Press conference with UNAMA and WFP

14 Apr 2008

Press conference with UNAMA and WFP

KABUL - Transcript of press conference by Rick Corsino, Country Representative, United Nations World Food Programme and Nazifullah Salarzai from UNAMA Spokesperson's office.

Dari - Pashto

UNAMA: Good morning everybody. My name is Nazifullah Salarzai from UNAMA Spokesperson’s office and welcome to our weekly press conference this morning.

Our guest speaker today is Rick Corsino, Country Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Afghanistan, and he will brief you on the humanitarian situation in the country.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Mr. Kai Eide, is in Europe this week, where he is meeting with key partners and donors to discuss co-ordination of international support to Afghanistan. He is London today, Paris tomorrow, Brussels on Wednesday and Berlin on Thursday.

Next week is “Global Action Week for Education.” This is an international campaign, supported by UNESCO to highlight the fundamental right to education for all.

The theme for this year is “Quality Education to End Exclusion.” About 72 million children are excluded from schooling and over 700 million adults are illiterate worldwide. Some are excluded due to disability or gender, others because of conflict in their countries, still more because of poverty or child labour. Whatever the reason, millions are being denied a fundamental human right.

Next week gives us a chance to stand together in solidarity with Afghan parents to call for increased effort to ensure all Afghan children have access to education.

We hope to arrange a media visit for you all to a school next week to mark this campaign and we will issue a media advisory on this early next week.

Thousands of families in Chora and Trinkot districts of Uruzgan and Baghlan provinces will benefit from two new projects of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which aim to increase food production, reduce vulnerability to future food crises and promote income enhancement for the families.

For further information please collect a press release from the side table.

Last week, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) started the distribution of food assistance to internally displaced people in Shajoy district of Zabul province. Through its emergency programme, WFP distributed 36 tons of free food aid to 1,800 people.

These people are returnees from Pakistan to Shamulzai district of Zabul province, who were forcibly moved by another tribe to Shajoy district. The district is located at the border between Paktika and Zabul provinces.

In several districts of Faryab province, UNHCR gave winter assistance to a total of 226 families between December 2007 and now, providing both non-food items (blankets, plastic sheets, jackets, soap and UNICEF family kits) and food (wheat flour provided by WFP).

Among these 226 families are people who returned from Zare Dasht camp in Kandahar and Maslakh camp in Herat, drought-affected families who have now settled in Dawlatabad, as well as battle-affected people from Ghormach in Badghis.

And now I will hand over the floor to Rick. 

WFP: Good morning everyone, I think it was two months ago that I was last here, to brief you on the new appeal that was launched by the Government of Afghanistan and the United Nations in the latter part of January.

You probably recall that the point of that appeal was the assessment by the Government and the UN that very large numbers of Afghans were being very adversely affected by the very significant increases in the prices of staple food, in particular wheat products -- wheat four, and that our assessments indicated that in the twelve months leading up to the appeal, those prices had gone up by an average of 60 per cent throughout the country.

You are all part of the media and you know what is going on in other parts of the world, so you know that this phenomenon is not unique to Afghanistan. Many, many countries are suffering as much as or even worse than this one because of the unprecedented increase in the price of grains, mainly wheat, maize and rice.

And you will have seen in recent weeks the coining of a new phrase by the United Nations Secretary-General, and that is ‘the new face of hunger,’ and what he refers to in that is people affected not so much by drought, flood, other natural disasters or even man-made disasters like conflict, but simply because of the increase in the global prices of grain putting additional pressure on the poorest of those societies.

And the results of this change have been very predominant in many countries; you have seen references to food riots in Central America, in West Africa, in Egypt and in many other countries. Afghanistan was I think the first or certainly amongst the first to identify the significance of this problem and to take action. Those actions led to the appeal that was launched in the latter part of January.

Just to summarize what has happened of the last months, the appeal was launched at a value of close to 80 million dollars. From the food perspective, the WFP component of that appeal, the appeal included provision of 88,000 tons of food, and that was to be targeted to more than 2.5 million people resident in both urban and rural areas of Afghanistan and throughout the country for that matter.

