Press conference with UNAMA and WFP

1 May 2008

Press conference with UNAMA and WFP

KABUL - Transcript of press conference by Anthony Banbury, United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Regional Director for Asia and Nazifullah Salarzai, UNAMA Spokesperson’s Office.

Dari - Pashto

UNAMA: Good afternoon everybody. My name is Nazifullah Salarzai from UNAMA Spokesperson’s office and welcome to our press conference today. We are joined today by our guest speaker Anthony Banbury, United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Regional Director for Asia and he will speak about the food prices in Afghanistan.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan (SRSG) Kai Eide is in Ottawa today to meet with senior Canadian officials including the Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxime Bernier and the Minister of Defence Peter Gordon MacKay. On Friday, the SRSG will be at United Nations headquarters in New York, where he will meet with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The purpose of these meetings is to look ahead towards the Paris conference which will be held in June this year, and also to speak with Afghanistan’s international partners about how we can step up coordination efforts and increase assistance for the Afghan State over the coming months.

WFP: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, I apologize if any of you were inconvenienced by the fact that we had to postpone our press conference yesterday, and thank you for coming.

The purpose of my trip to Afghanistan is: first, to assess the current food security situation in the country; second, to review the impact of WFP’s current assistance to Afghanistan; and third, to discuss with the Government, UN partners and donors, what steps should come in the future in light of changing circumstances.

We met with Government officials: the Minister of Rural Rehabilitation, Minister Zia; the Minister of Education, Minister Atmar; the Minister of Agriculture, Minister Ramin; as well as with UN partners, the World Bank and some donors.

We travelled to Kandahar for three days, where we met with the Provincial Governor, the Provincial Council Chairman, Community Development Council representatives, NGOs, the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team, and in addition, we visited two schools, two adult literacy classes, a WFP food distribution and a Kuchi settlement.

Based on these meetings, these field trips and our internal discussions, the WFP’s assessment is that right now meeting basic food needs is extremely problematic for millions of Afghans. Regrettably, this situation has deteriorated over time, in large part due to rising prices. Inflation in the country hit 22 per cent in February; it was 30 per cent for food, and depending where in the country, 50 to 100 per cent for wheat. Many people are able to endure these higher prices and perhaps even benefit from them. But for millions of Afghans, the poorer segments of society, who spend up to 70 per cent of their meagre income on food, these food price rises put the basic necessities simply out of their reach.

The Government of Afghanistan deserves great credit for being one of the first in the world to identify rising food prices as posing a serious problem for their people and to take action to address this. The Government, together with the United Nations, launched an appeal in January for 79 million dollars, to deal with the humanitarian impact of higher food prices. The WFP portion of that appeal, 77 million dollars, is fully funded. It is being used to provide assistance to 2.5 million Afghans, 85 per cent of whom are in urban areas and the remainder in rural areas.

We are starting to see the impact of this assistance. Wheat prices have started to drop a little bit from their highs, even though they are significantly higher than one year ago. That reduction is due to a variety of factors, but certainly the WFP assistance is part of that.

In the Kuchi settlement we visited outside of Kandahar, we spoke to a man who said he used to be wealthy. He had had a number of sheep and goats, and due to extended droughts, he had sold these capital assets; he was now a day labourer in the market, often could not find work, and his family had to survive on bread, buttermilk and tea, and he had just received WFP food assistance for the first time – 100 kilogrammes of wheat, and that assistance will allow him to spend his very limited income on other necessities for his family.

In a girl’s school in Kandahar, we spoke to a seventh-grade girl, who is only able to attend school because of a vegetable oil ration that she receives from WFP. It is only because of that that her parents send her to school, and she talked to us about how she wanted to grow up and be a doctor in Kandahar, so that she would be able to treat female patients. That food that WFP is providing is making all the difference for that girl and her family, and the result may be that she becomes a doctor.

But this joint Government-UN programme that was launched in January will end in July and the question we have been looking at is what comes next?

