Nepali Times: You've come during interesting times in Nepal.
Richard Ragan: WFP has been working here since 1967 doing basic poverty alleviation type of work and because of that we have a good understanding of how people in remote parts of the country live. Of the different UN agencies that are here, we probably have a deeper field presence than most. So, we are trying to use that to help particularly people who live in more remote areas.
How can the UN contribute as a humanitarian organisation during Nepal's transition to peace?
For example in other parts of the world, we have supported programs that help in the demobilisation of combatants. Once demobilisation occurs, there is the key issue of reintegration, or what people who were once soldiers are going to do next. As the UN's food organisation, we have food that can be treated as a commodity and used as money. We can tell people "we will give you food to learn to read, develop skills and train people in micro finance or even how to use computers." What limits you is creativity and we're willing to be very creative in the transition process.
You have worked in countries during a ceasefire. What lessons can you bring to Nepal?
Anytime, there is conflict, civilians suffer the most. Right before I came to Nepal, I was in the Philippines, where the rebels and government are in the process of negotiating a ceasefire. The WFP was asked to provide incentives to support the peace process. For example, folks that have been displaced by the conflict and unable to farm will receive food. In addition we are planning to provide food to school children in areas that have been hit hardest by the fighting. The goal is to try and return some sense of normalcy to the area. Should a ceasefire be negotiated, we would also provide food to demobilised soldiers. If the government asks and all the parties agree, it's the kind of thing that we could also do here.
What is your immediate priority?
We have started Nepal's first ever emergency food assistance in the west, which you reported on (#296 'The West is Hungry') where we will try to very quickly target around a quarter of a million people. Hopefully that will provide immediate impact.
Food deficits are nothing new in Nepal. What should be done over the long term to solve the problem?
There are two ways to deal with a food deficit problem. One, you produce enough food to feed the population and two, make your economy grow so you can buy food in the international market. With the exception of the tarai, Nepal doesn't have a whole lot of arable land so it's always going to be tough to produce enough food. You can try to introduce different varieties of crops that are drought resistant or grow better in the mountains. Potatoes are not indigenous to Nepal but were introduced in the mountains and are now eaten by everybody. The other element is making your economy grow. As long as there was conflict, the economy will suffer. Now that there is peace, you can refocus on building the economy.
The WFP is running short of funds in Afghanistan, Sudan, Somali and Kenya. Should Nepal be worried?
Nepal has been relatively well funded although it is not a large-scale operation like in other countries. For instance, the WFP has a $200 million operation in North Korea whereas in Nepal it is only about $20 million. It is easier to fund smaller operations than bigger ones.
How much should Nepal rely on the WFP?
Nepal should never rely entirely on the WFP. What we can bring to the table is our experience around the globe as the largest humanitarian agency in the world and one of the key UN agencies to deal with development assistance but at the end of the day it is up to the national authorities and the people of Nepal. The best part of our job is ultimately when a government says "we don't need you anymore." Take China, where I was a WFP deputy. We left China two years ago after a four-year operation when the government said "listen, we are a food producing and food exporting country. Our economy is growing. Now it's time for the WFP to leave." Now we are hopeful that China will soon become a donor.
What challenges do you foresee in Nepal?
The biggest challenge is the next phase of the peace process and what that means for rural Nepalis and for the government. How that dynamic plays out is, to me, a key thing to watch. If the ceasefire doesn't hold, insecurity becomes the menu of the day in the countryside, which makes it very difficult for us to work. As a UN agency we have basic operating guidelines but if we can't operate under those guidelines, we can't work. If someone tries to hinder our ability to move into an area or charge us fees to work, we won't operate.
Another immediate challenge is the emergency in the west because it is a remote part of the country, we need resources and we need to move now. In fact, I had three MPs in my office today from Humla, Jumla and Mugu explaining how dire the situation is in their districts. We have been talking to the Nepal Food Corporation about borrowing some food for them so that we can get started and we are hopeful that process will end positively.