WFP Press briefing: change in the food distribution strategy and reports of malnutrition in East Timor

WFP Briefing
These are near verbatim excerpts from a press briefing by Kerren Hedlund of WFP on the change in the food distribution strategy and reports of malnutrition in East Timor.

Dili 28 January 2000

Good morning. (Initially), just a brief introduction to WFP activities since we arrived in the country on the 23rd of September.

Immediately after arriving we began airdrops to the population that was hidden in the mountains, and whom we could not access. The soon access was made available to us with the support of INTERFET of course, guaranteeing security and actually accompanying convoys to the returning population and increased logistical capacity. We were able to quickly increase our coverage of food aid distribution in October and in November reached almost a population of 600.000 in November alone.

Since then we have been planning and continuing of course, distribution to up to 400.000 persons in East Timor.

WFP, ICRC and Care are going to share the responsibility for meeting the needs of these people, WFP meeting the needs of 75% of that population.

We originally estimated that our operation would increase as it has over time, given increase in logistical capacity, and then gradually taper off towards March and April in an effort to not provide disincentive to agricultural production, given the maize harvest is now impending. And also encourage market activity, because that is the way that East Timorese are going to be eventually self sufficient in food.

Amount of Food Distributed and Coverage

Up until now we have distributed more than 11,300 metric tonnes of food. Our original operation was for 25 000 metric tonnes of food and at the moment we have approximately 6, 700 metric tonnes of food in the country. The remaining pipeline will be arriving in late February/March to get us through to the end of April. Then we will reassess further the long-term needs of the country.

In November we were able to reach approximately 600,000 people which at that time was more than 90% of population. There were most definitely that we were not able to reach, more often because of logistics capacity. We are meeting the needs of those areas now.

Reasons for Change in Food Distribution

There are several reasons for going from general food distribution to targeted groups feeding and food for work. The first and foremost being our concern that keeping general food distribution will create food aid dependency and it would be a disincentive to either a food market or agricultural and production in this country.

Targeted group feeding targets those people who either have no access to food due to a lack of money, or they live in areas where there is no availability of food, which may be the case in hinterlands. In all areas, instead of blanket distribution we will do vulnerable group feeding and "food for work" program.

Vulnerability of Areas

We base our assessments on levels of destruction that implies some level of destruction of livelihood, wherein people cannot feed themselves like they used to. So, if you look geographically at the levels of destruction you find that the west, Covalima, Bobonaro, parts of Dili, Liquica were to a greater extent destroyed by the militia and TNI military.

Whereas, the east, Baucau, Lautem and Viqueque - in fact Viqueque is a rice surplus area and we have been almost exporting rice seed from that area to be distributed in the rest of the country -, those areas were less affected, and as a result people are able to manage better. Given levels of destruction and the lack of market activity, given the late return of refugees who were unable to plant in time to make the maize harvest, we are taking all these things into consideration when assessing vulnerability of an area.

Malnutrition (in response to a question on reports of malnutrition-related deaths)

This is an alarming concern not only of food agencies but also of health agencies that are also concerned about malnutrition. As you are probably well aware, the lack of food is not synonymous with malnutrition, lack of food might not be the reason for malnutrition. It can be a lack of access to healthcare or just care in general, whether it is the mother's weaning practises of a child, whether it is recognition of signs of malnutrition, whether it is, as identified by ICRC, what we call a "late health-seeking behaviour" - an ongoing sickness prior to seeking medical help.

Usually, as a result of these reports, we immediately go into the area within two or three days. Particularly when a report might be about starvation due to lack of food. Usually we go ourselves, WFP; we have a nutritionist on our staff, and our implementing partner, which is usually an NGO that facilitates distribution on the ground. Sometimes, they have a better sense of what is happening on the ground.

In four out of five cases we have found that it was not actually a problem of lack of food. Deaths were probably due to either normal mortality of 70 or 65 year-olds, which is quite old age in East Timor. There was one case where there may have been malnutrition-related illness.

That is the case of Lasaun in Ermera, which is an area historically prone to malnutrition, because of a number of reasons. This goes back to geographic vulnerability. They get cut off in the wet season. They are a community that relies on cash crops as opposed to food crops; their main product is coffee. There is particularly high women illiteracy rate, translated it means it affects caring practises of their children. It is 73% in Ermera, which is higher than the national average that is around 63%.

When we went there we found out that out of 30 deaths, 29 were children, and that 28 of these children had recently come back from Atambua. These children had experienced ongoing symptoms of diarrhoea, vomiting and stomachaches. The local nurse gave her opinion that deaths had been due to malaria, TB and diarrhoea. And when the locals explained the deaths to us they never once mentioned the lack of food. But we know that a lack of food or malnutritive state might be, one might be more prone to illness or might not be able to battle illness as well. Further missions will be sent to the area by Action against Hunger, which is a health specialist NGO and us to get at the root of the problem and design effective solutions.