. WFP allocated unprecedented funds from this account in 2005 – over US$ 100 million. However, the IRA has not received substantial fresh contributions, leaving it with a record low balance of less than US$ 20 million.

Another example of WFP borrowing from its own reserves came in the second half of last year when urgent appeals to feed millions in southern Africa drew insufficient funding to cover the critical “hunger gap” period from December to April 2006. A total of US$ 113 million allowed WFP to provide sufficient food aid to some 9.3 million people in six countries. After donor contributions facilitated the replenishment of two thirds of this advance, there is still a shortfall of US$ 37 million. This is on top of WFP’s efforts to fund ongoing programmes to feed millions of needy people across the region where the legacy of HIV/AIDS spells food insecurity for years to come.

“People who are struck by disaster cannot wait for help to come – we have to be ready to provide assistance as quickly as possible,” Morris said. “Amid increasing pressure on us to respond to crises, we urge the international community to remember that we can only provide as much assistance as we ourselves receive – whether in cash or food. We have to appeal for every cent that we spend on the hungry poor.”

Besides the needs in southern Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan are two other countries where WFP has borrowed heavily from its own reserves and is seeking a generous response from donors.

“WFP welcomes the United Nations’ new expanded Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) launched earlier this month. This attempt to gain more predictable and reliable funding is complementary to, rather than a replacement for our own IRA mechanism,” Morris said.