WFP set to resume operations in North Korea
The deal, signed in Pyongyang on Wednesday May 10, paves the way for the launch of a two-year operation to combat nutritional deficiencies and boost grassroots food security, building on gains achieved during a decade of emergency assistance that ended last December.
"This is an important breakthrough. WFP and the DPRK have agreed on the terms of implementation for our new operation," Tony Banbury, WFP's Regional Director for Asia, said in Beijing following a two-day visit to the DPRK. "We have worked hard to reach this point, now we have signed the deal, and we can re-start our food aid operations immediately."
The UN agency's US$102 million plan requires 150,000 tonnes of commodities to support 1.9 million people, most of them women and children, until mid-2008. WFP has 12,000 tonnes of leftover stocks in-country, which will allow for prompt resumption of food distributions. However, those stocks will be exhausted in about two months, and fresh pledges of aid are needed quickly. "Now that we are beginning operations again, we are asking for contributions so that we'll have the food we need to help everyone we can reach," Banbury said.
The new operation was approved in February by WFP's Executive Board, made up of 36 governments. Once the project was approved, WFP entered discussions with the DPRK government on a Letter of Understanding specifying the implementation modalities of the project. The Letter of Understanding (LOU) was signed in Pyongyang May 10 by Banbury and by Ri Hong Sik, Secretary-General of the DPRK's National Coordinating Committee for WFP.
The relief operation will provide vitamin-and-mineral enriched foods processed at local factories to young children and pregnant and nursing women. Today, one of the local factories supported by WFP will begin production of rice-milk blend, a nutritionally enriched food, having been idle since November. Additionally, cereal rations will be provided to underemployed workers through food-for-community-development projects aimed at rehabilitating agricultural and other community infrastructure.
Food distributions are to be concentrated initially in 30 counties assessed by WFP to be among the most food-insecure. Banbury said the DPRK authorities were unwilling to accept a broader presence for the time being.
The agreement provides for ten resident WFP international staff overseeing the operation. Four of them will be full-time field workers, while others such as the Country Director, Deputy Country Director and Logistics Officer will regularly travel to the field. WFP staff will visit beneficiary hospitals, orphanages, nurseries, kindergartens, primary schools, Public Distribution Centres and food-for-work sites to assess the impact of assistance and the nutritional status of recipients.
"We have negotiated the best possible terms under the circumstances," Banbury said. "It's not everything we wanted, but it's a sound base to get started on again - and to build on. WFP will maintain our long-standing policy of "no access, no food". We have made that clear to the government, and it is reflected in the LOU."
"WFP will still reach more North Koreans and have better field access than any other aid agency in the DPRK. A continued presence will allow us to scale up the level of support, if that becomes necessary. In the end, we decided that it was better to stay in North Korea and help 1.9 million people under the new circumstances, than to walk away and leave behind people who really needed our assistance," said Banbury.
WFP ended ten years of emergency aid to the DPRK in December 2005 after the government, citing better harvests and domestic concerns about the emergence of a dependency culture and the intrusiveness of monitoring, declared it would in the future accept only assistance that addressed medium- and long-term needs.
Past WFP operations mobilised more than four million tons of food valued at US$1.7 billion, supported up to one-third of the population of 23 million, and contributed to a significant reduction in malnutrition rates.
Despite improved harvests and increased inflows of food from bilateral donors, the DPRK still faces a sizeable cereals deficit. Many North Koreans struggle to feed themselves on a diet critically deficient in protein, fats and micronutrients.
While malnutrition rates have fallen considerably since the late 1990s, they are still relatively high. The most recent large-scale survey, conducted in October 2004 by WFP, UNICEF and the government, found 37 percent of young children to be chronically malnourished, and one-third of mothers both malnourished and anaemic.
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