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Ending hunger with dignity

  • Published at 02:20 pm October 12th, 2020
D2_Ending hunger with dignity
Photo: Richard Ragan

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has been working in Bangladesh right from the start

From providing food aid to the war-ravaged population in the aftermath of the Liberation War to piloting a long-term school meal program in schools in Bangladesh, WFP has been a partner to the people and government of Bangladesh every step of the way.

The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the United Nations World Food Program for its efforts to combat hunger and improve conditions for peace.

Dhaka Tribune's Zafar Sobhan and Kohinur Khyum Tithila caught up with WFP Representative and Country Director in Bangladesh Richard Ragan on Saturday, the day after the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, to hear his thoughts on what the award means to the WFP, for the hungry of the world, and to learn more about what WFP does in Bangladesh.

How does it feel to win the Nobel Peace Prize? What does it mean for you and what does it mean for the organization?

I am incredibly humbled because the award means the world has recognized the importance of hunger. I stand on the shoulders of people who have been fighting this battle for a long time.

From a personal standpoint, it kind of validates my years of work which often led me to live apart from my family.

From an organizational standpoint, it helps put food security back on the front burner of the global agenda. The WFP is 9 billion of the 35 billion USD the UN will need in 2020. We are quite big in the UN system. From a financial standpoint, we have always been able to raise money, but sometimes people forget how important it is. Food security has not been as prominent as it should be.

800 million people are going hungry every day. WFP helps feed over 100 million. As a planet, we produce enough food, but it is not accessible to everybody.

Food is a basic human right. In fact, the most basic of all rights. When we talk about dignity we do not really talk about hunger. I cannot think of anything more helpless than not being able to provide food for my family.

Tell us a little about the work the WFP does in Bangladesh.

The World Food Program has been working here since the country was founded 49 years ago. Bangladesh came into existence during a period of strife, natural disasters, and famine. This country has taken this journey for 50 years to get to the point where it is producing more food than it needs. Food security has always been a central issue for the Bangladeshi people so in that sense Bangladesh and WFP have always been very well aligned.

Today, WFP spends 350 million US dollars per year in Bangladesh and 300 million of it goes for the Rohingya refugee crisis.

We are spending almost a million dollars per day in the camps. We spend 10 to 12 million USD per month on food which is provided by Bangladeshi suppliers. And two million of that comes from local producers from places like Ukhiya and Teknaf. So we work hard to engage the local economy. We have tried to make some of the economic benefits that come out of hosting a large population like this be directed towards the people who are hosting them.

Tell us more about the other elements of WFP alongside providing food aid.

When I am asked what we do I say we do everything. There has always been a debate about whether WFP should be a humanitarian agency or a development agency. We are much better on the humanitarian side, but we are getting better at the development side. Bangladesh is one place where we are getting better at the development side.

We have become the world's largest humanitarian agency for the last three decades. I was the humanitarian coordinator in North Korea which was the biggest food aid operation in the world. I was the head of the Ebola operation in Liberia, and I ran the southern Africa drought response in Zambia. All of that was because of WFP's expertise developed over the years. When you need to deliver food to people, you learn to do a lot of things.

We have had to deal with all sorts of complex issues. In this Covid crisis, we became sort of the procurement and supply chain organization for the global Covid response. We established a global humanitarian network. We are still running shipments of all sorts of medical supplies.

We can do that because we developed that muscle memory. We have to deal with tasks like building roads and airfields. In Bangladesh you can see it the most as the largest refugee camp is here. It was almost like building a city as we needed to transform the place alongside providing food aid so that we could deliver the food to where it needed to go.

The WFP executive director said the world might be facing a hunger pandemic due to the global health crisis. Where does Bangladesh stand in this?

Bangladesh is currently facing floods in the agriculture season. The production level in Bangladesh is sufficient and there are enough stocks. I think the position of Bangladesh is pretty good. Bangladesh has made incredible progress against poverty. I think Bangladesh is not facing a hunger pandemic, but the real concern is that it stands to lose all of the valuable ground that it has made in the fight against poverty over the years.

Can you tell our readers what does WFP mean by food security? Is it about having enough food or having the right kind of food?

Food security is about having sufficient national stock to guarantee that the population of a country has sufficient access to food. It is about having a supply chain in place that provides regular, adequate, and safe food. Food safety is a big challenge in Bangladesh. We want people to have sufficient income to buy food. We train women so that they can have buying power and have food security.