I am really happy to be able to report today that the appeal has essentially been fully resourced. Out of the 78 million dollars needed for food, we have had contributions from a variety of donors, ten donors in fact, which have totaled nearly 70 million dollars, and the balance is what we have been able to borrow internally from WFP, and which we will be able to pay back through expected contributions from a few more donors over the next couple of weeks.

As of today about 30,000 tons of that food has actually entered into Afghanistan and we have been distributing it in the east, in Kabul area, and most recently in the south, in Kandahar, starting about 5 weeks ago. So far we have reached about 400,000 people with that food and in Kabul alone, I think as of today, we have distributed in 15 of the 20 districts, we have reached 220,000 people in the city and in the outlying part of the urban area, and we expect to complete the entire first round of distributions in Kabul by Sunday next week.

You may recall from the previous briefing that we are trying to target the most vulnerable, most needy segments of the population, and according to the assessments that were undertaken by the Government and ourselves, these are mainly households headed by females, households headed by disabled people, very large households with one salary earner and, to a lesser extent but still very important, people who have recently been relocated, having been displaced and relocated in and around urban centres.

This programme was designed to be implemented in a very short period of time. We were mainly concerned with satisfying the food needs in the period leading up to the main harvest this year, which meant that distributions would need to be done mainly by late June to mid-July.

In addition to the 30,000 tons of food already here, other food that has been purchased with the contributions from the ten donors is moving towards us. We are still concluding some purchase contracts in the region. In particular, we are mainly interested in buying in Pakistan because prices are considerably less there and of course the distance to transport and hence the cost of transportation is a lot less if we can resource more in Pakistan than from other locations further away.

And while we have not had any significant incidents of insecurity, of attacks on our convoys in the past couple of weeks, we are very much aware that the risk of these is still very much present, particularly in the southern part of the country, particularly along the ring road connecting Herat with Kandahar.

Just to summarize then, I think this appeal has gone very well; the very generous response of the donor community, the proactive participation of the Government who is leading the process in terms of planning and food distribution, and the working together of the UN agencies and other humanitarian partners has given us great hope that we will be able to implement this rather short-term intervention according to plan.

Our concern, as well as the concern of the Government is what happens beyond the middle of the year. Very few people think that the factors that came into play pushing the price of wheat up to record highs in the early part of this year are going to disappear. No-one believes, for example, that we are going to go back to price levels that we saw 12 months or 18 months ago.

What this means of course is that those people most affected by the higher prices are unlikely to get too much relief. There may be some, when the harvest comes in both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, typically we see a seasonal reduction in the price of wheat and wheat flour in that time, but we certainly don’t believe it’s going to be such that it’s going to push the prices back to what they had been in past years.

And then there is another concern, and it has been raised recently again by both the UN and the Government, and that is how productive will the cereals crop be in Afghanistan in 2008.

Last year we reported that the crop was very good in relative terms, the country came out short about 500,000 tons of cereals; the year before the shortfall was well over 1 million tons. What happens this year – it is still too early to tell, but there has been some concern raised both by the UN and the Government that the crop this year may not be as good as expected.

The Ministry of Agriculture, together with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, during the course of April are doing their field assessments in order to get a much better idea of what the crop is likely to be. Conditions are still changing. I would say probably three or four weeks ago, the expectations were not very good for the 2008 crop, mainly because the snow cover during the winter was not as great as it had been in previous years and the rains in the early part of spring were not as good as expected.

So together, the Government and the UN continue to watch that and continue to look at interventions that may be necessary in the short, in the medium and in the longer term to assist Afghans who have been hurt by the higher food prices and who potentially might be harmed by a poorer crop this year.

That is basically what I want to say about the appeal, which is the main issue confronting us. In addition to that there have been other interventions that are normal for WFP at this time of the year. While the spring floods in their anticipated severity have not yet materialized – perhaps they will not this year, there have been interventions in some areas with food and also the other programmes that we do on a localized basis – assisting those that have been displaced by fighting and pockets of people who have returned, mainly from Iran, and need temporary assistance to settle in.


SALAM WATANDAR [translated from Dari]: You said that 30,000 tons of food had been prepared and more is on the way. How much food do we need to assist the people in need? Can you name the ten countries that are helping you?

