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Press Conference on Haiti by Head of World Food Programme

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

25 January 2010

The head of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) today warned that, while the international relief effort in Haiti was beginning to gain its footing, the scale of the devastation in the earthquake-ravaged country was immense, and helping more than 2 million people rebuild their lives would require the engagement of a broad spectrum of humanitarian actors “for at least the next 12 months”.

“We’re realizing now that we may need to be in longer and go deeper than we first expected,” WFP’s Executive Director Josette Sheeran told reporters in New York. Just back from the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, which bore the brunt of the catastrophic 7.0-magnitude quake, she said the situation was “quite grim”. Haiti’s infrastructure had been inadequate even before the 12 January tragedy, making relief operations a logistical nightmare. Also, areas in and around the capital were still being shaken by steady aftershocks, buildings were unstable, key roads were practically impassable, and communications were unpredictable.

Hoping to provide food for some 2 million people a day, she said “[Haiti] will be the most complex operation that WFP has ever faced”. Indeed, the agency was scaling up its earlier estimates, which had been based on food needs for fewer people for a period of about six months. It was becoming clear, however, that WFP and its international partners would need to provide perhaps three meals a day -- as opposed to one or two -- and boost the caloric intake of many more people for at least the next 12 months.

Ms. Sheeran said WFP was working with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to manage the overall “humanitarian lifeline”, including handling 1ogistics and communications. The WFP was also managing the United Nations humanitarian air service, ferrying aid workers in an out of Haiti. The WFP now had two daily flights carrying relief supplies to Haiti and had set up warehouses in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, from which supplies could be brought in by some 75 trucks.

The ultimate goal was to get five identified humanitarian corridors up and running as soon as possible. “Progress is being made, and we are able to get more and more meals out every day”, she continued, telling reports that, so far, WFP had gotten out some 8 million meals -- 80 per cent of those distributed inside Port-au-Prince, and 20 per cent outside. Today, WFP had delivered 1.2 million meals. It hoped to double that number in the days ahead and, to that end, had requested more trucks and helicopters and had contracted for extra warehouse space.

The WFP was looking to establish corridors that would benefit food and supply distribution within Port-au-Prince, she continued, expressing deep concern that cooking facilities had been destroyed in the quake and that clean water for food preparation was still in short supply. While relief agencies were opting to buy goods locally and regionally, when they could, such efforts had been hampered, because local markets flattened by the quake had been slow to open back up.

With that in mind, she said that WFP was drawing down practically all its stores of high-energy biscuits and other nutrient-rich meals that did not require water. As that was the case, it was also calling, among others, on all the world’s military forces to provide any ready-to-eat meals they might have on hand.

Responding to questions about conditions on the ground, Ms. Sheeran said that WFP’s staff, like that of perhaps 90 per cent of other aid workers in Haiti, were homeless; sleeping on the streets with their families at night and reporting to work in the morning. Even the WFP Country Director’s home had been destroyed. “When I talk about our ‘teams’ or ‘offices’, what I mean is that we are working under a tree with no cell phone service […] you have to imagine our maps and everything else spread out on the ground.” She also said that security escorts were required, as there had been a few riots, and that orderly, secure distribution was key, especially to ensure that the most vulnerable -- women and children -- received food. WFP had prioritized distribution to women, in most cases.

She went on to praise the outpouring of goodwill and increasing arrival of goods and people. At the same time, she warned that, because of the serious logistical challenges -- ports and warehouses were going to have to be rebuilt -- “it’s all amounted to trying to put a camel through the eye of a needle”. While some ports had come online and the situation at the Port-au-Prince airport was easing, WFP was in the process of contracting with ships from Miami that could carry out “beach landings”.

She also applauded and welcomed the efforts of the Haitian Government, the United States, and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), but stressed that the challenge was to coordinate all the efforts and find out how to bring in the goods and supplies in an orderly fashion, where they would be stored and how they would be distributed. WFP was working with all actors to handle the logistics and had, among other things, supplemented its team on the ground with about 40 of its top logistics experts from other complex emergency situations.

Retuning to the issue of prioritizing women in the food distribution chain, she said WFP’s decision had been based on experience that, at distribution points where things had gotten out of control, it was generally women and children who were pushed aside. Such prioritization ensured the most vulnerable would get access.

She assured correspondents that it was WFP’s intention that everyone who needed food could have access to it. It would continue to focus on women -- overwhelmingly the heads of households and in charge of bringing aid back to families -- during the emergency phase of its operations, about two more weeks, until families were registered. “WFP is concerned about everybody and we want to ensure that everyone gets food”, she said, adding that many people were vulnerable and the agency was not trying to exclude anyone. While no real problems had arisen in executing that policy, she told one reporter that WFP was ensuring that all people at orphanages and hospitals were receiving food, and that the agency planned to examine male-run households on a case-by-case basis.

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For information media • not an official record

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