WFP is the largest humanitarian organization providing emergency food assistance to people in need. In light of major crises with a strong urban dimension in the past decade, WFP has significantly expanded its capacity and operational footprint in urban areas.
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is the world’s largest humanitarian organization saving lives in emergencies and using food assistance to build a pathway to peace, stability and prosperity, for people recovering from conflict, disasters and the impact of climate change.
WFP does so by providing emergency food assistance, employing cutting-edge technology to alert about the risk of famine and determine the most appropriate response, and mobilizing its supply chain capabilities. It also works to prevent situations deteriorating into famine by strengthening education, nutrition, livelihood resilience and social protection systems such as school meals programmes.
WFP supports governments and other partners in building their capacity to manage disaster risk and improve food security, while investing in early warning and preparedness systems to climate and other threats. It helps countries mobilize donors, such as the Adaptation Fund and Green Climate Fund, to fund climate-resilience work.
WFP also helps governments to draft and implement policies that promote food security and nutrition objectives. These underpin nations’ capacity to withstand shocks and stress factors which limit the availability of food or constrain access to it. Food security and nutrition policies must be rooted in strong governance, responsive institutions and an enabling environment. It is usually handled at national level, however increasing attention is paid to the activities and capacities of local and regional governments.
How WFP approaches urbanization
Urbanization has a clear impact on the work of WFP. Several inter-related factors are driving up the number of people facing food insecurity and malnutrition in urban settings. These factors include a rise in urban poverty, the prevalence of urban inequality, and the land and nutrition transitions transforming rural-urban food systems.
A large proportion of the global urban population has limited opportunities, lacks access to basic services and has limited purchasing power, and therefore is more likely to be hungry or malnourished, and less able to manage risk and absorb shocks.
With poverty, inequality, and risks increasingly concentrating in cities, the burden of food insecurity and malnutrition is gradually shifting from rural to urban areas. WFP is adapting its efforts to meet urgent food and nutrition needs and build resilience in urban areas. The WFP Urban Strategy recognizes urban areas as a crucial operational context for WFP, and outlines a framework with key priorities, actions and programmatic shifts needed to achieve zero hunger in urban areas.
Engagement with cities and local governments
WFP’s capacity and operational footprint in urban areas have significantly expanded over the past decade in light of major crises with a strong urban dimension, such as the 2008 global food price crisis, the Syrian crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine, among others. Under its Urban Strategy, WFP has outlined key programmatic shifts needed to fast-track and strengthen its programmes, beginning with partnerships and the way WFP interacts with key actors in urban areas.
WFP aims to work more closely with local governments, including for identifying the most at-risk communities in urban areas and co-developing food and nutrition-sensitive plans and scenarios (i.e., contingency, and early warning). WFP is also seeking to align with and complement existing local government programs, plans, and projects (i.e., urban development, infrastructure, recovery and/or disaster risk management plans), to ensure that its programmes contribute to achieving more long-term outcomes.
Featured programmatic areas at the local level
- School-based programmes
WFP’s mission also covers thematic program areas, like assisting governments to ensure that all school-aged children have access to school meals and are healthy and ready to learn. School meal programmes are multisectoral game changers that improve children’s education, health and nutrition. More broadly, they support the whole local community by providing an important safety net, and by strengthening food systems and economies. WFP is also the secretariat of the government-led School Meals Coalition.
- Cash transfers
Cash transfer programmes have been at the frontline of national and local governments’ responses in supporting urban poor populations, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. When a disaster strikes, or conflict flares, money is often the first thing people need to buy food or pay for transport and temporary accommodation to get out of harm’s way. Integration with local government structures is critical to ensure an adequate understanding of context and needs.
- Social protection
WFP has a long history of supporting the design and delivery of nationally led social protection, providing technical advice and/or implementing programmes on governments’ behalf, including in urban areas. With vulnerable urban populations often excluded from safety nets – e.g., informal workers, displaced communities, and people living informal settlements – WFP offers expertise in designing adequate targeting, setting up registries, delivery mechanisms and recipient accountability mechanisms, and calculating transfer values, in connection with the WFP Strategy for Support to Social Protection.
- Resilience building
WFP works to empower urban communities through transformative skills and the provision of tools and kits for income-generating activities, including support for climate-smart urban agriculture and food processing enterprises. Due to limited employment opportunities and increasing inequalities in cities, WFP also develops digital skills of young people and links them to job markets.
- WFP Urban Strategy: Achieving Zero Hunger in an Urbanizing World
- Life amidst a Pandemic: Urban Livelihoods, Food Security and Nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods, food security & nutrition in East Africa – Urban focus
- Food security and diets in urban Asia: how resilient are food systems in times of COVID-19?
- The 2023 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) Report: Urbanization, Agrifood Systems Transformation and Healthy Diets across the Rural-Urban Continuum