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Food Aid – On a Wing and a Prayer

By Jeremy Shoham

More or less every one in the Singida region of central Tanzania agrees that the community managed emergency food distribution programme implemented over the last year, has been a great success. This community-based approach to emergency food aid distribution has allowed for transparency and accountability at village level and ensured that the neediest households in a target village got the food aid. However, the overall emergency response has been criticised from the point of view of village targeting. Many have questioned whether the right villages were selected.

As part of an evaluation team looking at the emergency programme in the region, I was still undecided about this. After a particularly gruelling trip to speak with a number of village committees (the roads in the region are amongst the worst anywhere I have visited in Africa), we happened to be passing a Christian Mission station. One of my Tanzanian colleagues remarked that this mission was apparently involved in giving free food handouts during the height of the emergency. After some discussion we decided it might be useful to get the Mission's view on the village targeting in the region and also find out about their activities.

After lengthy negotiations with a guard and numerous messages back and forth about the purpose of our visit, a young man eventually appeared wearing a clerical collar and faded blue frock with a white cross on the side. He announced himself as Father Antonius and immediately apologised that the Sister simply did not have time to see us but that he would attempt to answer our question on her behalf. He pulled out a scrap of paper on which he had transcribed some of the Sister's answers to our written questions.

He then told us how starting in September last year individuals had begun turning up at the mission desperate for food and that they had been provided with cooked meals. It soon became obvious that those coming were the stronger ones and that they needed to return home with dry food for weaker members of their family. The mission subsequently provided these rations. By December, Mission food supplies, which until then had been taken from their own fields, had run out. The Mission was then forced to buy food and between December and February an estimated 1200 people were turning up each day for a food handout. Many were coming from villages over 20 kms away and collapsing at the gates of the Mission. Women and children were the most numerous. The Mission estimated that they supplied 3,050 MT of food over a seven-month period. Father Antonius described how many children and the elderly had oedematous malnutrition so that they had to be admitted to the Mission hospital. He also explained how recipients were asked if they had any money and that if they did they were asked to buy the maize at a subsidised price (at the time maize prices were exorbitantly high). Stronger individuals were also asked to undertake some work for the mission, e.g. land clearance, harvesting, and cultivating sweet potato. The mission did not want to encourage dependence on free food handouts. The apparent extent of unmet need confirmed our finding from other extensive investigations that indeed many of those in need were not being reached through the geographic targeting system.

The Father then explained why the Mission got involved in this work. "We did this for Christ as we saw in the faces of those collapsing in front of the Mission - 'the face of Christ".

At the end of our discussion he explained that Sister Ailsa had asked him to remind us not to mention the name of the mission in our report as they sought no credit in undertaking their work and preferred anonymity. To say the meeting humbled me would be an understatement.

While driving back to Singida town I found myself wondering how often church missions had to step in to fill the gaps when humanitarian agencies missed out destitute populations or simply failed to notice an emergency. It also occurred to me that we aid 'professionals' are always so ready to criticise the technical proficiency of church based agencies when they enter the field of emergency relief but so rarely praise their efforts when they act as the last resort. However, my enduring thought about all this was that if I had been a Tanzanian in Singida region overlooked by government, UN and NGO response but had survived through the efforts of Sister Ailsa and Father Antonius, it would have been my faith in God rather than in government that would have grown out of the experience.

The names of individuals in this article have been changed in accordance with Mission policy not to publicise or seek credit for work

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Reference this page

Jeremy Shoham (1999). Food Aid – On a Wing and a Prayer. Field Exchange 7, July 1999. p24. www.ennonline.net/fex/7/foodaid