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3-Food: Interview with WFP Southern Africa Regional Director

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TITLE:  Interview with WFP regional director Judith Lewis
SOURCE: UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
DATE:   July 3, 2002

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  "Hungry people don't have politics. So we're very strict. The NGOs that 
   we work with go through an extensive training and we train them in our
   criteria in how we decide who's poor and how these people qualify. We
   take a long, long time and we've been very meticulous in trying to
   articulate this and then gone to the local level to make sure they
                                      WFP regional director Judith Lewis

Interview with WFP regional director Judith Lewis

JOHANNESBURG, 3 Jul 2002 (IRIN) - The World Food Programme on Monday said 
it needed US $507 million to fund close to one million mt of food for 10.2 
million people in six countries in Southern Africa until the next main 
harvest in March 2003.

Recent country assessments in Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho 
and Swaziland have shown that 12.8 million people are in need of food aid 
and a recent Angolan assessment has added another 1.4 million people. The 
situation in Namibia is still being analysed.

IRIN spoke to Judith Lewis, World Food Programme (WFP) Regional Director 
for East and Southern Africa, about the WFP's work. She commented on 
allegations over the politicisation of food aid in Zimbabwe, the role 
regional governments need to play to assist relief deliveries, and the 
danger of the situation deteriorating.

Question: Is there a deadline for the appeal to be most effective?

Answer: We think that we have to have food pre-positioned before the rainy 
season [which begins in October in most Southern African countries] because 
so many of these people live in very remote areas and they are going to be 
cut off and then the only option would be to go to more expensive 
airdropping and those types of delivery mechanisms. Our strategy is that we 
should have one month's stock in-country, two months' stock prepositioned 
and one month coming on the high seas, so that we can plan, so that you 
have constant pipelines of food rather than breaks where we have to stop 
and it causes too much disruptions.

Q: What is the involvement of the governments affected by the crisis in 
what you are doing. How do they help? Elaborate on any difficulties if any?

A: Part of United Nations response is always to be in response with 
government. The mission I've just been on with Mr [Kenzo] Oshima, [UN 
Emergency Relief Coordinator], this is the first question that he asked: 
'tell me what your strategy is to deal with this crisis' and certainly, on 
the food side we've built all of our response based on the government doing 
their part on the commercial side. Commercial inputs are key to this 
response so we have to monitor very closely if they're going to be able to 
have enough money, foreign exchange to bring in commercial [imports] and 
we're going to have to monitor that. In Zimbabwe and in Malawi, there 
clearly is an internal co-ordination structure that's put together by the 
government. They are taking the lead in bringing the efforts together. Some 
governments are going to be more effective than other governments but 
certainly it is exciting to see how proactive the government in Malawi was 
in terms of bringing everybody together. They had a very realistic 
structure in place and they want to work with all the partners. So that is 
the first question we always ask, what do you do and what is your 
contribution to this crisis? So on the food side, yes they are trying to 
import food, the issue would be whether or not they have enough foreign 
currency to meet the gap. And then on the co-ordination side certainly they 
have to be responsible for that.

Q: How do you prevent corruption on a grand scale from preventing truck 
loads going missing, or on a smaller scale where food might be sold on a 
market. Is it okay for somebody to take that bag of food aid to the market 
if they need the cash for something else?

A: Sure, WFP has never proposed that we can cover all their needs and 
families need other stuff than grain and if they can sell part of that to 
get soap, I mean, my goodness, the scabies business, it's hygiene ... Now 
we have a problem if the man sells it and goes and buys beer. You can't 
prevent that. I mean we can't follow, you can't monitor or track that food 
into somebody's mouth but certainly part of our advocacy and of our NGO 
partners as well, is to encourage the families to eat that food. But it's 
going to happen. We see this in every operation around the world that some 
of it will end up in the market and that's regrettable that people aren't 
eating the food but on a small scale it's going to happen. Now, in terms of 
how do we keep the transporters from driving off with the truck. We have 
security bonds with transporters so this means that if they lose that truck 
they have to pay for it or if they lose that cargo they have to pay for it -
 it's an insurance policy. Now, can people come with guns and take bags of 
grain. Yes, it's possible. So those kinds of diversions happen and we call 
those losses and we track them so that we can go back to the donor and say 
okay, we lost 150 mt or 50 mt or whatever it is because accidents will 
happen, there is spillage, there are breaks in bags. We have monitors that 
go to the distribution sites, we work with our NGOs and we keep very 
meticulous records of what's distributed.

Q: What practical steps do you take to prevent the politicisation of food?

A: The only country we have had that problem in is Zimbabwe and I think we 
need to put it in context. In Zimbabwe you have a very polarised press so I 
think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Now it is clear that there is 
some confusion in reporting on what is going on on the ground. How much of 
it is true, I don't know. The World Food Programme has only in the last 
three or four weeks distributed over 12,000 mt of food. That is compared to 
232,000 mt distributed by the government. So what happens is they've seen 
food moving around, they've seen certain groups getting privileges and 
receiving food. That food is not the food that has been resourced out of 
the World Food Programme. We have a zero tolerance policy for any type of 
food being used as any type of weapon, let alone a political weapon. Hungry 
people don't have politics. So we're very strict. The NGOs that we work 
with go through an extensive training and we train them in our criteria in 
how we decide who's poor and how these people qualify. We take a long, long 
time and we've been very meticulous in trying to articulate this and then 
gone to the local level to make sure they understand. We have had one or 
two incidences where it has been a problem. In one case we've suspended the 
distributions until we sorted out the criteria. In another we didn't start 
the distribution until all of it was sorted out. So we follow up 
immediately if there is a problem and we are prepared to take the steps 
necessary to ensure the integrity of the food. So, no, it's not a tough 
[question] for me, we have been very clear, very articulate and we have 
been very clear with government as well.

