After contacting over 15 World Food Programme (WFP) country offices throughout Latin America and Africa seeking information on internship opportunities in summer 2004, I was put in touch with the head of the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) unit for WFP Zimbabwe. I was offered a position in March with a contract start date in late May. During the intervening months, I maintained close contact with my future supervisor in an effort to learn as much as possible about M&E and the food security situation in Zimbabwe before my arrival, hoping to thus enter the country with an established knowledge base, ready to begin work on substantive projects.

    When I landed in Harare, however, I was taken to the WFP country office where I was promptly informed that the security situation had deteriorated significantly during the last week and there was no longer a position for me. I was devastated—for practical as well as personal reasons: I had to complete the internship in order to graduate from my master's program. However, I had ended my internship search months earlier when informed that I had a position with WFP and therefore had no other leads.

    Desperate but determined, I asked my WFP supervisor to contact other WFP offices to try to locate a new internship opportunity elsewhere. Lesotho and Mozambique both responded that they had positions available. I was given ten minutes to decide; a flight reservation had to be made for the following morning. Having only limited knowledge of WFP operations in both countries, I quickly consulted staff familiar with both country programs.

    With little else to go and the aim of strengthening my Portuguese, I chose Mozambique. I arrived on June 1 and began work the next day in the M&E unit. Because of the sudden nature of my arrival, my new colleagues did not have time to prepare a work plan for me. I therefore had to create one for myself, a challenge I viewed as an opportunity.

    I quickly volunteered for various projects in the M&E unit and was able to contribute immediately, aided in my work by my previous study of M&E procedures.

    According to the 2004 UNDP Human Development Report (that takes into account development indicators such as infant mortality, adult literacy and life expectancy), Mozambique ranks 171 out of 177 countries. Because subsistence agriculture is the predominant form of livelihood for over 80 percent of the population, the country is particularly vulnerable to recurring natural disasters such as droughts, floods and hurricanes.

    Through the work of WFP and its cooperating partners, the level of chronic food insecurity in Mozambique has decreased dramatically since its peak of over one million people in 1999-2000 to 202,000 today. Despite this progress, Mozambique remains one of the four poorest countries on earth with a real GDP per capita of approximately $240, leaving 70 percent of the population below the international poverty line. Although the HIV/AIDS rate is roughly a third of neighboring countries, adult prevalence is currently 13.6 percent, contributing to a rapidly decreasing life expectancy, which currently stands at 39 years. Further complicating matters are the number of orphans, estimated at 1.6 million or roughly 10 percent of the population.

    The experience of working with WFP to meet these challenges exceeded my initial expectations in every respect. Because of the broad reach of the M&E unit across all of the country program's activities, I was able to witness the transformative power of food aid in the lives of the most vulnerable. And through the efforts of WFP, the story of Ida Gurrupelane and her family is being recreated across Mozambique. Ida was a widow of 57 when her six grandchildren arrived unannounced three years ago on the doorstep of her one room home in Bilanhande Sede in the central Mozambican province of Inhambane. The children brought nothing with them—except the clothes they were wearing and their empty stomachs.

    Her only son had died recently from AIDS and his two widows, faced with the prospect of raising six children on their own, chose to abandon them, leaving Ida as their sole caregiver. Illiterate and physically worn down from years of back-breaking agricultural labor and malnutrition, Ida was barely surviving on one meal a day herself and had no idea how she would provide for the children, let alone send them to school. The oldest child, seven-year-old Maria, had been attending primary school but she was forced to drop out in order to care for her brothers and sisters while Ida did whatever she could to feed the family.

    This misery continued for two and half years. It was clear to Ida that future plans would always be undermined by the immediate need to know where their next meal would come from. Going to school wasn't even a consideration for the children.

    However, in January 2003, all of Ida's long-forgotten hopes and dreams dramatically came back into focus—following the launch of a WFP emergency program in her village.

    To say that WFP food aid changed the lives of Ida and her family would be an understatement. Within a week of receiving their first food ration, all of the children were sent to school. And although Ida was still working, she was able to structure her day—ensuring that she would be home when the children finished school to provide them with the love, care and attention they so desperately needed.

    Around 70 percent of Mozambicans—like Ida and her grandchildren—live in rural areas. Most of them face a daunting combination of extreme poverty and chronic food insecurity, while also being very vulnerable to recurrent natural disasters. The spread of HIV/AIDS has only served to increase the vulnerability of households and whole communities.

    But WFP is helping tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people to improve their capacity to cope with shocks—be they hurricanes or droughts or the escalating impact of HIV/AIDS. Through programs such as School Feeding and Food-for-work, WFP is ensuring that households and communities have the chance of a brighter future. The WFP Community Safety Nets (CSN) strive to mitigate the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Through CSN programs, people living with HIV/AIDS are supplied with specially formulated food that will help them gain the strength to return to productive livelihoods. This enables them to better fight the disease and helps their families stay together and keep the children in school.

    For Ida and her six grandchildren, WFP's food aid has given them something to hope for—providing them with opportunities that were unimaginable only two years ago. "WFP provides much more than food," says Ida. "It gives us the chance to live a life that we never would have had."

    Aaron Skrocki is a candidate for a master's degree in public policy at the U-M. His internship was partially supported by an award from the II.