Nepal is currently a food deficit country, and certain regions are plagued by extreme food scarcity and poverty with staggering statistics: 40 percent of the Nepali population is undernourished. In 2009-2010 the United Nations World Food Program (UN-WFP) plans to feed around 1.6 million people affected by food scarcity. SHARMINI WIJEYESEKERA sat down with director, RICHARD RAGAN, at his office in Patan Dhoka, to discuss the issues facing the country and the policies of WFP. Excerpts:
Nepal is currently a food deficit country. What are the problems preventing Nepal from overcoming this difficulty?
There are a lot of problems. Historically, the issue around food insecurity in the country has largely been access. People who live in really remote areas are dependent exclusively on what they produce. They’re living in an environment where they struggle to get access to markets, struggle to get access to anything because they are a minimum day-long walk from anything other than their village. Even in a period where Nepal produces enough food, which it does occasionally at a macro level, large sections of the country don’t have access to that food.
What’s the status of nutrition?
We’ve got chronic malnutrition rates in the mid and far west at higher than 60 percent. This means more than one in every other kid is chronic malnourished, which is staggering. And that’s largely a product of poor diet and lack of access to food.
How does malnutrition affect the population?
Chronic malnutrition is the most pervasive because if a child doesn’t get the right nutrients while developing, then they become mentally deficient, much more prone to illness, and are essentially compromised for their entire life.
What affect does climate change have on food production?
We know for a fact that people throughout this country are experiencing a dramatic decrease in snow fall levels. That’s a fact. And for farmers who depend on that as their water source to irrigate land, because up in the middle and higher hills there’s very limited irrigation, they’re in trouble. They’re not able to get water at the right time for their crops.
It sounds like there have been increasing obstacles that prevent people from getting enough food. How do all these problems affect your operations?
We’ve gotten quite big in the last few years. We were a 25 million dollar a year program and we’re now closer to 115 million dollars a year.
The WFP distributes most food through a food for work program. What is this program?
Most people think that we just give food away, but we don’t give food away. We use food as an entry point for development. It’s money, it’s a wage. We do food for work, we do food and cash for work and then we do give straight up cash transfers in some cases. The cash transfers are designed to stimulate the market in places where there is limited market access.
So you use development projects as a way to distribute food. How do you determine what development to do?
If the village development committee tells us they want an irrigation system then we bring in the technical expertise, we bring in the material and then we use food as the currency to pay people because they don’t have access to food. Food is actually more important to them than money because even if they have money there’s nowhere to buy food.
What kind of projects are you working on?
We do road construction work, village to market access, irrigation work, and we do post-harvest storage construction. We rebuild bridges that have been destroyed by the war; we rebuild buildings that have been destroyed by the conflict. We’re organizing farmers to support the production of cash crops like ayuervedic and aromatic herbs.
Part of your operations does include giving food away. When do you do this?
The only time we give food away is in the refugee camps, because we feed all the Bhutanese refugees, and when there’s a natural disaster. We’re still working in the East because of the Koshi floods.
What do you think the situation is like in Nepal?
My view is that people have been suffering silently here for a long time. People give all sorts of excuses for not intervening, ‘they’re too remote, they’re always hungry, they’re too difficult to work with, it’s too expensive to operate there.” Look at the response to the cholera epidemic in the far west: everybody’s saying it’s so difficult, its too hard. Of course. We’ve been working in these places for the past three years. I know how hard it is. And there’s nobody else working up there, quite frankly.
How have you been working with the government to distribute food?
Recently, we’ve increasingly shifted away from national implementation. Before I got here, school feeding, mother and child health care, road construction, infrastructure work and refugee help was all national implementation. Now we are doing the majority of what we do with NGOs.
I believe we need to move faster, I think this is a crisis. People are interested in a peace dividend. They want to see something tangible that makes their life better after a 10 year civil war.
You say that under nutrition and malnutrition is a big problem. What are you doing about it?
We’ve got a micronutrient program that we’re running with UNICEF. We have a mother and child heath care program in the mid and far west. We give mothers fortified foods and counsel them on proper diet for themselves and for their newborns. Once the newborns are born mothers can come in and we counsel the mothers, and if it looks like the child is not gaining sufficient nourishment then we provide food through MCHC.
Is there any danger of people becoming dependent on nutrients packets and being unable to find another source?
We’re trying to build people’s immunities, build their capacity to cope with things and at the same time teach them about proper diet. UN distributes micronutrients, but UNICEF also does training on what to eat. We’re not just going to give them nutrients and then back off. But it’s also important to target children who are in the under 3 and 3-5 age bracket because these are key development periods. If you mess up with a kid, you can’t reverse it.
There have been claims that WFP food is the cause of the recent diarrhea epidemic. What do you think of that claim?
It is medically and scientifically impossible to get diarrhea related disease from dried food. It can't happen no matter what you say. People have been eating this food for thousands of years for a reason. It’s resistant to that. People look around to blame others and the UN is an easy target because we're big and we feed over 2 million people in the country.
What would you say to people who make these claims?
It’s just not true, it’s crazy. And it’s dangerous. You distract attention from the real cause. You scare people who are dependent upon this food to survive. And you feed into the ignorance. People claim the villagers are ignorant but people who aren't in the village are also pretty ignorant for making these claims.
What are the real causes?
There’s been a lack of development, there’s been a drought, there’s not been enough food, so people’s bodies are not resistant and they don’t have strong immune systems.
How do the claims affect your work?
It slows you down. Now we'll have a long discussion about food quality and cholera but what we should be looking at is the winter drought. Also, 3,000 children have been dying every year in Nepal from diarrhea. Where is the concern and outrage over that? There needs to be a focus on the right to food, and the right to access that food.
Have you seen positive changes since you’ve been here?
I think we've saved people’s lives. When you watch a refugee get on an airplane to leave for resettlement and you realize that you've been keeping them alive for 17 years. I think we've improved lives. Given little girls the chance to go to school in places where they wouldn't otherwise.
Why did you choose to work for WFP?
I wanted to work for WFP because it’s tangible. I can measure whether at the end of the day we’ve done our job: people eat or they don’t eat. I think we’ve done a pretty good job, not only in Nepal but around the world, of keeping people alive and making sure their lives improve.
Courtesy: The Spotlight