John Aylieff was once shot at in Burundi in eastern Africa, by a gunman standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Aylieff only survived because his driver aimed the vehicle directly at the gunman.
Aylieff also lost a colleague in Burundi. She was forced to stand in front of her murderers and was executed.
He has witnessed the deaths of children, including babies who starved to death in front of his very eyes. He has also seen old people starve to death, both men and women, and he has seen women weeping and begging for food -- as recently as half an hour ago.
Aylieff was sitting on a tree trunk lying on the ground, in a village in hot, humid northwestern Bangladesh. The village consisted of wretched huts made of branches and straw. To the left of the village was a path. During the flood, the villagers would spend their nights sleeping alongside the path. To the right of the village was the river, where floodwaters kept rising from one day to the next.
Full of Hope
Five men and women, old and frail, were crouched on the ground in front of Aylieff. They had seen him -- a well-fed man in jeans and athletic shoes, with thinning hair and a soft face -- arrive in the village with two white Toyota Landcruisers and a team of four men. They had welcomed him, invited him into their huts and offered him the spot on the tree trunk -- and then stared at him, full of hope.
They didn't know Aylieff. In fact, they had never seen him before, but they did know that he had brought them rice once before: an entire 50-kilo (110-pound) sack for each villager.
"We are grateful for that," says the woman in the middle of the group. Her name is Alif Jan, the widow of a day laborer. She has four children and many grandchildren, and she is the courageous one in the group, perhaps because she is the most desperate. She dispenses with formalities and gets straight to the point: "When will you bring us rice again?"
Aylieff turns to his interpreter, and then he looks at Alif Jan and says: "I don't know." He says this calmly, not indifferently but not with much emotion, either. A considerable distance remains between him and the woman on the ground.
Begging for Rice Water
Aylieff's response is incomprehensible for the men and women squatting in front of him. They see the two Landcruisers and the men accompanying Aylieff. How can someone who behaves like a prince be unable to get them rice? Alif Jan looks at Aylieff, holds up her empty hands and says: "Please."
Aylieff doesn't need his interpreter to understand the word. He shrugs his shoulders, shakes his head and says: "I'm sorry." But the women sitting at his feet remain undeterred. They say that none of them has eaten any rice in recent days. They have begged for rice water, the water other families used to cook their rice, and they have eaten banana leaves.
They are embarrassed to be saying this to a man who is young enough to be their son. At the end of their lives, after spending more than 50 years working in the fields, it is humiliating for them to have to beg this man for a sack of rice.
"Please," says Jan. There are tears in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," Aylieff repeats. "We have nothing left to distribute." The interpreter translates, and Aylieff hears the women weeping.
He leaves the village a short time later. He had come there to check on the progress of an earlier project, and now he is sitting in his vehicle, with the windows rolled up, as the villagers say goodbye. They line the path, forming a wall of emaciated bodies. The men and women stand there, almost motionless and inconceivably thin, staring into the interior of the vehicle. Aylieff stares back in silence.
Feelings of Guilt
Aylieff has been combating hunger for the last 18 years, trying to make the world a better place. A British citizen, he has a degree in German literature and had intended to become a teacher, but then his life went in a completely different direction.
In the early 1990s, Aylieff watched television reports on a famine in Ethiopia. Feeling the guilt of living a life of affluence, he soon forgot the German classics and turned his attention to helping others. He wanted to do as much as possible, to provide direct and fast relief to the world's poor. He cashed in his savings, flew to Ethiopia and pestered the workers at aid organizations until they offered him a job as a trainee. He is now 42 and has a Thai wife and a child. When asked about his first years in the field, he says: "I was very impressionable at the time."
Aylieff remained in Ethiopia for two years. He went to Burundi next, and then to North Korea, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq. He organized food shipments for more than a million refugees after the genocide in Rwanda, and he negotiated with warlords on the Horn of Africa. He had to convince them that he was only delivering food and could not provide them with speedboats and machine guns.
For all but two of his years in humanitarian aid, Aylieff has worked for the United Nations' World Food Program (WFP), the world's largest humanitarian organization. He is currently the WFP's deputy regional director for Asia.