Q: What role does the Zimbabwe government's land reform policy play in the 
food crisis?

A: From our assessments it was measured that the commercial farming sector 
was down by about 59 percent so clearly when you have that kind of cut in 
the production of food that would normally be available for export, that 
had to contribute to the overall crisis. The disruption of the commercial 
farming, and then you have a natural shock [of drought] on top of it, it 
did contribute to this. And that [the 59 percent] was down from a bad year 
last year. The same amount of acreage was planted overall, but with the 
drought it significantly disrupted production.

Q: Is the Grain Marketing Board's monopoly a problem?

A: Yes. The issue is that it is linked to the government's ability to be 
able to keep enough food in the market and to provide subsidies which are 
necessary according to the government policy. So yes, we think that's part 
of the problem. Not trying to make a pronouncement one way or another but 
we do think that is one of the things that is going to prohibit any type of 
public or private enterprises and to be able to get food available and on 
the shelves for people who still have assets. And what's very worrying now 
is that not only are poor people suffering because they couldn't afford to 
buy food anyway, but you have another sector of the population who still 
could afford to buy food but there's nothing available so that just 
exacerbates and compounds the complexity.

Q: Southern African Development Community (SADC) representatives are going 
to Maputo on Friday to discuss their response to the crisis. Have they been 
slow in responding?

A: No, I think we've been talking very much with SADC. There is a role for 
SADC - I think there are a number of policy issues and facilitation roles 
that SADC can play and I think their leadership is very important. The 
other message that I received from SADC is that they really would like to 
let the WFP and their other partners look at the operation from the food 
side. To let us really do the logistics coordination and moving the food. 
But they have had to look very clearly at the longer term policy 
implications of this. They want to work to see how the countries can work 
together to say 'never again, we don't want to see these countries in the 
same predicament 10 years down the road.' So clearly SADC has a role, they 
have been engaged throughout, they have been raising a number of these 
issues over the last 9, 10, 12 months so I think it's good, the timing's 
good. There's still a lot to be done and we've been liaising with them in 
terms of issues that would help us, looking at policies and facilitation so 
I'm optimistic, I think we're going to get some food cooperation and 
leadership from SADC. We would like to standardise the weigh bills, the 
waiving of humanitarian cargo - the tolls, the customs clearances, the 
third party transport arrangements, so there are a number of things that 
these governments collectively can do to assist.

Q: What is WFP's policy on genetically modified (GM) food?

A: The WFP's position on GM is that genetically modified organisms and all 
of the policies surrounding that are issues between the recipient 
government and the country that is providing the assistance. The country 
that is giving the food offers it and then the recipient government says 
yes we'll take it. The WFP accepts food that has already been cleared as 
fit for human consumption and we move that food so we don't have an issue 
in this, it's clearly between the two countries. Now, can it be a problem? 
Yes. The government of Zimbabwe has raised GMO issues but they have also 
worked with us to come up with how we can facilitate that. One would be to 
get the food milled when we bring it in. They are afraid that the grains, 
the whole kernels could somehow be eaten by livestock or in fact be planted 
and livestock could eat that and it gets into the genetic strain. So, one 
way would be to mill up the food and bring it in, another would be to bring 
it in and let the government mill it. If all of that fails then they would 
like us to transport the whole grain in sealed containers which is a little 
bit of a problem for us because it's so much more expensive to have sealed 
containers. And then they would ask that we do a very rigorous awareness 
campaign with the beneficiaries so that they would know you have to pound 
this food, you have to eat it yourself, don't plant it and don't feed it to 
livestock. We understand that Zambia is reviewing their GM policy but 
clearly they have already accepted many thousands of tons from the US 
already so we hope that that is not going to be an issue for them.

Q: So you won't say take that or take nothing?

A: No, we wouldn't want to do that. I have seen too many of those children 
who need this food and I have seen the situation and we have to do 
everything we can.

Q: You were traveling with Mr Oshima last week. At your press conference 
earlier this year you painted a harrowing picture of the food shortage 
situation. Is it any better or any worse now?

A: No. The situation in Malawi was certainly a deterioration from when I 
was there in April. We knew the crisis was wide but I don't think we 
realised how deep it was. There are a number of things that are going on in 
Malawi. Healthy adult men are dying and this is a new phenomena that we're 
trying to get to the bottom of and to see if we can find out what's going 
on. Pellagra and scabies are epidemic, the folks were telling us. There's 
still HIV-related deaths because when you have HIV your system doesn't 
respond and if you don't have nutritious food you're going to deteriorate 
more rapidly and we're seeing an acceleration of that. Malnutrition was 
still escalating and is among the highest in the world. We were talking 
about numbers going up in September, but what I'm seeing in Malawi is that 
the numbers are inching up now so we have to redouble our efforts to make 
sure that we reach those most acutely affected areas now or we're going to 
see more people dying and that's not acceptable. 


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