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Asian Hunger Problem Stretches UN Resources - 2001-09-10


The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) says the hunger problems of Asian nations are stretching its resources. But as Ron Corben reports, the program's directors also see positive trends in developing countries like China and Vietnam. More hungry people live in Asia than any other region in the world. In South Asia alone, the World Food Program says there are more than 290 million undernourished people. And the numbers are increasing every year.

The WFP estimates it has come to the aid of more than 34 million people in Asia in the first half of the year, compared with about 29 million for the same time period last year. WFP's executive director, Catherine Bertini, blames both natural disasters and political instability for the growing need. "This year in particular with the floods in Bangladesh, in Cambodia and Laos, and with the earthquake in India, with the continued economic problems in Indonesia - and with the continued huge food needs in North Korea - we're finding that our work is becoming even greater in Asia," said Ms. Bertini. She says North Korea and Indonesia are now the main recipients of U.N. food aid in Asia.

In North Korea, one third of the 22 million people is currently being assisted by the WFP. Most are rural farmers and their families, who have suffered through several years of floods, famine, and drought. Indonesia used to be a food exporter in the mid-1990's. But the devastating effects of the 1997 Asian financial crisis still lingers, dragging millions of urban dwellers back below the poverty line.

The program's regional director in Asia, John Powell, says three-fourths of the 5 million people in Indonesia who receive food assistance live in urban areas. "We provide food assistance to people, who are, in blunt terms, living in garbage camps, in garbage traps, and cardboard houses," he says. "One of those I saw [was] on top of a cemetery. These are the kind of people we provide the food assistance."

Mr. Powell says it is imperative that Indonesia's new president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, focuses on improving the economy quickly. "Indonesia faces a particularly difficult situation," he says. "The problem of food security facing the urban poor is essentially one of employment or lack of it, because of the economic decline and because of the dramatic decline in purchasing power as a result of the devaluation of [Indonesia's currency] the rupiah."

But not all of Asia's developing economies are in trouble. Ms. Bertini says Vietnam left WFP's assistance program last year and China is fast becoming self-reliant. "There has been very significant progress in poverty reduction in China, and, as a result, the reduction of hunger," she says. "Although there are still tens of millions of people who are hungry in China, the progress has been positive."

She says she WFP could begin phasing out its assistance program in China in about five years.

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