Making Progress against Hunger
The WFP's mission is to identify the most serious cases of the world's hungry and feed them as effectively and inexpensively as possible. Acting on behalf of the global community, the WFP is also charged with attending to the poorest of the poor, to adults who don't know if they'll have anything to eat from one day to the next, and to children who are so malnourished that solid food would kill them.
The program targets about 100 million people in 73 countries. The task Aylieff and his colleagues face is to help these people -- not just to alleviate their suffering but to eliminate it altogether. Their mandate seems unrealistic at times, and yet the WFP has made encouraging, albeit intermittent, progress. In 1970, one in four people was hungry, a number that has since declined to one in seven, despite the fact that the world's population has doubled in the interim, from 3.5 billion to almost 7 billion people. The improvement can be attributed to the green revolution and globalization, which, as unfair and deficient as it may be, has enabled many people to emerge from poverty and join the global middle class. Once they have made that leap, their lives no longer revolve around mere survival. Instead, they can now devote their energies to things like their children's education.
But the ranks of the hungry have been growing again in the last few years, to the current level of just under a billion people. As the number of needy people grows, so does the number of the hungriest of the hungry. This is mainly a result of the 2008 food crisis, the 2009 banking crisis and the 2010 financial crisis. The bailouts for banks and entire countries deprived the donor countries' budgets of billions and reduced the amount of money paid to the WFP.
Quietly Going Hungry
Its budget declined from $5 billion (€3.85 billion) in 2008 to $4 billion in 2009. In 2010, the WFP expected to receive only $3.7 billion of the requested $7 billion, despite such major disasters as the earthquake in Haiti and the flooding in Pakistan. The reduced budget is insufficient to reliably feed the world's most suffering people.
It was the politicians' belief in the social tolerability of the free market that triggered the WFP's and Aylieff's problems. Although the world's poor are on equal footing when it comes to their poverty, they differ in terms of their attractiveness to the donor countries that fund the WFP, and Bangladesh is not among the attractive countries. Instead, it ranks near the bottom of the list of priorities for many donor countries, because it lacks almost everything that is needed to adequately ensure the flow of money from the rich to the hungry.
Bangladesh, which was part of Pakistan before gaining independence in 1971, has no geostrategic significance. It is merely a small, humid spot on the map to the east of India, and it isn't even considered a failed state. On the contrary, Bangladesh is valued as a reliable trading partner and taken advantage of as a low-wage producer of clothing.
Bangladesh only figures prominently in global news when the monsoon inundates large sections of the country. When this isn't the case, between 5 million and 10 million people, depending on the current situation, go hungry -- quietly, stoically and largely unnoticed.
Never Enough Money
Aylieff's job is to feed these people -- every one of them, at least in theory. But this is an illusory task, because Aylieff, like all WFP regional directors, lacks the power to make demands. All he can do is ask. Because experience has taught him that he will never receive enough funding to feed all of the hungry, in 2009 he calculated how much money he would need to feed 8 million hungry people. He arrived at a figure of $257 million.
He got $76 million.
He received even less in 2010, $60 million, and he doesn't know yet how much he'll receive in 2011.
Aylieff is also unable to use the money as he pleases. Donor countries often dictate how their funds are to be spent. For example, if the European Union wants its donations to pay for projects that promote agriculture, Aylieff's hands are tied when it comes to helping pregnant women or mothers with infants. In other words, he has to make difficult choices, dividing the hungry into those who are fed and those who are not.
How does this work? How does one divide the millions in this country who live below the global minimum subsistence level of $1.25 a day into those who get help and those who get nothing? How are they identified? How does one choose the regions, villages and families? And how does one avoid making arbitrary decisions -- or going insane oneself because of the enormity of the challenge?
On the Edge
Two days before Aylieff's encounter with Alif Jan, he is standing on a sandbar in the middle of the Brahmaputra, one of Asia's major rivers, which has its source in faraway Tibet, fed by the monsoon and the dwindling glaciers of the Himalayas.
The families that live on this sandbar are refugees who once lived on the bank of the river. Some came here a few years ago, while others have been living on the sandbar for the past two decades. The stories they tell are all very similar. They always revolve around the river, around a flood that not only swept away a family's hut and its possessions, but the land on which the hut once stood. Villages are largely destroyed this way every year, and it is often their poorest residents who lose everything, because the poor in Bangladesh are forced to live at the water's edge, in the most dangerous place of all.
