IFPRI and WFP: Rethinking Food Aid to Reach the Poor

In the mid-2000s, as the World Food Programme (WFP) shifted its focus from strengthening food aid distribution in Bangladesh toward the dissemination various types of transfers, especially cash transfers, and their impact, it partnered with IFPRI to evaluate which type of transfer—cash, food, or a combination—is most effective in putting food on the table for the poor. IFPRI examined four of Bangladesh’s largest social protection programs, which together covered more than 830,000 beneficiaries with 3.7 million family members. IFPRI found that cash transfers were preferred by the ultra-poor, had virtually no delivery cost, and increased women’s empowerment.

In the midst of an international debate over whether food or cash transfers were more effective in reaching the poor, WFP and IFPRI presented valuable evidence to inform “subsequent action on the important issue of how to reduce extreme poverty in Bangladesh,” according to the UK Department for International Development. In 2007, IFPRI’s findings and recommendations were used by the government of Bangladesh to formulate policies and strategies for its 2009 Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). The 2009 PRS placed great emphasis on expansion of social protection programs for the ultra-poor, including approaches targeted toward employment generation.

Ever innovating, WFP sought to identify how food, cash, and vouchers could further improve livelihoods in countries beyond Bangladesh. So IFPRI conducted the first rigorous evaluation of cash, food, and voucher transfers using an experimental design to assess impact. It looked at four WFP pilot projects in Ecuador, Niger, Uganda, and Yemen to understand the impact of the different transfers on dietary patterns, human capital, domestic violence, and marriage. IFPRI’s research results showed that the effectiveness of each transfer modality depends heavily on contextual factors such as severity of food insecurity. It also pointed out the need to balance increasing not only the quantity of food available but the nutritional quality of diet. Three out of four pilot projects (Ecuador, Uganda, and Yemen) saw a relatively larger improvement in dietary diversity through cash transfers whereas food transfers had a larger impact on dietary diversity in Niger.

WFP drew on IFPRI’s evaluation, supported by the IFPRI-led CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM), to rethink and redefine its programming and strategic plans. Since 2008, WFP has increased the use of cash and vouchers significantly, crediting IFPRI with providing the evidence needed to argue more rigorously and convincingly for a needs-based, context-specific approach to selection of transfer modalities. In Ecuador, WFP is now providing electronic cards and credits to vulnerable families with young children, conditional on attending monthly nutrition training. In addition, IFPRI’s research findings had operational impact on WFP activities in Ecuador. WFP shifted resources away from food transfers to increase its capacity to administer cash and voucher transfers. IFPRI’s research on cash, food, and voucher transfers provided evidence that WFP used to improve its programs for reducing food insecurity and improving the well-being of vulnerable people around the world.