Cambodia: Using food aid creatively in highland communities

News and Press Release
Originally published
Just six months ago, Mahoing Savoeun, a father of four with another child on the way, was ill and near death in his dilapidated home in the upland province of Mondulkiri in eastern Cambodia. Through its village-level contacts, Cambodia Family Development Services (CFDS), which works with vulnerable Phnong highland people, found Savoeun and, utilizing emergency food assistance provided by the UN World Food Program (WFP), provided the food and medical care to nurse him back to health. In the process, they helped his family organize the complete reconstruction of their thatch house, which now provides much better protection from the rain and cool temperatures that prevail in the highlands. In December, meeting a visitor from Refugees International, Savoeun and his wife, Charen Sron, proudly displayed their new baby in front of their rehabilitated home. CFDS's timely intervention had saved his life.
The partnership between RI, CFDS, and WFP has resulted in effective strategies for the use of emergency food assistance in Mondulkiri. As Savoeun's case illustrates, this assistance is vital for vulnerable Phnong families who struggle to feed themselves through shifting cultivation of highland rice and the gathering and sale of forest products. The challenge is to utilize the emergency support in ways that promote long-term independence and self-sufficiency. CFDS, a local NGO, has taken up this challenge with funding from RI.

WFP's standard approach in poor communities with chronic food deficits is to support food for work projects. In Cambodia, these projects are carried out in collaboration with the community, local NGOs, and the Royal Government's Provincial Departments of Rural Development. Food for work projects tend to focus on the creation or rehabilitation of public infrastructure, including schools, roads, bridges, small-scale irrigation works, and wells. Poorer members of the community participate in group labor on these projects, and are paid a daily wage in food for the duration of the project.

WFP is very careful to target their food for work support to the poorest communities, and the agency's "poverty maps" are the definitive overall resource on vulnerability in many countries where it works. But while the food assistance reaches people in need, there are some inherent difficulties with the basic approach. There is a tendency for the projects to be make-work ones, with only limited impact on the root causes of chronic poverty and food deficits. Post-project maintenance can be problematic, especially without on-going involvement by an NGO or community organization. Even if the projects are well designed and maintained, the poorest members of the community are often in the least advantageous position to benefit from them. Few poor peasants have access to irrigated land, for example, and they may not be able to afford to send their children to the newly rehabilitated school.

These difficulties are magnified in Mondulkiri, a highland province populated primarily by ethnic minority peoples. The Phnong live in dispersed villages, and spend a good part of the year in the forest hunting and gathering forest products. They practice shifting cultivation. While buffalo are prized as a critical economic and cultural asset, the Phnong do not use ox carts and travel primarily along paths on foot.

In this context, the standard food for work menu --- roads, bridges, schools, small-scale irrigation --- is largely irrelevant to Phnong needs. Through sheer inertia, however, and as a consequence of the limited staff capacity of the Mondulkiri Department of Rural Development, a portion of the WFP food provided for the province has been used for precisely these types of projects. But CFDS has begun a process of re-orienting the food for work program in Mondulkiri in interesting and creative ways.

CFDS staff start from the premise that the food assistance should contribute in some way to building the long-term asset base of the family and community. They also start with a good understanding of Phnong culture, and try to devise approaches that work within the highland context. CFDS originated as a social welfare agency using a casework approach, and the staff have taken the time to devise individual plans with some of the poorest families in the communities where they are working.

At the individual family level, CFDS has encouraged the use of food aid to fund housing repair. While housing is not itself a productive asset, the rationale is that better quality housing prevents exposure to the elements (rain throughout a good portion of the year and cool night-time temperatures in the early dry season), exposure that in turn leads to health problems. So food aid is exchanged for housing materials and used to pay local laborers to replace a roof or strengthen the walls of the family home. Other non-productive but important uses of food assistance at the household level have been for the purchase of medicines and for debt repayment.

The most important productive use of food aid has been to fund land clearing for individual or groups of families and the purchase of seeds, tools, and fencing materials. Phnong families are starting to cultivate vegetable gardens close to their homes, but quality fencing is critical to protect the crops from wild animals. Food assistance has also been used to purchase chickens and pigs for animal husbandry projects.

CFDS is tying this work to a process of building community organizations that will be able to carry out joint projects. In the future, food assistance might be used as part of revolving loan scheme to support local businesses, such as traditional weaving or larger animal husbandry projects.

WFP is in the process of deciding whether to provide further food assistance to Mondulkiri in 2003. RI has written to WFP's Country Director expressing strong support for maintaining this program because Phnong communities remain vulnerable to food deficits and because CFDS is an ideal partner to increase the effectiveness and impact of WFP's food for work activities in the province. Maintaining this program, which requires a tiny contribution of 300 metric tons in a world of massive and severe food shortages, would allow CFDS to build on its early success in re-orienting food assistance to vulnerable Phnong.

Refugees International therefore recommends that:

  • WFP maintain its program of food assistance to Mondulkiri in 2003.

  • WFP and donors to food for work projects tailor such projects to respond to the economic, social, and cultural environment of the community.
Joel R. Charny, RI's Vice-President for Policy, conducted an assessment mission to Cambodia in December 2002.


Joel R. Charny or 202.828.0110

1705 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
202.828.0819 fax