The sandbar is more than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in length, a long, narrow piece of land rising above the water. Those who have lived here for 20 years say that they have already moved 12 times.
Before the WFP arrived and began distributing food, everyone on the sandbar survived by working odd jobs on the mainland. Everyone here was hungry, sometimes more and sometimes less so. This has now changed. The WFP aid has fractured the social structure of this island community, which has now become a dual-class society.
Working for 80 Cents a Day
Rani Begum is one of the beneficiaries of the change in the social structure. She lives alone, and she is young and healthy enough to work. She doesn't own any land, has no family members capable of working and has no regular income. She says that sometimes she cuts the reeds that grow along the edge of the sandbar and sells them on the riverbank as building material. She lives in a hut made of branches, with a leaky grass roof. There is a bed made of rough, thin slats, a board for her cooking utensils, and a hole in the ground outside the hut -- her oven.
Begum doesn't own a chair, a table or a wardrobe. All she owns is the sari she is wearing. Nevertheless, she says that the arrival of the WFP has been a blessing for her.
Begum is one of the 200 sandbar residents the WFP is paying to build a paved path. It is 1 kilometer long and leads from the huts to a plateau on the sandbar, which is about 2 meters (6.5 feet) higher than the rest of the island. The plateau serves as a refuge during floods.
Two months have been allotted for the road construction project. The workers get their construction material from the river, using hoes, and carry it in shallow baskets balanced on their heads. Each worker, male or female, is required to move one cubic meter of earth (35 cubic feet) a day. They are paid a daily wage of 75 taka, or about 80 euro cents, plus 3 kilos of rice. Begum says that this is a good wage and a lot of rice. She says that she could earn 400 taka a month working as a maid on the mainland, plus meals and a place to sleep on the kitchen floor.
'Why Am I Not Allowed to Work?'
A neighbor is observing Begum as she tells her story. Her name is Marizon Nanda. The two women have known each other for a long time, but they recently stopped talking to each other. Nanda was not included in the project. She goes hungry, while Begum has enough to eat. Begum also refuses to share what she has with Nanda, saying: "How could Nanda ever repay me?"
Nanda's hut is built like all of the other huts on the island, with no furniture except the bed. Like Begum, Nanda is able to work and alone, with no one to support her. She occasionally gets work as a maid on the mainland, for which she is paid 400 taka a month and one meal a day. When she can, she doesn't eat her meal but gives it to the man who operates the ferry to the sandbar. He gives the food to Nanda's youngest son, who waits for him at the dock. The boy is seven and lives in the hut with his mother. Sometimes Nanda misses the ferry, and sometimes she is too hungry to pass up the meal, and then the boy gets nothing.
Nanda is just as needy as Begum, and she complains about being excluded from the program. She says: "I can work, and I want to work, so why am I not allowed to work?"
Ready for the Next Catastrophe
The answer to this question isn't simple. The first part of the answer can be found in an industrial area on the outskirts of Rome, where a four-story building is wedged between a gas station and a Europcar office: the headquarters of the WFP, the source of food for 100 million people, the poorest of the poor.
Obtaining and distributing the food is a monstrous task. It begins with purchasing. Year after year, the WFP buys about 4 million tons of rice, wheat and corn on the world's markets, as cheaply as possible and as close to the recipients as possible, to avoid transport costs. The WFP charters ships, aircraft and trucks, some 5,000 of which the WFP dispatches to the world's hunger zones and crisis regions every day. The convoys have to be provided with security, and the drivers need to be paid on time. As far as possible, the drivers' integrity is checked, as is the condition of the vehicles. It is important for the WFP to avoid bad publicity stemming from news reports on accidents, deaths and unsafe rented trucks.
In addition to helping the chronically needy in the poorhouses of the world, the organization also has to be prepared for the next catastrophe, no matter where it unfolds. To improve its preparedness for the unexpected, the WFP routinely collects data on conditions in the world, and on developments in crisis regions around the globe. Its databases are filled with reports from the major news agencies, reports on demonstrations, unrest and potential indicators of future suffering. When disaster strikes, the data can be combined to create interactive maps on a large screen in the WFP's situation center. The center is a showcase for the organization, with its plethora of technology painting the WFP as an effective, elite, modern humanitarian organization of the United Nations.
