Myanmar must do more to help its hungry millions, says WFP

BANGKOK - A senior United Nations official today urged the Myanmar government to review and reform policies that impede humanitarian efforts to combat growing hunger and poverty.

"Our operations have expanded over the past two years, and we must do more. But Myanmar's severe and wide-ranging hunger issues cannot be solved without fundamental changes that promote the socioeconomic well-being of the population, which is the preserve of the government," James Morris, Executive Director of the World Food Programme said in Bangkok.

He was speaking after a four-day mission to Myanmar that included visits to WFP hunger alleviation projects in central Magway Division and meetings with Prime Minister Soe Win, representatives of the opposition National League for Democracy and leaders of minority ethnic groups.

"The humanitarian issues are serious, and getting worse. I made very clear that the primary responsibility for making things better rests squarely with the government," Morris said.

He called for a significant relaxation of controls on the procurement and distribution of food commodities, including aid, and on access to them for the most vulnerable, not least in hard-hit, ethnic minority border areas.

"Current agricultural and marketing policies, and restrictions on the movement of people, make it very difficult for many of those at risk to merely subsist," Morris said.

One out of every three young children in Myanmar is chronically malnourished, or physically stunted, and 15 per cent of the population of 53 million is food-insecure.

The UN agency seeks to assist 760,000 of Myanmar's most vulnerable, including poverty-stricken returned refugees from neigbouring Bangladesh, former opium poppy growers and their families, and an expanding population of HIV/AIDS sufferers.

Most of the assistance is provided via food-for-work, food-for-training and food-for-education projects that help recipients through a 5-7 month agricultural lean season and encourage self-reliance.

Morris said he was deeply saddened by the suffering he witnessed, including that of a 31-year old mother of two in Magway whose husband had died of AIDS. "She had so little, and was desperately worried about what would happen to her children."

WFP feeds 220,000 primary school children, dramatically increasing enrolment and attendance rates.

The agency also assists people affected by natural disasters, such as flooding and drought, and helped to feed 15,000 survivors of last December's Indian Ocean tsunami.

Morris also called for improvements in operating conditions for aid agencies, noting that bureaucratic, fiscal and other constraints hamper the timely local purchase and distribution of urgently needed food assistance, and the free movement of humanitarian workers.

"The ability to provide assistance when and where it is required and to assess needs are key humanitarian principles, and they need to be supported in Myanmar," he said. All those seeking to help, locals as well as foreigners, must be assured the freedoms and security they require to work effectively."

Morris urged the international community to step up support for the country's hungry poor. Midway through a two-year programme to support returnees and other vulnerable groups in North Rakhine State and Magway, the agency still needs to raise 40 per cent of the projected US$12 million cost.

Just 20 per cent of the US$8 million required for a 12-month operation to feed former opium poppy growers and their families in northeastern Shan State has been secured.

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency: each year, we give food to an average of 90 million poor people to meet their nutritional needs, including 56 million hungry children, in at least 80 of the world's poorest countries. WFP -- We Feed People..

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For more information please contact (email address:

Kenro Oshidari, Deputy Regional Director, WFP/Bangkok, Tel. +66-2-655 4115, Mob. +66-1-7019205

Gerald Bourke, WFP/Beijing, Tel..+86-1380 105 4051

Anthea Webb, WFP/Rome, Tel + 390-6 6513-2411, Mob. +39 340 8636509

Simon Pluess, WFP/Geneva, Tel +41-22-9178581. Mob. +41-79 77 43 821

Jennifer Parmelee, WFP/Washington, Tel +1-202-653 0010

Gregory Barrow, WFP/London, Tel.. +44-207 240 9001, Mob. +44-7968-008474

Kaoru Nemoto, WFP/Tokyo, Tel. 81-35-766 5364, +81-909 844 9990