Playing God on a Limited Budget The Challenge of Deciding Who to Feed

The United Nations' World Food Program tries to stop the poorest of the poor from going hungry. But its budget has dwindled during the crisis as donor countries focus on their own economic problems. Aid workers face the unpleasant task of deciding who gets food -- and who doesn't.


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.

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