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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

24 July 2002

In a press conference at Headquarters on 23 July, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) told reporters that the deepening humanitarian crisis in southern Africa was perhaps the most severe and urgent dilemma the facing the international community -- assessments on the ground suggested that some 12.8 million people in the region were at risk of starvation between now and March 2003.

James Morris, who is also the Secretary-General's newly appointed Special Envoy to the region, described the ominous conclusions of a recent study conducted jointly with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). That survey revealed that nearly half the at-risk population lived in Zimbabwe, with 3 million living in Malawi, some 2 million in Zambia, perhaps 600,000 in Southern Mozambique, with smaller but no less tragic numbers in Lesotho and Swaziland.

Responding to a question about the situation on the ground in Zimbabwe, he said he had visited President Mugabe several times to discuss the need to have prompt and easy access to the permitting and transportation process. Mr. Morris had been assured that bureaucratic red tape would not keep the WFP from doing its job. He added that discussions had also been held about the need to have more non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on hand to help deliver food aid. Presently, there were only four accredited NGOs on the ground.

He said the agency had also discussed a unique "monetization" scheme where food would be brought in and sold at subsidized rates set by the WFP. The cash from those sales would be used to offset other drought-related problems in Zimbabwe. If people had no cash whatsoever, a voucher system might be set up to allow them to obtain food. Mr. Morris added that he had been very straightforward with President Mugabe about the politicization of WFP'S food delivery and humanitarian assistance. The President had assured him that there would be no political objectives guiding where or how the agency did its work.

While overall this was essentially a food problem, there were serious issues related to health and sanitation, education and water, he said. United Nations agencies, NGOs and the governments of the region, as well as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had turned to WFP to take the lead in mapping out a comprehensive response. The Programme had now set up an office in Johannesburg to manage more or less a single "pipeline" that would deliver food to the six countries in the region.

He said the programme had recently announced an appeal for some $500 million in international donor support to meet the region's immediate food needs. That solicitation was part of a larger United Nations consolidated appeal launched last week for the humanitarian crisis of $611 million in other life-sustaining support, as well as food. He said that with extraordinary support of the United States and the United Kingdom, the WFP had received about half of its appeal.

He added that in recent days, the European Union had announced that its member States would provide 20 per cent of the wider appeal. It was important now to have the commitments in place soon, so that the food could be pre-positioned before the October rains came. Once the rains hit, it would be extremely difficult to move trucks and other large vehicles through on dirt roads.

The one enduring challenge today was the huge demand worldwide for humanitarian relief for complex emergencies, food assistance and aid delivery. For example, Mr. Morris said the WFP was currently feeding about 10 million people in Afghanistan, over 6 million in North Korea and half a million or so in the Palestinian occupied territories. Along with that, he cited huge needs in Angola, Sudan, Somalia and West Africa.

Mr. Morris said it was time to take a closer look at the "old mechanisms" -- traditional donors, in this case -- and see how their contributions could be enhanced or even harmonized with new ones. In order for international humanitarian agencies to work toward saving lives and providing young lives hope and opportunity, it would be necessary to ensure that the incredible generosity and support of traditional donors kept growing. Those agencies would also need to encourage the donor community to be far more generous.

Mr. Morris went on to say that today there were 15 or 20 countries around the world that now had the resources to participate actively in efforts to provide support for starving populations. Such emerging donors were considered to be countries with fiscal surpluses or stronger economies than they had in the past. He added that more private sector support was also needed.

Key to all that, he continued, was convincing the world to re-think how it used its agricultural surpluses. His hope was for nations to begin thinking about exempting the food used for humanitarian purposes from traditional discussions of surplus allocations and international commerce. The WFP had had very fruitful conversations with the European Union on the matter.

"Our job is to feed the hungriest, poorest people in the world," he said, "and those people had absolutely no cash resources to participate in the world economy." So if the world could somehow figure out how to exempt from general trade discussions the small portion of food surpluses for humanitarian purposes, it would go a long way toward solving many of the worlds hunger problems.

Turning to the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development, Mr. Morris stressed that all the issues that would be addressed in Johannesburg -- malnutrition, drought, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, environmental degradation, among others -- were occurring right now in microcosm in the six countries of the southern African region. He hoped those participating in the Summit, particularly the press, would recognize that all those humanitarian crises were occurring in places just a few miles away from Johannesburg.

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