Afghanistan: Interview with WFP country director

KABUL, 11 February (IRIN) - One of the more crucial activities of the United Nations in Afghanistan remains food security. About 4.3 million rural people will be facing varying levels of food insecurity over the next year. In a comprehensive interview with IRIN in the Afghan capital, Kabul, the country director for the World Food Programme (WFP), Burkard Oberle took a look back over the past year, and outlined some of the challenges ahead.
QUESTION: How would you describe the current state of food security in the country?

ANSWER: Despite rainfall across parts of Afghanistan this year, much of the country still suffers from the results of a three-year drought. While the harvests have improved in the northern and western regions of the country, in the rain-fed agricultural belt, particularly areas relying on spring and underground water sources for irrigation, the country is still suffering due to depleted aquifers.

In the southern regions, the drought has entered a fourth year. Some limited rainfall - 24 mm in December, 16 mm in January - may now help to alleviate these problems though it is still too early to determine the extent.

An overall food deficit of 1.38 million mt was anticipated last summer in the rural areas, based on the joint FAO [Food and Agriculture Organisation]/WFP crop and food supply assessment. WFP's countrywide food security assessment estimated that over 4.3 million rural settled Afghans would lack sufficient resources to meet basic food needs in the period between the 2002 and 2003 summer harvests.

Winter snows have not been abundant, but there is hope that February will bring more. WFP managed to pre-position food for winter needs. Now we are looking to the post-winter period, worrying that sufficient resources will not be available for the critical post-winter/pre-harvest period. Over 47,000 mt of food was pre-positioned to cover the needs of those vulnerable people living in inaccessible areas.

Q: What are the immediate needs?

A: Meeting winter needs has been our priority, as well as addressing drought conditions in the south. Many of the winter needs have been met, but we are still discovering gaps. Community members themselves are coming to the office to request assistance. As a result, we have been mounting rapid emergency food needs assessments in conjunction with the government, notably the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development [MRRD], as well as the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan [UNAMA] and implementing partners.

In addition to these humanitarian needs, the government strongly encourages reconstruction efforts. WFP is engaged in the National Emergency Employment Programme (NEEP) with Food for Work (FFW), while other donors are providing cash-based labour-intensive employment opportunities. We still need food for FFW under the NEEP, as well as the National Solidarity Programme once it gets launched.

We are concerned that we will have a pipeline break in May-June, just when food is needed most in the pre-harvest period, if donors do not provide adequate resources.

Q: Which parts of the country are particularly vulnerable and why?

A: The south is currently our priority as long as the drought continues. As indicated in the Vulnerability Analysis Mapping [VAM] survey, the south has the greatest food insecurity. People only produce up to 50 percent of their food needs, and many produce much less, ranging from 0 percent to 50 percent.

The west, north and northeast regions are our priorities for monitoring the food security situation. People in these areas are only beginning to recover from a continued drought and years of conflict and warfare. Their livelihoods are extremely fragile, and they are very susceptible to any shock during this delicate state between initial recovery and long-term food security.

The eastern parts of the country also require close monitoring, due to the high influx of returnees into these areas. This is the most densely populated part of the country, and land-holdings are extremely small due to the steep topography in the area. Most food requirements are met through purchases, and populations living in these areas are reliant on available labour opportunities, either in Kabul or neighbouring Pakistan.

Under the Ogata Initiative, the Japanese Government has given WFP US $12.6 million for work in the Konduz, Mazar [-e Sharif], Jalalabad, and Kandahar areas. Particular attention will be given to resettling the IDPs [internally displaced persons] in areas where they can survive and have sustainable livelihoods.

The central highlands and Badakhshan are other areas that have high priority, due to chronic food insecurity, lack of services and lack of other income opportunities. Throughout the country, there are other pockets where WFP focuses its assistance. These pockets are predominantly areas where agricultural activities rely on spring and underground water sources for irrigation, particularly in the central highlands, Badakhshan and the east.

Q: Are there any parts of the country that are not receiving any food assistance at all?

A: WFP is not providing food in areas where markets exist and where cash is flowing, creating labour opportunities for poor people, or where production is sufficient to meet food needs.