Just as important as the situation center, albeit not nearly as impressive, is the Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping unit (VAM), which is headed by Joyce Luma, an energetic woman whose office is filled with countless studies, books and brochures. The first part of the answer that Marizon Nanda, on her sandbar halfway around the world, is seeking can be found in Luma's office.
Luma is a bookkeeper of poverty. Her job is to compile hierarchies of suffering and to update them within prescribed time periods. Luma's computer is linked to the databases of other UN organizations and national agencies. She is interested in current crop forecasts, food prices on the world's exchanges, demographic developments in individual countries and their dependence on old and new migration patterns. She also needs information on the number of small business owners in central Ghana, the percentage of unskilled laborers in Nepal and the question of how limited access to forest areas affects the food situation of the hungry in Cambodia. Using this data, she prepares rankings, broken down by countries and regions. The sandbar that Marizon Nanda is forced to call her home appears on one of these lists.
The Crucial 33 Questions
But it is not up to Luma to decide whether Nanda qualifies as one of the recipients of aid. This is the job of men like Mohammed Shahidul Islam, a Bangladeshi with an eager smile who accompanies Aylieff on his trip. Islam is the head of an aid organization in Bangladesh called PMUK, which acts as a humanitarian subcontractor to the WFP.
PMUK's job is to identify the poorest of the poor in the regions Joyce Luma has already identified as the poorest regions. The organization conducts regional censuses, sending its employees from village to village and from hut to hut with a list of questions prepared by the WFP. One of the PMUK employees has also visited Nanda's hut on the sandbar.
He asked her about the members of her family, including their names and ages. He asked Nanda about education and job training, and whether her children went to school or worked. He also asked about the adults in her household, whether they worked and, if so, how much they earned a day and how many months a year they were employed. He asked about animals she owned and could sell, about land that was being farmed and support coming from other aid programs. The three-page questionnaire includes 33 questions.
Nanda provided all 33 answers, and she told the interviewer that she had an adult son in addition to her seven-year-old boy. She also said that the adult son is a drug addict and hasn't worked in years, and that he steals to pay for his habit.
The interviewer noted everything she told him, with the exception of the son's addiction, because there was no room for it on the form. Nanda was not accepted into the program because, on paper, at least, she had an adult, employable son. She feels that this is unfair. And it is, but if the WFP has millions to feed and is unable to feed them all, the attempt to be fair, and the bureaucracy associated with it, has its limits. In Nanda's case, the limit was reached after 33 questions.
Choosing Whether to Help the Old or the Pregnant
A day's journey from the sandbar, on another branch of the Brahmaputra, another plateau is being shored up as a refuge for the rainy season. Here, too, the WFP has put several hundred men and women to work.
It is payday, and the workers are squatting in rows on the ground. Each of them receives 36 kilos of rice and 1,500 taka for the past month's work. The rice is scooped out of sacks and weighed in the presence of the recipients.
Kohinoor Begum is standing on the opposite riverbank. She is more than 60 years old, blind and just as needy as the people working on the plateau. But she has the bad luck of living on the wrong side of the river, in a district that is rated as being slightly more affluent in the WFP's records.
Similar situations arise throughout the country. The children in schools in the Saghata district receive a handful of biscuits every day, filled with vitamins and minerals, which the children are required to eat in their teacher's presence. The children in the neighboring district get nothing. In Fulchari, a district in northwestern Bangladesh, mothers are given powdered milk to improve their babies' chances of survival. Old people who cannot work receive nothing. The reverse is true in another village, where the old people are given rice and the pregnant women are left empty-handed.
This is the ugly, inhuman side of international aid. As long as there isn't enough money to go around, and as long as billions are being spent to rescue banks and countries, aid will mean democratizing need. And aid will be doled out in accordance with a system in which the poor are continually questioned and categorized, eventually yielding a group small enough to be accommodated by existing funds.
On the last day of his trip, Aylieff is standing in another village. This time he is touring 100-square-meter (1,080 square feet) village gardens, established with WFP help and tended by the poorest in the village. The owners of the land are given half of the harvest. The farmers are growing pumpkins and basil.
As Aylieff gets into his car, people gather around the driver's side window to ask for chemical fertilizer. Aylieff looks at them through the window and says: "Maybe later. Try working without it for now."