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Emergency Food Assistance Following Hurricane Mitch: an Evaluation of the WFP response

Summary of an Evaluation

WFP fielded a four-person mission in July and August 1999 to evaluate the agency's performance in response to hurricane Mitch*. Over a period of six weeks, the members of the mission visited Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Mitch was the most severe hurricane/heavy rain event to have affected the region in the last 200 years. The hurricane struck mainland Honduras on 29th October, moved in an arc south and west, leaving Guatemala on 1st November. Torrential rains devastated much of the region causing: river floods, landslides, the destruction of roads, bridges, housing, possessions, food supplies, animals, harvests and safe water supplies. Both rural and urban areas were affected.

The direct health effects of Mitch are shown in the figure below:

Twelve and 14.6% of health facilities in Nicaragua


and Honduras respectively were damaged.

Over a period of six months following hurricane Mitch, there was an increased incidence of acute upper respiratory infections, acute diarrhoea, malaria, leptospirosis, and leishmaniasis. There was also evidence of some rise in both chronic and acute malnutrition.

Food assisted operations

Phase I

WFP food operations started, in Nicaragua, in anticipation of the hurricane, on October 26th when the first food distribution took place. Within two days, WFP were co-ordinating the management of airlifted materials on behalf of a number of agencies. In this first phase, the WFP policy was to provide food for all who appeared to be in need. WFP country directors in Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala, the most severely affected countries, were able to do so through IRA (Immediate Response Account) funds.

Phase II

Government estimates of food and other needs were used in the preparation of the emergency operation programme appeal - EMOP 6079 , which was devised as a regional response to provide a full 2,100 kcal emergency ration to compensate for loss of food, crops and earning opportunities. WFP provided food for 600,000 hurricane victims in Honduras; 400,000 in Nicaragua; 65,000 in Guatemala and 60,000 in El Salvador. This aid was targeted to the most severely affected provinces. Although the Regional Programme proposal did not specify a transition to food-for-work, this became the aim in each of the countries, and was incorporated in Letters of Understanding with governments.

Main Findings of Review:

Preparedness and Immediate Response

One factor which allowed WFP to respond immediately to the emergency was the existence of some 14,000 MT of WFP food in the region which could be borrowed from development project food stocks by country offices for use in the emergency programme. However, this did cause problems e.g. although loans of food were being re-paid in El Salvador by May 1999, the development programme was still owed 385 mt of rice, 69 mt of pulses and 61 mt of canned fish at the time of the evaluation. A regional emergency operation, modified to meet the needs of each country, proved to be an effective modus operandi for WFP. There were many benefits, e.g. decision making by a regional director and team with close personal knowledge of sites, situations, people, problems, opportunities and threats; economies of scale in purchase of equipment; the possibility of easy exchanges of personnel and resources and ideas on good practice within the region; possibilities of regional procurement; the regional bank account allowing rapid purchases and transfers.

Nutritional Quality of Food Aid

Food aid was provided for vulnerable groups, those in shelters and through FFW. The rations provided were in the main culturally acceptable, although there was some unfamiliarity with certain commodities such as tinned fish. Specific groups such as the Misquitos on the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua, were unfamiliar with maize, CSB and split peas. Attempts were made by WFP, for example using nutrition students in Guatemala, to teach beneficiaries how to use unfamiliar foods. The calorific value of the ration was adequate.

Complementary Interventions

The country offices collaborated with partner organisations such as the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent to arrange safe water supplies, construct latrines and provide health services both in shelters and as part of FFW housing projects. WFP provided food for shelters and FFW projects.

Local Purchases

All country offices were in favour of local purchases as a means of assisting the recovery of local production but some purchases fell through as sellers inflated prices. In addition there were practical difficulties because local prices tend to be higher than world market standards and the effect of local requests was to bid them up further.

Internal Transport Storage and Handling (ITSH) and Direct Support Costs (DSC)

Both ITSH and DSC caused problems. Donors were willing to support ITSH for the emergency operation at a rate of $70 per MT. In reality the true costs varied greatly so that deliveries to inaccessible areas such as the Atlantic coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua incurred in some cases costs of over $250 per MT (due to mixed mode transport and very small loads). In addition, these inaccessible areas were unattractive as working environments, so that it was often necessary to encourage implementing partners through repaying all the ITSH costs. There was confusion among some partners over which costs were allowable (port charges, transport hire, warehousing costs for example) and which were not (such as costs of travel, monitoring and evaluation and office costs).

Donors were even less willing to support DSC, and only about half of the appropriate DSC was provided. This most severely affected purchase of non-food items with the result that very few tools were provided. As a consequence, in some FFW schemes the emphasis was placed on activities that did not require this type of input, for example, cleaning and clearance.

Food for Work Activities

FFW became the normal mode for distribution of food aid within four months and was being actively developed in all countries from January. FFW was welcomed and requested by central governments, local governments, implementing partners and individuals. More than fifty main agencies, including UN, governmental, international NGOs and local NGOs, supervised a wide range of FFW activities. 'Flexible' FFW was used in Nicaragua as a method to enable the participation of those, particularly women, who had competing commitments like child care and food preparation.

Many communities undertook house repair or house building as FFW. The mission noted, however, that there were large differences in the quality of housing provided, depending largely on the partner agencies managing the projects.


There were significant advantages in working through regional offices. Stand-by arrangements and rapid deployment of available resources and staff by WFP contributed to its effective response. Although the value of in-country food stocks in the acute emergency phase was reconfirmed, a solution is needed for the problem of rapid repayment so as not to jeopardise development projects. Moreover, the borrowing of food stocks from development projects, which did not have earmarked ITSH funds in three of the affected countries, created problems in the use of these resources during the emergency programmes. The level of funds for covering Direct Support Costs was significantly too low, causing constraints in the implementation of Regional EMOP 6079. Donors should be urged, as is agreed in principle, to provide full Direct Support Costs. Field visits for donors can be very effective in ensuring continued, informed, support for WFP operations.

Regional EMOP 6079 has involved one of the largest ever implementation of FFW in the three months following a natural disaster. WFP and partners should agree on a protocol for determining acceptable standards in housing developments and other FFW investments. WFP has leverage and a moral duty to do so, because it supports these investments through FFW. The timely provision of emergency food aid constituted a valuable contribution to maintaining social stability in the aftermath of hurricane Mitch.

Show footnotes

*Evaluation of Central America EMOP 6079 - Emergency Food Assistance to Households Affected by Hurricane Mitch, WFP (2000) For further information contact <>

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Reference this page

Emergency Food Assistance Following Hurricane Mitch: an Evaluation of the WFP response. Field Exchange 9, March 2000. p17.



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