For winter, WFP's Vulnerability Analysis Mapping Unit identified some 1.3 million vulnerable people living in rural areas usually inaccessible during the winter. To assist them through the winter, WFP pre-positioned nearly 50,000 mt of food beyond the passes blocked by snow. Furthermore, under its regular programme, WFP has continued to distribute food. This way we expect to cover the food needs of the most vulnerable in the most food-insecure areas of the country.

Moreover, WFP, in collaboration with government counterparts, other UN agencies and implementing partners, carries out periodic rapid assessment missions during the winter and throughout the spring to assess if the food needs of any particular areas have changed, and to verify any reports received of urgent food gaps. Examples include Ishkoshim District in Badakhshan, Zabol Province in the south, Narin and Jolgeh districts in the north where the earthquake took place last April, Borkeh District in the north, as well as assessments of the nomadic pastoralists such as [those in] Khosteppa in the north and Farah in the west.

Q: How would you describe donor response over the past year?

A: The current emergency operation [EMOP] ending on 31 March 2003 has been resourced at 83 percent or US $240,274,582. Twenty-three donors have responded to date. It is expected that the April-June requirements of the Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO) will be met from emergency operation resources that will still be available in stock. This is the good news. But it was not easy to reach this level.

Donors were exceptionally generous in the first few months of 2002, continuing to provide Afghanistan with an unprecedented volume of food. WFP's logistics capability was greatly enhanced to cope with the high monthly tonnage - over 60,000 mt per month, with a peak of 110,000 mt in December, despite impressive obstacles, such as residual fighting, heavy snows, mined roads and general insecurity.

But the pipeline ruptured in April, shortly after the beginning of the new EMOP, despite continued urgent needs for food assistance following the harsh winter and difficult pre-harvest period. It was not until July-August that commodities began arriving, in the midst of the harvest, an inappropriate time to distribute food. Beneficiaries were disenchanted, implementing partners lost confidence in WFP as a partner. This posed a serious challenge to WFP's ability to provide assistance. Due to sufficient resources during the second half of 2002 and beginning of 2003, WFP was largely able to carry out distributions as planned.

We hope that donors will be generous in order to sustain the reconstruction effort and help the most vulnerable people in the country. We will especially need resourcing at a critical period, just after winter, in April-June, to avoid the crisis of last year when there was a pipeline break at that time.

Q: What are your plans regarding relief and recovery?

A: In 2003-2005, under the PRRO, we plan to reach nine million people with 600,000 mt. Two-thirds [of this quantity] will go to recovery, one-third to relief. None of this assistance will be given in a vacuum. Government ministries will be partners in all food-aided activities through an intensive capacity-building process. Throughout the years to come, the government will increasingly take the lead in integrating WFP's assistance through action plans at the provincial level. Counterpart ministries have already been included in the assessment of food needs, through the annual VAM assessment and Rapid Emergency Food Needs Assessment, as well as the Area Office level Project Approval Committees.

About 4.3 million rural people were identified as needing assistance in 2003. These people will be assisted through food for work, with food rations of wheat, pulses, oil and iodised salt. These activities will be conducted in the most food insecure areas of the country, especially where people continue to be drought-affected. The very vulnerable in the same communities, who cannot work, will also be assisted.

Cash-based employment, according to the government, will be able to meet the needs of the other half of the rural poor, who live in areas with greater food availability.

WFP anticipates feeding over one million children with on-site snacks of biscuits manufactured in India from a generous contribution of one million tons of wheat, the largest donation ever made to WFP, and this from a non-traditional donor. As requested by the Ministry of Education, all teachers in the country will receive a take-home ration of oil to encourage existing teachers to return to the schools and to keep them there.

Groups which have missed their chance to learn new skills -- women, adolescent girls, ex-combatants, unemployed youth, and teachers -- will be supported with food rations while learning.

A joint WHO [World Health Organisation]/WFP de-worming campaign will be conducted in schools where intestinal worms are a problem.

