World Food Programme Turns Food Into a Weapon of Peace and Reconciliation

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In an exclusive interview, Sputnik News correspondent, Sofya Grebenkina, spoke with David Beasley, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme about the global struggle with obtaining food security and the humanitarian impact of conflict.

Sputnik: I wanted to start off by asking you about your trip to Moscow. What are you planning to discuss, when you meet with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday?

Beasley: Well, several things, but first and foremost to emphasize to him the condition and state of the food insecurity around the world. We're facing the worst humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations, since World War II. The number of hungry people in the world has gone up; the number of starving people has increased. And though in the last thirty, forty years, the world working together has decreased hunger, from a billion people down to 777 million people.

In spite of the fact that the population of the world had at the same time gone up, 5.3 billion to 7.5 billion, the number of hungry people had gone down, but in the last couple of years the number of people hungry in the world has gone up. And the question is, why? And the answer is war, conflict, man-made conflict. That, coupled with extremism, is a formula for disaster.

And we are asking for countries around the world, particularly countries with tremendous influence to engage more, because when you get into very fragile areas, like Syria, or the Greater Sahel area of Africa, Somalia, where ISIS and extremist groups are infiltrating, food is used as a weapon of recruitment, and we want to use food as a weapon of peace, a weapon of reconciliation, a weapon of sustainable development, a weapon of resilience against extremist groups, because if a mother and father can't feed their little girl, and the only food available is through ISIS, they're going to sign up. We know this; we see this every day. Many of the Syrian women that I have talked to said that their men had to sign up with ISIS because they couldn't get food. It was the only chance they had.

So, number one, we need to help these innocent victims. Number two, it's usually in the national security interest of nations to engage proactively and constructively. So number one, [I want to] give the Foreign Minister [Lavrov] a state of food security conditions in the world. Number two, a thank you for Russia's participation with the World Food Programme, for many years, and many different ways.

Whether we're talking about trucks, they've given us trucks, and in fact we're going to, I think, are we actually going to sign an agreement today on the trucks? Yes. But Russia has given us 218 trucks in the past, and today we will sign an 11 million dollar agreement for about 97 Kamaz trucks, spare parts, supplies, and things like that.

In addition to that, continued commitment of money and resources, and also we will talk about opportunities of taking advantage of some of the surplus commodities that the Russian farming community has because of a very successful agricultural community, see where we can increase commodities, whether it's Syria, or maybe even North Korea, and other countries, there may be some mutual interest. We see that the United Nations is an opportunity for countries to come together and so we want the World Food Programme to be a bridge of peace between nations, the US and Russia. The World Food Programme is perfectly situated to find ways of mutual cooperation, with everybody, with whichever countries, but those are two good examples. Another area that Russia has been very helpful in is school meals and are we going to be announcing some of the new school programs?

We have, but we've got more discussions with the Russian leadership regarding increasing and expanding our school meals program, such as in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan. And so we, at the World Food Programme, are looking for more countries to step up on school meals, because school meals is a unique opportunity to impact the long term development for the nation because you're investing in the children and we know that Russia has a strong desire in school meals.

I think that's pretty much in a general context the things that we will discuss and we will look for other opportunities, as we discuss, where there may be mutual interests, mutual needs. One area where Russia was a tremendous success story was in Mozambique this past year. Russia worked a debt-swap deal with us and Mozambique whereby Mozambique owed Russia x amount of dollars and Russia exchanged that debt swap so that the money would come to us and we would buy the food and deliver it to the hungry people in Mozambique, and so there was a great success story and a model to be emulated around the world with other countries. So we will talk about, are there other opportunities like that where a country might be struggling, has debt and Russia might be willing to promote opportunities there.

Sputnik: Do you have any countries in mind for this debt-swap scheme?

Beasley: Well that's one of the things. We'll see which countries have debt. You know, you never know. Venezuela's a country, but you never know. I don't want to get too far down that road, understanding the sensitivities of country by country. I don't know. This is why we're here, to begin opening up a door, planting seeds, creating an opportunity for discussion and see where that may lead, the new opportunities.