The answer to that is that it depends on the level of vulnerability of poor segments of the society, and that will depend on issues such as agricultural production, commercial imports and trade policies; those are the key issues. Agricultural production is of course a huge issue here, and there are early indications that, as a result of low snows and small early rains, the wheat crop may be poor.

Tightening global supplies for wheat and other basic foods are presenting problems for many countries including Afghanistan, and if these tight global supplies continue then Afghanistan will be in a difficult situation, as other countries, in meeting their commercial import requirements.

I do not think any economist could sit here in front of you today and tell you what the price of wheat will be in Kabul or Kandahar in three months’ time. Although we do not know what the extent of vulnerability will be this summer and in the second half of the year, something we absolutely know is that there will be millions of people in this country who will remain vulnerable, will remain food insecure, will not be able to meet their needs, and will require some form of assistance.

In our meetings with senior Government officials, the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), the World Bank, donors, WFP has stressed that the answer to these challenges must come through a comprehensive strategy to deal with long-term challenges posed by higher prices; a strategy that involves investment in agricultural production, a strategy that deals with market and support to the private sector, and that food aid, through WFP or anyone else, is not the answer to this problem.

I believe there is consensus on that issue; we talked in fact with the SRSG before he left. He and the Deputy SRSG Mr. Asplund, the World Bank officials, the Country Director for the World Bank, donors, Government officials, they all agree on the need for a comprehensive strategy dealing with the medium and long-term issues associated with the challenge of food security in Afghanistan.

Such a strategy would need to have a component that deals with the poorest, most vulnerable food-insecure part of the population. They will need special assistance, some form of social safety net that may well include food aid. It is those people that the WFP is most concerned about, and it is those people that we are committed to helping. WFP stands united in support of the people of Afghanistan, especially the poorest people, and we will support the Government in its efforts to address the food insecurity challenges that the country is now experiencing. Thank you very much. Mr. Corsino and I will be happy to take your questions.


RTA [translated from Pashto]: You said that your assistance comes to an end by the end of July. What will you do next. And, out of the budget you have until the end of July, how much comes for the Government, how much from WFP and from the World Bank?

WFP: The Government-UN appeal in January was for 79 million dollars of which 77 million was for WFP. We have been fully funded for that 77 million dollars and that money will be spent on this programme through about July. After that we need to decide, working with the Government, UN partners, donors, what comes after. We will need additional resources after that. We received very good support for this programme and I am confident we can receive good support for whatever comes next as long as we do a good job in designing it with the Government.

ARIANA TV [translated from Dari]: Given the food price hikes, is your assistance going to decrease or you are going to continue your assistance to the people of Afghanistan?

WFP: The level of assistance that is provided after June and July will depend again on the agricultural production and indications there are that there could be problems due to small rains and snows as well as other issues such as international prices, prices in Pakistan and the ability to import. The solution though is not food aid. It requires participation and involvement of many different governments, United Nations and donor agencies. WFP will just be a part of it, I think we have an important part and I think that part will be well funded and will provide assistance to millions of people.

IRIN: The price vulnerability assessment was conducted in January. How much worse has the situation become since January, You have said that you only provide assistance to the most vulnerable. Do you think this safety net is sufficient for the most vulnerable people in this country?

WFP: This is a very good question. The assessments carried out by the Government and the United Nations in January were preliminary ones based on initial data. We always agreed that, if additional information came in, we could look to adjust our programme in the face of better data. Since January prices have continued to rise, in some cases rather significantly, even though there has been a small reduction lately. When we were in Kandahar the Governor asked us to provide additional food for people who are not being reached. Yesterday, in our meeting with Minister Zia, he has also asked us for additional food through food-for-work programmes for rural areas. The WFP is very open to these requests and we are now working with the Government to develop better data so that we can make sure we are reaching all the people who fit the vulnerable category. One more consideration though is that there has to be a line drawn somewhere for that vulnerability criteria. We cannot do everything. People who are just above the line and don’t receive assistance -- many of them will be in a difficult situation and will need to find a different way to cope with these higher prices.