WFP: The target for the appeal was 88,000 tons of food and thus far what has entered into the country is 30,000 tons. And for the balance, around 50,000 tons, we have resources available to obtain that and bring it here. It is a question of arranging the procurement and logistics. The donors that responded to the appeal are, in order of when they responded to the appeal are: the United States, Canada, Denmark, the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), Germany, Switzerland, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Finland and Norway.

IRNA [translated from Dari]: You referred to the reduction of precipitation in early 2008, and when we go to Mazar-e-Sharif or Herat we see little snow on the mountains. It seems that Afghanistan will face severe food shortage this year. What are the actions you will take to solve this problem?

WFP: I think the consensus amongst those involved in assessing the crop for 2008 is that it is too early to determine exactly what the crop might look like. There are a couple of factors to be taken into consideration; one is that the snow cover in winter was not as good as in the previous year -- that is true -- and also that the early rains did not come about as early as it was hoped. But anyone who walked in here from the car park probably got very wet and I can attest that it has been raining in other parts of Afghanistan over the past couple of weeks. So we are not sure, we need to keep watching and it is important to begin looking at this early, simply because you don’t want to wait until you are 100 per cent sure that there is not going to be a good crop before you start taking measures. You want to get ahead of the curve and I think that is what is happening this year.

Just to be more specific on the measures, as I mentioned earlier, the way we look at it is that there need to be immediate, medium-term and longer-term measures. We are aware that the Government is looking into the possible purchase of additional food for the country particularly in the event that there is not such a good crop this year; that would be an immediate measure. The longer term includes things that we have made reference to before and that is improvement of seed, fertilizer and bringing more land under irrigation.

TAMADUN TV[translated from Dari]: Last year, in spite of a good harvest, food prices doubled and as you said, this year we face a crisis and it is likely that there will not be a good harvest. What serious measures can you take to tackle this problem? And my second question is, why do we always purchase food from Pakistan, although the prices there are unstable? Why not from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan or Tajikistan?

WFP: I think it is a little bit early to conclude that it is going to be a very bad harvest. I think you need to wait a little bit longer before that conclusion is there. But nonetheless, the Government is trying to prepare for the eventuality that it may be a poor crop. As I said before they are looking, at least in the immediate term, to purchase food, directly government to government, to increase food availability in Afghanistan. In the longer term, the Government also has plans in place to establish a grain reserve that could be used to smooth out high and low prices of food from one year to the next. This is something that they are working on together with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It is still in the concept stage but nonetheless I think it is something that would be very valuable in the medium to longer term.

To the second part of your question, why we continue to buy in Pakistan: We have an obligation to our donors to get the best value for the donations they give us. That means looking at the purchase price of food, the cost of transportation into the country and also the timing of the delivery because we cannot accept contracts that give us the food in the latter half of 2008. Pakistan has traditionally been the lowest cost supplier of wheat in this region and we believe that this will continue. We continue to look for other sources. As a matter of fact we are right now buying some food in Kazakhstan and Iran. But if and when the Government of Pakistan allows export of its grain again, and we think this will happen very soon, it will still be by far the least-cost source of food for Afghanistan. Just a further comment on this, preliminary information so far is that the crop in Pakistan looks very good, particularly in Punjab. The harvest should begin there in the next few days. All the information that we have been receiving is that the crop should be better this year than it was last year.

REUTERS: Is it possible that the high global price of grain could bring adequate incentive for opium producers to switch to wheat production?

WFP: It won't hurt, that’s for sure, as the price of wheat increases then the differential and the incentive will decrease. The problem as I see it is that the incentive for those engaged in poppy is so much higher than that for those engaged in the wheat, so there would have to be quite a long way to go to bridge that gap.

FARDA TV [translated from Dari]: In your comments you referred to the appeal for 88,000 tons of food and you said that 30,000 had been delivered, and you also raised the concern that this year’s crop will not be as good as last year’s. My question is how many people will face food shortages due to this?

WFP: We have not concluded yet; all we are saying is that there are some concerns that the crop may not be as good this year last. That is still to be demonstrated, and until we know what the actual shortfall is, it is impossible to estimate the number of people that will be impacted and where they are, whether they are in all parts of the country or in certain pockets. This is something that will evolve over the coming month or so.