Sputnik: You mentioned that you were looking for funding as well. What will be the sum of the monetary contributions from Russia?

Beasley: The monetary contribution this past year, the last couple of years, has been $30 million per year, and I actually anticipate that the support from Russia in 2018 will double, if not triple for 2018. And I'm looking forward to that because I do believe that Russia has a very strong multilateral opportunity here that will showcase to the world it wants to work in the international community, in such a way that we all are working together and I think that will open up more doors or the resolution of other bilateral issues. Food is a powerful, a powerful weapon for reconciliation. ln the history of the world, and I've told my friends in the United States, that I want to see the United Nations use food as a weapon of peace, a weapon of reconciliation and every chance that I can to find opportunities to see countries that are at odds to work together, and I will look for those opportunities, because the world is too fragile.

The world is in too much conflict, and in the last eight months — let me give you an example. In the United States, for example, and I can speak about the United States because I am from the United States and I was governor there, so I know politics in the United States, the United States Democrats and Republicans had been fighting on everything… it's terrible. So I met with the Republican and Democrat leaders and brought them together about hungry children around the world. It was amazing. It was like they laid aside their differences and they agreed to work together on helping hungry children of the world, and it made them feel good, and it helped in some other areas. You know, if they worked together here, then maybe they could work together there. It's a start.

So we want to see the World Food Programme used to bridge relationships, externally and internally. Internally, in countries of conflict that are in great need, from this tribe to that tribe, from this ethnic group to that ethnic group, like schoolchildren. How do we bring schoolchildren together from different tribes? They get to sit down, and break bread, and get to know each other. So food can be a powerful weapon for peace, but extremist groups use it as a powerful weapon for war and division.

Sputnik: Well, I wanted to talk about conflict actually. And I know that the World Food Programme has recently been granted access to Eastern Ghouta, in Syria, and that you're providing aid in Deir ez-Zor, so could you tell me more about your operations in the country?

In an exclusive interview, Sputnik News correspondent, Sofya Grebenkina, spoke with David Beasley, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme about the global struggle with obtaining food security and the humanitarian impact of conflict. Did you keep up with that at all about how we would airlift in Deir ez Zor? Because you couldn't drop down on the ground, because they had the shoulder launch missiles, so we had to go high. We dropped from 20,000 feet because you got to get above the shoulder launch rocket or whatever their access to military technology is. So I think that 20,000 feet, 19,000 feet was where we had to drop from and you have to drop in an area the size of two football fields together. So how do you drop, from 20,000 feet to the size of two football fields? Otherwise 90,000-100,000 people will have died and starved to death.

So our team developed, working with the private sector a new parachute, a new design, and with the training from the pilots… the pilots might have been Russian pilots in Ilyushin planes. They would drop from 20,000 feet, I've forgotten how many drops now, but the expertise, you know the game of darts?…If you threw a dart from ten and a half feet away and hit a bullseye, hitting that spot from 20,000 feet is the same mathematical logic as hitting the bullseye. Our team hit the bullseye so many thousand times without a miss; that's the precision.

Then of course we've been pushing for free entry to the city, and now we've sent the first trucks in, just recently — fantastic. You know, I've forgotten how many trucks, eight or nine commodity trucks feeding the innocent that were besieged there. That makes you smile. That's what the World Food Programme is all about. So that's that particular spot.

If you talk about Syria, Syria alone, we've been feeding between about four and five million people. And of course the war, we've had tremendous cooperation between all sides, Syria, Russia, the United States, the Kurds, there are so many interest there, Turkey, Hezbollah, Iran and working with the different NGOs, whether it's the Red Crescent or whoever it may be, we've really had a good working relationship with everyone, but it's still very difficult and complex, as the war has moved around. As ISIS has moved out, now the war is shifting in different geopolitical, geostrategic areas, and so we're having to deal with that. It seems like to me we were feeding…

But last month though there was a big drop, to around 2.38 [million]. In Syria, the number of people that are severely food insecure, as I say, they don't know where the next meal is coming from, is 6.5 million people, almost one third of the population. So the World Food Programme is playing a critical role in keeping people alive in Syria right now.

