‘WFP couldn’t distribute food in Rakhine since mid-July’

Mizanur Rahman Khan | Update:

The World Food Programme (WFP) had to suspend food distribution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in the middle of July, much before the reported outbreak of violence since 25 August that led thousands of Rohingya Muslims to flee their motherland and take shelter in Bangladesh.

WFP spokesperson Ms Frances Kennedy, in an interview with Prothom Alo, also said that the UN body was unable to conduct its regular food distributions in central Rakhine last week as well. She could not say much about when the food distribution would resume on the Myanmar side, other than to express hope that the humanitarian operations in Rakhine would resume in the coming days.

Frances Kennedy,  a New Zealander, is now the communications officer at WFP headquarters in Rome, Italy, . After graduating and training as a journalist, she worked in various countries including Australia, France and England before settling in Italy where she was a foreign correspondent for many years, mainly for the BBC radio and British newspapers. She has been working for the UN agency since 2010.

Prothom Alo interviewed her by email on 7 September, following this author’s interview of her on 16 July in Rome.

In the interview, Frances indicated that the situation in northern Rakhaine has been going from bad to worse since mid-July when the WFP was compelled to stop the food distribution.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report said they had obtained satellite images showing widespread burning <https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/09/02/burma-satellite-images-show-massive-fire-destruction> of Rohingya villages, while the Myanmar authorities claimed ''militants and Rohingya villagers'' have burned 6,845 houses across 60 villages in northern Rakhine state. However, Frances did not elaborate on that. The Myanmar authorities blamed the WFP for distributing food among what they called  Bangladeshi fighters.

The text of Prothom Alo’s interview with the WFP official is as follows:

Prothom Alo:  You’ve mentioned earlier that the ``WFP’s operations to support Rohingya refugees in camps and makeshift sites require about US$23 million per year. The organisation still has to mobilise a total of US$14 million over the next 12 months.''

Frances Kennedy: This figure was valid when I provided it to you on 16 July. Six weeks on, the situation on the ground has changed considerably and obviously funding needs also vary over time depending on donations and other factors.

Prothom Alo: Would you confirm that your above mentioned account includes the Rohingya people who are living in Bangladesh only?

Frances Kennedy:  Yes.

Prothom Alo: Now your press release (dated 6 September)  has mentioned that the WFP needs US$11.3 million to support the new influx of people arriving.

Frances Kennedy: This is a very fast moving situation. As of yesterday, as per our news release, the WFP estimated it needed US$11.3 million to support the new influx of people arriving while continuing to support those to whom it was already providing food assistance.  However, today (7 September), as UN estimates of the flow of people are being revised upwards - possibly as high as 300,000 people - the WFP has revised its figures accordingly. So we now urgently need US$13.3 million. This figure is to support the new arrivals, plus a further 106,000 people who were already living in camps

Prothom Alo: Does this cover the number of people (new influx) who have been arriving in Bangladesh since last week?

Frances Kennedy: Yes, plus the ones we were already assisting in the area.

Prothom Alo: Did you get any fresh response from the donors (like Turkey, Indonesia or any other Muslim countries) to meet your earlier US$14 million need?

Frances Kennedy: I can’t provide that detailed donor information at the moment. However, the Danish minister for development cooperation approved a contribution of DKK 20 million to WFP to support the relief efforts for newly-arrived people coming to Bangladesh from Myanmar.

Prothom Alo: Many believe here in Dhaka that the suspension of food supplies in Arakan may provoke some of the Rohingyas to leave their home and take shelter in Bangladesh.

Frances Kennedy: The WFP is currently unable to distribute food in Rakhine state. The UN is in constant and close contact with the Myanmar authorities, seeking to ensure that humanitarian operations can resume as soon as possible.

Prothom Alo: When  could it be resumed?

Frances Kennedy: The WFP has not been able to distribute food in a number of locations in northern Rakhine since mid-July, and was unable to conduct its regular food distributions in central Rakhine last week. The WFP hopes to resume distributions in IDP camps in central Rakhine in the coming days.

Prothom Alo: Some argue that the donors, specially the USA, are significantly reluctant to provide adequate funding to feed the Rohingya refugees.

Frances Kennedy: WFP is grateful to all donors for their support.

Prothom Alo: Why is the WFP programme and assistance  going down day by day?

Frances Kennedy:  Last year the WFP provided food assistance to 82.2 million people in more than 80 countries. We are facing ever growing humanitarian needs - largely driven by conflict and a changing climate. Around 108 million people in the world were severely food insecure in 2016, a dramatic increase compared to 80 million in 2015, according to the Global Report on Food Crises 2017.

Even with a record funding of US$ 5.8 billion in 2016, overlapping crises - conflict, drought and a record numbers of refugees and displaced people - meant we had our work cut out. In some operations, a lack of funding at the right time meant we had to reduce the amount of food we provided to people or the amount of people receiving food, prioritising the most vulnerable.

The WFP continues a trend towards giving people cash to buy their own food. Cash offers greater choice and access to a more diversified diet and stimulates local trade and services. Last year saw WFP acting as the largest cash provider in the humanitarian community. Some 14 million people received cash or vouchers from WFP in 2016 with a monetary value of US$880 million. Cash benefits increasingly take the form of mobile phone credit, e-cards or electronic vouchers.

At the same time, as part of the efforts to reach ‘Zero Hunger’ (SDG2), the WFP is transforming its role in many countries that are now classified as lower middle income or middle income countries. For example, while the WFP has implemented school meals in many countries over 50 years, we are increasingly moving towards an advisory and technical role - helping governments to get their own national school meal programmes running in a sustainable way.

Prothom Alo: McGovern-Dole funding for school feeding was supposed to end in August 2017. What could happen after that? Will it continue?

Frances Kennedy: Since it started in 2003 the McGovern-Dole programme has been fundamental in ensuring that hundreds of thousands of children have been able to grow and learn, thanks to a daily meal at school. This funding is typically awarded in cycles lasting three to five years, with the potential of reaching up to 10 years of support. This funding enables the WFP to design long-term school meal programmes with a clear end goal of handover to the government  and sustainability. Despite initial indications from the office of the US president that the programme might be cut, as the US budgetary process proceeds we are seeing encouraging signs. The agricultural appropriations committee in the US Congress has proposed funding of $185 million dollars for the programme for the upcoming year. McGovern-Dole has enjoyed broad cross-party political support in the US, which we hope will continue.

Prothom Alo: WFP chief of staff James Harvey said in an interview  last year that Bangladesh is graduating to a middle-income country and developing fast, but it needs to address the remaining challenges of under-nutrition. How do you evaluate the South Asian nations’ (Bangladesh in particular) quest for addressing the ''challenges'' from a headquarters perspective?

Frances Kennedy:  Bangladesh has made tremendous progress in reducing poverty and hunger in the past decades. Under-nutrition is a complex problem with many facets that needs a cross-sectoral approach in order to be tackled. The WFP is committed to working with the government of Bangladesh to help address this issue.

Prothom Alo: Thank you

Frances Kennedy: Thank you.

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