How has your time here been?
It's been a great four years. Not just in terms of the deep friendships I and my family have developed, and the places we've seen, but also because we've been able to expand our operations to reach many more Nepalis. WFP was feeding 700,000 Nepalis with a yearly budget of $25 million when I got here, it went up to $125 million last year, and this year we're feeding 2.5 million people with $100 million.
Why did you expand your operations so dramatically?
It was a necessity. WFP has been in Nepal for 40 years, but when we carried out our first emergency operations during my first year a lot of people wondered why. The truth is there was a silent emergency going on here for years, even though the malnutrition across the country would have justified emergency measures anywhere else. It was unacceptable to do nothing and say "oh, hungry people will just migrate to India for work". By arguing the case for bigger operations we made the issue of food insecurity a key part of the public domain.
What triggered the shift in attitudes?
When I arrived, the peace process was kicking off, but there was still a lot of tension in the countryside. Many NGOs, INGOs and donors had scaled back operations, but I insisted on helping people out there transition out of conflict. We were willing to go into remote areas and take risks to reach people, and I think our funders recognised the importance of what we were trying to do.
So the conflict was a trigger for WFP to reach more people in need?
The aftermath was. There was a vacuum after the conflict in places the government had not reached, and we seized this opening to go for a different approach. As a logistics-based organisation, we had the capacity to get to these places. Things are not going to change until we access these places and get a real sense of how people live up in Humla, Jumla, Dolpa.
One of the big benefits of WFP's expansion was that we began to work with NGOs, and we started pushing Nepalis into these remote areas. We've created a whole new wealth of Nepali capacity that wasn't there before.
What kind of work have these people been doing?
We are working with a whole range of NGOs that are largely staffed with Nepalis, on a range of initiatives. But we also have a Vulnerability & Analysis unit that moves across the most remote districts with PDAs and SAT phones to feed us real-time information on what exactly is going on regarding food security. These districts are now no longer just places on a map – we have the information to act on now. We have built up food security networks in 54 districts with the government.
I also believe modern communications has changed the game for us. Having a phone doesn't mean they can access services, but at least they have the means to try now. Technology can do different things, and allows you to be creative.
You mean doing more than just giving people food?
WFP started out as a development organisation, not a humanitarian one. We've tried to link the two, rather than just give food or money to people without asking for anything in return. So we've implemented food for work programs and had success, particularly with getting communities to build roads and other infrastructure in exchange for food. We even tied in such programmes with civic education about democracy and the constitution.
Cash for work programs are more recent, but we are piloting them in areas with large clusters of unemployed poor people, for example in the Tarai. We have a deep reach, so we try to think of ways to take advantage of
that, and allow other programs and organisations to piggybank on us.
What needs to be done to eliminate food security in Nepal?
We need a multi-pronged approach led by government, to address food security in terms of health, education, food access and food production. To date government has focused mainly on the last, whether we produce enough cereal. The answer is no, it hasn't kept pace with demand. But access is a problem too, and providing roads is part of the solution. Take the road to Jumla. Prices of beans have gone down by 60-70 per cent. We also need to develop markets, give farmers incentives to produce and sell locally for a profit, and invest in farmers like they are a national security interest, like in the US.
Can farmers in Karnali produce enough food?
A lot of the land at higher altitudes, in places like Karnali, is simply not productive enough. It's not that the farmers are lazy! And many households don't have access to plots big enough to support themselves. For some, the answer is tourism, like in the Annapurna and Khumbu regions. If places like upper Gorkha, Dolpa and Humla are developed, the market will come to them, there is huge potential for tourism as well as for cash crops like herbs.
What are the difficulties of working in Nepal?
The frustrating thing is the multiplicity of factors at play. The geography, the weather, the closed borders (in terms of open trade) have an impact on the food market. There are unfair commercial practices and supply issues, which push up inflation. With some political help, we are dealing with the problem of the transport cartels, but they are a big impediment when we are racing against time to feed people. And of course, political instability disrupts operations: during a bandh, between 500 to 3,000 tonnes of food get stuck.
But with a multi-pronged approach over the medium to long term, there's no reason why the country can't move away from food insecurity. At least people now recognise there is a serious problem, and are talking about it. The media and the government are finally accepting it's cholera killing people in the west, not WFP food. If we had to suffer from the accusations last year so people are talking about the real issues now, then it's been worth it.
Are you ready to leave Nepal?
No! The people I've met here are probably the best in the world in terms of kindness and generosity. They may not have anything, but they'll welcome you and cook you their chicken! I'm from the south of the United States myself; Nepalis remind me of the people there.