Boot camp usually conjures up images of new military recruits being subjected to fiery drill sergeants, endless marching, agonizing calisthenics, and weapons training -- remember Bill Murray’s character in the film Stripes? Preparing soldiers for combat is important for national security. Boot camp at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of Food for Peace also trains officers in security -- but in this case it is food security: making sure people have enough nutritious food to survive. I recently had the opportunity to attend a Food for Peace Boot Camp in Zimbabwe where, as a complement to my policy background, I learned how decisions are made on whether to send U.S. assistance to countries suffering from acute hunger.
Food for Peace has been an essential aspect of the U.S. government’s efforts to combat hunger and malnutrition overseas since the 1950s. As the largest food assistance donor in the world, last year Food for Peace delivered nearly $2 billion worth of food to approximately 45 million beneficiaries in more than 50 countries. Food for Peace Officers, posted in U.S. missions around the globe, are USAID’s eyes and ears on the ground, monitoring food security in their duty station countries, and making recommendations to Washington decision-makers on whether food assistance is necessary. This is where boot camp comes in.
Military boot camp involves tough lessons on discipline. Food for Peace Boot Camp is interdisciplinary because food security depends on numerous interrelated variables. Boot Camp attendees spend classroom time discussing a wide range of topics such as nutrition, economics -- including price signals, elasticity, shocks to supply, food supply chains, and market analysis -- as well as agriculture, crops, and livestock. Since Food for Peace responds to humanitarian emergencies, including natural disasters such as flooding, drought, or earthquakes, and man-made situations such as conflict, an important part of boot camp is learning the art of rapid food security assessments. Once armed with this knowledge, Food for Peace Boot Camp recruits get out there and do it.
Crises most severely affect people who are already vulnerable due to poverty. In an international emergency, boot camp recruits learn how to perform hunger assessments to determine whether a situation requires a U.S. response. An important take-away from boot camp was: the occurrence of a shock affecting food security does not automatically translate to U.S. assistance. Boot Camp recruits are taught who to talk to, the right questions to ask, and how to use the power of observation to gauge if what they are being told reflects reality. This often entails long journeys to remote rural areas to reach the most vulnerable and do household interviews, speak to local leaders and collect observations. At boot camp we also delved into selecting the best U.S. food assistance response mechanism -- food aid, cash,or vouchers -- to implement according to the circumstances.
Boot camp teaches Food for Peace officers to “triangulate” (boot camp lingo for checking whether data collected from various sources, all point to a similar conclusion) information from the various data sources and their observations from field visits. Once they have collected sufficient information, Food for Peace Officers are ready to report their key findings and make recommendations to Washington.
Food for Peace’s mission to save lives and alleviate suffering is best achieved by reaching the right people with the right type of food assistance in a timely and cost-effective manner. Boot camp arms Food for Peace Officers with the knowledge and on-the-ground experience to make this happen. Back in my office working on policy of one of USAID’s largest humanitarian partners, I will always remember my boot camp experience -- thankfully no pushups or marching, but getting out there to see firsthand what goes into decisions to send U.S. food assistance.
Some observers have noted that food secure people are less inclined toward conflict, which makes Food for Peace Boot Camp about national security too.
About the Author: Elizabeth Petrovski serves as Financial and Oversight Program Specialist for USAID at the U.S. Mission to the UN Agencies in Rome.