ALL INDIA RADIO: I have two questions. One is that, given the extremely precarious situation of food security, are you going to make another fresh appeal now? Secondly, there are some internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are in Jerai district who do not want to go back to the north. Is WFP going to take special care of them because they are refusing to go there, will you give them food supplies?

WFP: The Government and the United Nations have launched an appeal. We have an active appeal now and funds have come in for that appeal. Our focus now is delivering on the commitments we have made in that appeal to the 2.5 million Afghans. That right now is our focus. That number, 2.5 million, may need to be adjusted up a little bit because of changed circumstances, but right now that needs to be the focus of our work.

In terms of the IDPs in Jerai, IDPs are one of the vulnerable categories of people that WFP has committed to helping as part of this appeal. Any IDPs that are confirmed as such through a joined process involving the Government and WFP, we will provide assistance to them.

KILLID GROUP [translated from Dari]: There is a disparity between the figure released by the Government of 50 million dollars spent on food aid and the figure you mentioned of 77 million dollars that you have received. And also, despite your efforts and despite the assistance you have provided to the people, we have not seen dramatic changes in the food security of the Afghan people. The second part of my question is, given shortage of food in Afghanistan and the ban on the export of food items in certain neighbouring countries, what measures will you take to persuade them to lift these bans?

WFP: The 50 million dollars that the Government plans to spend on food purchases is totally separate from the 79 million dollar appeal by the Government and the United Nations. The 50 million dollars is part of the Government budget that the Government will spend on buying food, through its own mechanisms, to distribute through its own mechanisms. This is totally separate from the UN. The WFP has received 77 million dollars to purchase different food that will be channelled through WFP programmes that are specifically targeted at the people who have been most impacted by higher prices – the most vulnerable people.

On the question of there being no real change in the food security situation in the country - the solution to the food security problems is not food aid – it’s investment in agriculture, it’s better roads, more developed markets, good trade policies. The WFP is not involved in any of that. But we will provide assistance to more than six million Afghans in this country this year. I encourage you to go and talk to any one of those six million people that we help and ask them if their lives have been changed by this assistance. Because I go and talk to them and I know that we have made a huge difference in their lives.

To answer your last question – on the issue of export bans. The UN Secretary-General held a meeting in Switzerland two days ago with all the heads of UN agencies, the President of the World Bank, etc. They said there, that it would be best if countries would lift their export bans because of the distortion in food markets those bans create. For the WFP here, we are talking with governments in this region about having humanitarian exemptions on those bans, so they will let WFP procure food for humanitarian purposes. There are two tracks going on, both on which have an impact on that.

FARDA TV [translated from Dari]: You said that millions of Afghans are below the poverty line. If this trend is to continue, don’t you think that we have to be prepared for a humanitarian disaster? And you also talked about the change of strategy; do you think the Government has devised a strategy to help people cope with food insecurity?

WFP: The WFP, the United Nations, donors and most especially the Government – we are all committed to avoiding a humanitarian tragedy – that is the purpose of our efforts – we are trying to improve the situation and prevent a tragedy. I am confident that with Government leadership, strong donor support and active work by the United Nations, we can avoid a humanitarian tragedy, but we all need to do our part – it will not be easy – it will cost money – and it will take a lot of work.

And yes, I do believe the Government is committed to developing such a strategy. That was a theme in all the discussions that I had. The Government was one of the first in the world to draw attention to this issue. They realized the impact that it has on the population and all the senior ministers that I have spoken to, are all focussed on this issue. I am convinced the Government is committed to it, I know the United Nations is committed to doing its part, I know the donors are concerned – we have a lot of hard work ahead of us – but we can do the job. Thank you all very much ladies and gentlemen.