The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

World Food Program (WFP)

The World Food Program (WFP) was founded in 1963 by the General Assembly of the UN and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It is a subsidiary body of the UN, and its headquarters are in Rome.


Within the UN system, WFP is the body in charge of food aid, with the goal of combating hunger and improving food safety in the poorest countries. WFP’s mandate is:

  • to save the lives of people caught in humanitarian crises, through its Food for Life program;
  • to improve the nutrition and quality of life of the most vulnerable people at critical times in their lives, through its Food for Growth program; and
  • to help build assets and promote self-reliance of individuals in the poorest communities, through its Food for Work program.

Both when promoting economic and social development and when responding to emergency situations, WFP’s aim is to reinforce self-reliance of populations. WFP makes sure that its assistance programs are designed and implemented on the basis of the broadest participation possible—in particular, of women. In 2012, the agency was able to provide 3.5 million tons of food aid to 97.2 million people in eighty countries. Eighty-nine million of these beneficiaries were women and children.


WFP is controlled by an Executive Board consisting of thirty-six Member States (and the European Union, as observer) elected to three-year renewable terms. The executive director is elected by both the Secretary-General of the UN and by the Director-General of the FAO, in consultation with the Executive Board. The current executive director is Ertharin Cousin, who was appointed in April 2012.

WFP’s headquarters have eight departments: the Office of the Executive Director, Operations, Transport and Logistics, Resources and External Relations, Finance and Information Systems, Strategy and Policy, Management Services, and Human Resources. In 1996, WFP launched a process of decentralization that established regional offices, each of which enjoys considerable decision-making autonomy. WFP employs 10,200 staff, of whom 90 percent work in the field delivering food and monitoring its use.


  • WFP intervenes at the request of governments. It carries out its own evaluation and then negotiates and signs a Letter of Understanding concerning the programs with the authorities.
  • WFP’s program budget amounted to $5.49 billion in 2012. Thirty percent of WFP’s resources go toward development projects. Through the Food for Work program, it participates in the development of agricultural and other kinds of infrastructure, such as road construction. WFP also promotes human development through its school nutrition, health, and food programs.
  • In the case of relief operations (emergency interventions and protracted relief operations, representing 70 percent of its resources), WFP is in charge of ensuring the supply of basic food products and their international and internal transportation to distribution points.
  • To this effect, it has access to the International Emergency Food Reserve. This program was set up in 1976 following a request by the General Assembly. The minimum annual reserve is set at half a million tons of food. WFP is also responsible for the Immediate Response Account (IRA), which ensures that emergency operations are launched immediately, without having to wait for donors’ funds to become available. Its minimum annual reserve is set at $35 million. Nevertheless, the mobilization of resources for relief operations mainly comes from special calls and appeals for funding, issued throughout the year as emergencies arise.
  • The work of WFP also contains an important logistics component. As stated, this means first international transportation, then transit within the destination country to the actual point of distribution. WFP is responsible for finding a solution to any “missing link” in a chain of transportation, and it must replace this link and gain access to the populations in need of assistance. This is the rationale for its work on air, water, and road infrastructures. The International Maritime Organization has recognized WFP’s logistics needs and has given it the rights to its own transportation document, the World Food Waybill Charter. This certifies that the products being transported are for humanitarian use and normally facilitates the administrative procedures of customs clearance and transit of merchandise. Approximately twenty cargo containers permanently roam the Earth, ready to be diverted to the site of a crisis.
  • The weakness of this system is that its funding depends entirely on voluntary contributions by States ($3.7 billion in 2011). The funds are distributed based on the type of operation:

—regular budget for development projects and protracted relief operations for refugees or displaced persons,

—emergency operations for refugees and displace persons,

—contributions to the International Emergency Food Reserve,

—contributions to the Immediate Response Account, and

—non-food contributions (e.g., assistance by technical and administrative personnel, tools, or material).

  • Contributions are provided half in nature and half in cash. Since 1996, such funding is based on the principle of “full costs recovery,” recovering all administrative costs and needs in cash. WFP has therefore developed a policy of purchasing food products locally, which reduces the cost of transportation, ensures the distribution of food suited to the nutritional habits of the beneficiaries of the programs, and stimulates local economies.
  • To improve the efficiency of its activities, WFP collaborates with the relevant bodies in the UN system. For issues concerning food aid to refugees and displaced or stateless persons, cooperation with UNHCR was solidified through the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 1985, setting out the framework of their partnership. This MOU was updated in 1991, 1994, and 1997. An MOU was signed with UNICEF in 1998. WFP also works closely with the UN departments that ensure coordination in the humanitarian domain. For instance, it is one of the lead agencies in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), run by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and the Executive Committee for Humanitarian Affairs (ECHA).
  • Over the past several years, WFP has greatly developed its cooperation with NGOs: it has now signed formal agreements with fifteen partners, and a mechanism for annual consultations was set up in 1995. WFP collaborates with more than a thousand NGOs in the field. These operations generally rest on ad hoc partnerships, established in tripartite Letters of Understanding signed by WFP, the NGO, and the government of the host country. In addition to this, the headquarters of an NGO Liaison Unit were established in Rome in 1987.

FamineFood and Agriculture OrganizationNutritionRelief

World Food Program

Via Cesare Giulio Viola. 68, Parco dei Medici

I 00148 Rome, Italy

Tel.: (39) 06 57 05 51

Fax: (39) 06 57 05 31 or 06 57 0551/55

@ http://

For Additional Information: Medrano, Pedro Alfonso. “The WFP and the Right to Food.” In For an Effective Right to Adequate Food , edited by Marco Borghi and Letizia Postiglione Blommestein. Fribourg: University Press Fribourg Switzerland, 2002.

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