So number one, we need the war to stop. Number two, we need more money, and number three, we need greater access, so the innocent non-combatants can feed their families right now. So we're short on money right now. We need another $159 million to take us through July of next year, and this is an area that I am hopeful that Russia will step up with surplus commodities, providing surplus commodities. This will send a very strong message to the world. We're hopeful that Russia will really step up here.

Sputnik: Where in Syria would you like more access?

Beasley: We want all areas of Russia [control] that we can have access, and at the same time if we have access, with the proper monetary system in place, we can assure that food doesn't get into the hands of combatants, which is very important, because our goal is to feed the innocent non-combatants.

Sputnik: How much in commodities do you want Russia to provide in Syria?

Beasley: As much as it can. With any country, let me just be very clear, we raised a little over $6 billion last year. Our needs are between that and $10 billion. So we'll take everything we can, but Syria would be a wonderful place to start. We will be asking for as much as possible. I don't remember the metric tonnage but there'll be a specific request for commodities, as well as cash. We are going to also ask in the NGO community in Russia, as well as the United States, and other countries, how there can be greater cooperation, and maybe in the religious communities, in the Orthodox [Church], Protestants, the Muslims, what can the private sector do, to also help in this regard.

Sputnik: What have been your most significant obstacles in Syria?

Beasley: Money and access. I mean it's a warzone. If you talk to some of the NGOs that we've partnered with, there've been a lot of loss of lives. It's a dangerous, dangerous place. So when an area gets cut off because of war, we monitor that and try to pressure as best we can for all sides to try to have a de-confliction route, or de-confliction zone. So that if we can de-conflict the route, let me explain the importance of this, the cost of an air-drop, air lift or air-drop, compared to trucking, can be anywhere from seven to 15 or more times the amount. When we took aid to Deir ez-Zor, the cost of that operation, when that area was freed, and we began to truck, that saved us enough money to feed like 150,000 Syrians for a year, just by the cost savings of going by air drop to truck.

That's important because we can feed a child for 25 cents a day. So every dollar we save is four meals for four children a day. So we're looking for every opportunity to save money. I don't consider ourselves the average UN operation. We're what we call a lean mean operating machine. We're into saving money. In the area of the northeast where we were having to do air lifts, not air drops, but air lifts. So we negotiated with the different factions, from the Syrian government, to the United States, to everybody involved, and got a trucking route that we can have safe passage, and that saved us tremendous millions of dollars, which meant that gave us millions to go in the area. Because when you're already short, like now we're short $159 million for the next six months of what we totally need. We need $332 million just for Syria.

We spend $18-$19 million per day globally and we need to be spending $25 million per day globally. But the $332 million, we need another $159 million to meet that goal for the next six months. So this is why being here in Russia is important right now, and hopefully Russia and other countries, will step up multilaterally. When we don't have enough food, we have to cut rations. We give priority first to little children, and pregnant women, and then we go from there. So we have to give half rations, no rations at all to some people. Half rations depend on how much money and support we have. That's Syria in a nutshell; it's tough.

Sputnik: Moving on to the World Food Programme's operations in Africa, I know that you announced that you would be scaling up your aid provision in the eastern DRC. Could you talk a little more specifically about how you would be scaling up your aid there?

Beasley: The DRC is an absolute disaster. It is a humanitarian catastrophe. The chaos, the conflict — chaos, conflict, and corruption. It doesn't get much worse. The number of starving people in that country, with the natural resources that they have is inexcusable and it's unacceptable but it is what it is. We have ramped up in the last few months from 100,000 to 400,000 — but that's in Kasai alone. I went down to Kasai a few months ago and saw the situation and tried to bring attention to them to the major donors, that this is a disaster, and these innocent people, these innocent children, shouldn't be the victims of that government's conflict. So we are trying to make the case for major donors to step up and our problem is money.