WFP will assist returning refugees and IDPs with a package of 150 kg of wheat per family (average size six persons) to help families begin the reintegration process. Once arrived in a community, returnees will be given opportunities to participate in WFP's regular programmes, such as food for work, food for education, and food for training.

Those IDPs who remain in camps will be assisted with a mixed food basket until a strategy has been jointly developed to make their return home feasible. Camps will be phased out where it is possible to do so, as long as the IDPs can meet their economic needs in a politically safe environment where their rights are addressed. As they leave the camps, they will receive the returnee package.

WFP will work closely with the Ministry of Public Health, UNICEF [UN Children's Fund], and WHO to provide nutritionally fortified rations to needy patients, through supplementary feeding, and in institutions. Women will continue to provide "naan" bread, fortified with micronutrients, to vulnerable households in major urban areas through bakeries fully managed and operated by women, many themselves widows.

Under a Canadian-supported Food Plus Initiative, activities will be added or expanded for greater impact. Fortification through local mills and biscuit production through women's cooperative bakeries are two of the ideas being explored.

Q: The government of Afghanistan maintains that food assistance is not as great a priority as reconstruction and infrastructure right now. Do you agree?

A: Due to the drought, in the market year 2002/2003, domestic cereal production in Afghanistan barely covered 72 percent of the estimated total consumption. Total domestic supply - including commercial import capacity - only managed to cover 90.5 percent of the estimated total consumption.

Certain areas of the country, where there is little market access, will still need food assistance for a while longer, for relief support to the most vulnerable. These include returning IDPs and refugees, rural and urban households with no breadwinners, and malnourished women and children. Also, WFP will use food effectively to support reconstruction and recovery through education and Food for Work.

It is WFP's mandate to provide food to hungry people in ways that encourage not only self-sufficiency but also a sense of cohesion, especially when the family and community networks are threatened due to exhausted coping mechanisms. When the community becomes food-secure, they can devote time, attention and work to escaping the poverty trap.

Q: What are the advantages of food-for-work programmes over cash-for-work programmes?

A: Both food-for-work and cash-for-work programmes have proven effective in ending poverty and helping communities to rebuild lost assets. However, the government is encouraging cash for work, on the assumption that Afghanistan has reached a situation where cash can buy what people need and that cash will be forthcoming for cash-for-work programmes.

Food-for-work schemes, however, enable communities to meet their nutritional needs, and at the same time increase the family income, since food received frees money for the purchase of other necessities.

Moreover, many studies indicate that poor households view food-related incomes differently from cash incomes. If they receive food, the result is a direct increase in food consumption that tends to reduce the level of malnutrition and the subsequent negative effects. Food is useful where markets do not exist or where inflation makes cash less valuable.

For cash to be useful, there must be a nearby market where necessities like food can be purchased. Cash for work, too, can cause problems if conducted improperly. Cash-for-work can feed inflation, and it is vulnerable to corruption. Many experts agree that the best approach may be to adapt a mix of cash and food to local needs.

Q: What role do you see WFP playing in the future of Afghanistan?

A: As Afghanistan moves forward with plans for reconstruction, WFP will support it in areas where food aid is appropriate. This includes, among others, supporting people in remote areas especially in the central highlands and Badakhshan where chronic hunger exists, assisting school children countrywide, and helping the displaced. The Loya Jirga [Grand Council] elected a government focused on investing in the infrastructure of the country, as well as in the human capacity of Afghan women, men and children, so that all can have a better future. Food aid is one tool in this process. And it works.

In addition, on a quarterly basis, the MRRD and WFP will review the effectiveness and continued need for food aid in each sector and geographic area, as well as measuring the impact of the assistance. WFP's ability to measure the impact of food assistance will be enhanced with an anticipated grant from DFID [the UK's Department for International Development] to strengthen linkages between assessment, programming and monitoring. WFP's own creation of a results-based management unit in HQ will provide additional guidance and support.

The greatest challenge may still be security. Without continued improvement in the security situation across the country, WFP will be confined to assisting only to save lives when the needs now are for recovery and development.

Afghanistan has made tremendous strides in the past year, but it still has urgent remaining humanitarian and recovery needs, which food aid can help to address.


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