Do you think investing in women could be a way to fight malnutrition because traditionally in Bangladesh, mothers are the ones taking care of their children. Also, women usually do not get enough nutritious food compared to men.

The WFP starting point was always with women because we recognized that women are the ones who take care of the nutritional intake of the family. We have a mother and child health initiative and in the refugee camps we make women the head of the household. We have SCOPE cards which are like a credit card which they can use to buy food. The card is based on the family’s biometric data that we have in our system. It is always women who are put in charge of that process. We do not say women first in everything, we mainstream it.

People in Bangladesh might not be going to starve, but is the nutritional quality of food they are able to access going to come down?

It is a fear that we have not been able to measure it. Six months is a short time to face that challenge. People are eating a more diverse diet now. Bangladeshi people traditionally have a plant-based diet. Bangladesh has a rice-based diet and one of the things we have been trying to do with the government is run a national rice fortification program. Bangladesh is one of the pioneers in this field. Two and half million people are benefiting from this rice fortification program. If Bangladesh can introduce it as a standard, it will totally shift the paradigm. Bangladesh is a leader in this whole space.

Is the world doing better in terms of food security compared to the past few decades?

In terms of absolute numbers I would say no. But we are doing a lot better at how we approach it in a dignified way. WFP started this work in times of conflicts. Today, we are much smarter. Technology has bridged the gap. We have a lot of experience under our belt now. The Rohingya camp is one of the great examples of it. We function in a total digital environment. We have 20 facilities that function like a store where people can go and get a choice of 19 different items to buy. People coming from conflict lost their entire world and we try to provide them assistance in a dignified way.

How can food bring peace?

People who are being taken care of and fed well get on with other elements of life like educating their children or providing health care. Food is such an essential part of diminishing and driving conflict. People who wanted to disrupt things have often used food as a weapon to do that. Humanitarian workers are kidnapped and killed every day around the world trying to deliver humanitarian assistance to people in conflict. The Nobel Peace Prize committee said they are paying attention to the work of WFP in conflicts.

Bangladesh is now a lower-middle income country. Do you see any progress in terms of food security?

Bangladesh produces excess food now. The food that we are purchasing for emergency response is local food. It doesn't come from outside. But the Covid crisis has certainly impacted lower income folks. The government has a range of programs to try to lessen their suffering.

School meals are a way to provide nutritious food to children. Now that the schools are closed, some children are not getting that meal. Are you in favour of reopening schools?

I think we have to manage it based on the health concern. We have a school feeding program. The Bangladesh government has adopted that as a policy. At the schools, we are still providing the meals and the families come to pick up the meals.

How does WFP operate in Bangladesh?

We have partnerships with 50 organizations which do the implementation of the programs. The majority of these organizations are national Bangladeshi NGOs. One of our biggest partners is Brac. For us to win the award is for them to win the award, because they are the ones who go out and do the implementation.

Asif Saleh of Brac was one of the first people in the Covid crisis who said this is a health emergency but also an economic crisis. Back in April, nobody was talking about this issue. The narrative at that point was lockdown or restricting public movement. But he pointed out that while it is easy to lock down in the West because they probably have savings and can social distance, it is much more difficult to do it in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh.

We did some rough estimates back in June that between 20 to 40 million people might be pushed into poverty because of this crisis. One of the commendable things that the government did was to provide food. That really made a difference.

Does WFP work closely with the government?

The way WFP worked in Bangladesh 20 years ago was different to the way we work now. Earlier, we used to work with the concerned ministry and design a program and that may or may not be part of the national plan. But now we have shifted the way we work in Bangladesh. We are the largest humanitarian agency in the world so our focus was always on quick in, set up things, and stabilize.

In a crisis we are often the first people on the ground. We were less good in longer term development challenges. But now we are working with the government and carrying out long term programs. You cannot have a rice fortification program or a school meal program if there is no budget.  In my 22 year career in WFP, Bangladesh works closer with my organization than any other country I have worked in.

What are the major challenges you face in Bangladesh?

One of the biggest challenges in Bangladesh is focus. I hope the award will not only encourage the world to focus on hunger, but also get Bangladesh to focus. Just like any other government, some people are good and focusing on certain things but they have to fight for oxygen because different ministries fight for attention. Bangladesh has a lot of things going on and it is difficult to get people to pay attention to food security and nutrition.

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.