Now, this week we're sending a team, a special emergency team, the best of the best, to go in and try to evaluate how can we be more effective there and what do we really need to do more and to do more with less. We're going to make the case to the major donors, to the donors, the international community, that this is a critical time, not just for DRC, but also for the region, because if we don't provide the necessary food support, not only is DRC going to be completely at risk and collapse, but the region is at risk, because of the number of refugees leaving, potentially destabilizing the region. That would be mega-catastrophic, because you already have the Greater Sahel area destabilized.

Ethiopia's destabilized, Sudan's having food issues, South Sudan is a disaster, Mali or Nigeria, Cameroon, CAR, Burkina Faso, Somalia. I mean, you can't even afford to have another destabilized region like that. And we can talk about this if you want to, as I have told the Europeans that if you think you had a problem with a few million refugees out of Syria from a country the size of 20 million people, infiltrated by ISIS, you wait till the Sahel, with 500 million people is infiltrated, destabilized by ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al Qaeda etc. I said wait till that wave comes forth, 500 million people versus 20 million. It will make the Syrian refugee crisis look like a walk in the park.

So you need to get ahead of it — sustainable development. The World Food Programme, we are the first line of offence and defense against extremism. So take advantage of our expertise. It's not just about saving lives but also changing lives. So how can we go in and keep hungry people from being involved in extremist groups and then provide sustainable development, livelihoods and we have food for asset programs, school meal programs. They create jobs and opportunities and community development. So we have a rule that every humanitarian dollar should be used as a development opportunity. So every able-bodied adult that receives food should be in a community improvement program. Every child should be in a school meals program, getting good nutrition, learning values, you know, how to respect one another, gender parity, things like that.

Sputnik: So will the Sahel region be a priority focus for the World Food Programme, starting from this year?

Beasley: Yes. The Greater Sahel region. People say Sahel, and I'm like no, no, it's the Greater Sahel from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. Because ISIS has been pushed out by Russia, Syria, the United States, etcetera. They have been pushed, and that is where Russia and the United States have had tremendous collaboration, east side of the Euphrates, west side of the Euphrates. So they've pushed ISIS out. But where have [ISIS] gone? To the Greater Sahel region, the Maghreb, whatever you want to call it.

We had a Sahel conference yesterday, day before yesterday, in Munich, and I said, in fact Paul Kagame and I both said, that it's not just the Sahel, don't get caught up, it's much bigger than that. When you look at the map, and how ISIS is moving in, and they're partnering with al-Shabaab and Boko Haram and al-Qaeda, and they're divvying up land, and they're working in collaborative agreements on food and medical benefits or support, in these very fragile, positive-stricken areas. That's a big deal. So we are very focused on the Greater Sahel region.

Sputnik: In Africa, there has also been news that the Ugandan government has announced plans to widen a probe into government officials who allegedly stole aid intended for refugees to include UN staff. How will the World Food Programme aid this investigation?

Beasley: We already have teams on the ground. This is an area that you will find for me, I have less than zero tolerance and everybody in my operation knows, you don't play in this area at all. If you ever suspect anyone, this is something that we will aggressively pursue with every resource we have. So not only are we cooperating with any investigative authority involved, we have our own investigation that is very thorough. We've got the best of the best on top of this. We're probably going to find more information because we never let this slide. We're not going to let the integrity of the World Food Programme be at stake because of any other partner involved.

If anybody in our operation is involved, they will be prosecuted, terminated, or whatever it is I have in my reach and my authority to do; same thing on sexual exploitation and whistleblowing. I have been sending emails out, I've had one-on-one conversations, team leadership, whole staff conversations, saying to the leadership that if you don't want to work in an environment where everyone is respected regardless of their position or their sex, you resign now; I'm going to fire you the first chance I can find who you are. It's not just what's in writing that matters. How many policies do you already have on whistleblowing, sexual harassment? Those things are important. That's not the issue. It comes back to creating an atmosphere, and it starts at the top.

