Nicole Menage took over as the World Food Programme's Country Representative in Nepal last autumn, and promptly found herself in the middle of a funding crunch. She spoke to Nepali Times about the impact this is likely to have millions who receive assistance from the organisation.
Nicole Menage: The protracted relief and recovery operations (PRRO) plan makes up the major thrust of our activities in Nepal. This focuses on providing food assistance to populations most vulnerable to food insecurity in the mid and far western hills and mountains, as a result of drought, high food prices, and political instability. We also provide food assistance to the 70,000 remaining Bhutanese refugees in southeastern Nepal, and our Country Programme focuses on interventions linked to maternal and child health as well as school children.
What changes are forthcoming?
Well, we're on a new PRRO from January 2011 to December 2012, and all our programmes have been tapered down in terms of the numbers of beneficiaries targeted. While we targeted 2.4 million people last year, our new target is 1.8 million. But our strategy is also slightly different from that addressing the immediate post-conflict situation.
Why are you scaling down?
It's partly because of funding constraints, but also because some people have moved out of chronic food insecurity. During the period of conflict and immediately after there were many short-term interventions as well as programs that aimed to help people develop their assets. Now the focus is more on the latter, to go beyond just providing a safety net. We're also more interested in dissecting the sources of the food insecurity problem so people can actually move out of that.
What impact will this have on beneficiaries?
The dilemma is that it often costs the most to reach those communities that most need our help. When funding is limited, you have to make decisions about how to best help people living in inaccessible areas like Dolpa, Mugu, and particularly Humla.
So WFP's helicopter operations to deliver food to these places will be terminated, and some communities will no longer receive help?
Most likely we will stop helicopter operations; that decision is driven by funding constraints. But at the same time, we don't want to desert these people, so we are trying to work with government to see what we can do with what funding we do have. If we can't use helicopters, we'll use roads, porters, animals, whatever means are available.
Why is WFP's funding being slashed?
The global recession means less funding is available for all development work, but there are also factors specific to Nepal. Moving out of the immediate post-conflict scenario, both donors and the government are keen to focus on more developmental rather than humanitarian assistance.
Could this be post-conflict donor fatigue?
There's certainly more emergency aid that can be tapped in the post-conflict period. There's still tremendous need in some regions but Nepal's 'silent emergency' doesn't fall into the traditional humanitarian aid slot. As time goes on this is going to be more and more difficult. But the perception is that we should anchor our operations more and more into capacity building and sectorial support. Our job is to convince the government and donors that they should continue to use us as their preferred partner, including in health and education related programs, because of our implementation capacity and extensive field presence.
Some accuse WFP of creating dependency by altering food supply chains and dietary habits by introducing rice. They also say that increasing aid only to withdraw it later does more harm than good.
There are a few misconceptions here. WFP increases its operations not arbitrarily, but in response to specific shocks, and it will continue to do so. Similarly, when decisions are made to scale down programs, we make sure we taper down programs gradually, rather than withdraw them suddenly. We tend to be a little cautious; we don't want to expand quickly, raise expectations, then pull out and disappoint people. So we make educated forecasts of the situation, and are constantly in discussion with government and with donors.
Regarding WFP's so-called impact on agricultural patterns and dietary habits, it has to be noted that our programs are always meant to be supplements to the local diet during the three or four months of the lean season, not replacements. The biggest impact is in reducing outmigration so the men will stay and cultivate their land, and use the safety net we provide with other programs to move out of chronic poverty. So the idea that communities will stop growing barley and millet because they have acquired a taste for rice is just inaccurate. Those who accuse us of creating dependency should ask themselves the question: what would have happened if the assistance were not there?
Food security is a complex issue. How do you get the message out?
Because of our work and our advocacy, there is a better understanding that food insecurity is a big issue here. We've also empowered people to think of food as something they are entitled to. The gap is in moving beyond the simple idea that there is a problem to the sources of the problem, and specifically to what government could do to improve agricultural policies. We all need to get together and debate what we can do. Urban food security is also a neglected issue.
Often funding cuts have little to do with situations on the ground, and decisions made be made thousands of miles away from, and with no input from, beneficiary governments, let alone a beneficiary in Humla.
There can be a gap, but most of the time there is communication between the in-country staff and headquarters, who interact with the beneficiary government and donor governments respectively. It's not an easy task, there might be more or less sensitivity depending on their own national politics, and once the overall envelope of aid is decided on, there is competition among development agencies.
We also help the public advocate for themselves through our community interactions on the ground. We can to an extent act as their loudspeaker.
You've come to Nepal in something of a 'bust' period, following the boom of expanded funding. How is it to work in such a situation?
It's a bad situation, even though the dimensions of the cuts are still kind of up in the air. I've seen this problem before, when the faucet of aid begins to trickle, for example in the Great Lakes crisis of the 1990s, when I was in Tanzania. No one wants to be in that situation but the only thing to do is to keep advocating and make the best decisions on how best to scale down. The donors don’t disagree, they also face this dilemma.
Does this mean food assistance for Nepal will continue to decrease?
Upscaling will happen in the event of disasters like an earthquake, or a conflict, but of course no one would wish for that.
Any positives you can take out of this?
It forces us to fine-tune our targeting, to take our analytic capacity to a different level, and further review our whole programmatic approach to the problem. This might involve moving out of the PRRO approach (which lies somewhere between emergency and development aid) to programs clustered around synergies with other health and education programs, with the possibility of expanding in case of certain shocks. We will continue to appeal for funding, of course, and whether we manage to reach all the people in need or not, we will certainly continue to advocate, and this is also our role.
EDITORIAL: The trade of aid