Like in gender parity. When you look at the UN, how long have they been talking about gender parity? 40 years? Like really, come on. Do it. If you have gender parity you begin to diminish sexual harassment, obviously. So if you look at the World Food Programme, we're in tough areas, Afghanistan, rough areas, so finding women might not be as easy. But we're not hiring the whole country. So we're setting goals and benchmarks for each country. The goal is obviously 50:50. So we're setting those [goals], how long should it take to get there, let's say three years. Then we will have benchmarks, measurable every quarter… If you don't reach that benchmark for each quarter you will have a written explanation on my desk, and the country director, the regional director, the superior officer at headquarters and the deputy executive director will answer to me why you didn't do it.

Now having said that, let me give you the resources and the know withal how to reach these objectives. What are you doing in your country? Have you gone to the university there where women graduate every year? Have you gone to the president's office, the genders office, and talked about the women graduating there, women that will be available? So we have very practical conversations. I don't want to hear an excuse. We are going to be very aggressive on this. We will hire people because of their qualifications and we will not discriminate in any way, shape, or fashion.

Sputnik: Just going back to Uganda for a moment; have you found anything to corroborate the claims of the Ugandan government's probe?

Beasley: We have some raised concerns. I don't know the most recent report, I don't know if it's still confidential, but I can assure you that we have grave concerns about what's happening in Uganda. I have great expectations that it will be cleaned up.

Sputnik: I wanted to ask also about the aid that you're providing to the Rohingyas. Something that you've said before is that donor agencies are gradually losing their interest in providing food assistance for the displaced Rohingyas who have taken shelter in Bangladesh. Do you want to elaborate on that?

Beasley: We're very concerned of donor fatigue around the world because of all the conflicts, there is not enough money. So we're very concerned with voter fatigue and so we're doing everything we can to showcase the need for the Rohingyas, that the international community should not turn its back on the Bangladesh government. The people of Bangladesh should not shoulder this by themselves. It's not right, particularly when the government of Myanmar and other perpetrators are ruthlessly and barbarically, savagely killing and torturing innocent people. And they're fleeing for their lives.

So Bangladesh shouldn't have to support this alone. The international community, in my opinion, has an obligation to step in. And so we're trying to continue to showcase, bring attention to the world a need for substantial funding. Just like in the DRC, we will run out of money in the DRC in the next two months. In Bangladesh we're substantially better than that. In May, we will not have money in Bangladesh.

I was just [in Bangladesh] and we're sending in special teams there. The rainy season is coming in about a month and with the rainy season coming, based on how they are in these hills, on top of each other — we could see substantial lives lost because of the mudslides. So we're sending in engineers to work with the military. In the World Food Program we're logistics, we're all about roads and bridges and getting things. We want to take advantage of our expertise to come in and strengthen the infrastructure there. We're not in charge of that. They're trying to take advantage of us.

Sputnik: How is the World Food Programme trying to fight this donor fatigue that you mentioned?

Beasley: Well I've been doing many different things. One is many television shows, showcasing the world. Here's one of our arguments, there's $300 trillion of available wealth in the world today. We're just talking about a few more billion dollars. No child in the world should go hungry. Most people in the world today, I don't think, are aware of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq, in South Sudan.

The obsession in the media today with Putin, Trump, Russia investigations, Brexit, Le Pen, there is an obsession today. There should be reporting of this, of course, but there's not today compared to 20 years ago, balanced reporting of international tragedies and humanitarian disasters. There's this obsession today, and I think if the people know about it, they respond and they speak out for their political views.

So every time we go on BBC, and CNN, and you know, going to these countries and getting information, we've been getting responses. We're going as hard as we can, at every opportunity we can to bring attention to the world. And then I'll fly to capitals, whether that's Washington D.C., or Brussels, or London, or Berlin, or Moscow, to continue to make aware the leaders of how bad it really is.

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