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Restoring Food Security In Africa After Conflict - 2003-09-08

Many African countries that have recently gone through periods of conflict are now in a state of relative calm. A cease-fire is holding in Angola, peace talks continue in Sudan, and Ethiopia and Eritrea are holding to their peace agreement. But the problems facing the sick, wounded and hungry continue in those countries.

The U-N World Food Program and other humanitarian agencies are facing huge challenges in trying to provide food. A 27-year-old non-profit think tank here in Washington recently released a report on the problem. The International Food Policy Research Institute, “IFPRI,” tracks the efforts of the W-F-P and others organizations trying to feed the malnourished.

IFPRI says there are three main elements in the effort to feed the victims of a conflict. The first is making food available; the second is actually getting the food those in need; and the third is making sure their physical condition allows them to eat and process the food.

Marc Cohen is special assistant to the director general at the research institute. He’s also co-author its new report, entitled “Food Security when the Fighting Stops.” He says the ability to eat is as important as having enough food.

He says, "Even if there’s enough food, and you can afford to buy it, or you have the resources to grow it for yourself, if you’re not healthy, you’re unlikely to be well nourished because you are too sick – let’s say, if you have chronic diarrhea you’re not going to get all the nutrients you need even if you’re eating enough food to provide those nutrients, so it’s a three part process. "

The report says circumstances often complicate the process of food distribution. For example, political leaders use food to reward those who support them and deprive those who don’t -- in other words, they use food as a weapon.

Another problem stems from easy access to small arms after combat. The availability of weapons breeds banditry in both urban and rural areas. When warehouses are looted, there is little or no food left for the people most in need.

And landmines still limit access to many areas, especially in Mozambique and Angola – again making it difficult to get food to those who need it.

Mr. Cohen says, "It’s a very serious situation and in very poor countries often that have undergone civil wars or international wars you have a large part of the country littered with landmines, and this is true in several African countries that have gone through conflicts, like Mozambique for example, which has been at peace for, I believe, ten years, but there are still large areas of the country that are affected by landmines, so it’s a very serious problem."

Despite the determination of an organization like the World Food Program, there are limits to its ability to carry out its mission. Marc Cohen tells us what the W-F-P cannot do.

"The World Food program cannot restore a situation of physical security, they’re not peacekeeping forces. And indeed the United Nations often does organize multi-national peacekeeping forces, but the World Food Program is focused on one aspect, which is providing food to people who need it," he says.

Mr. Cohen says it’s important to feed all those in need, not just the displaced population. If food is made available to refugees and the internally displaced -- but not to the local people, who may be equally in need -- the effort could breed resentment.

Mr. Cohen also says it’s important to know the makeup of the population getting the food.

"One thing that we’ve looked at a lot here at IFPRI is the role of gender in these situations, and it’s important to remember that something like seventy-five to eighty percent of refugees and displaced people are women and their dependent children, and so relief programs and reconstruction programs really have to take that explicitly into consideration," says Cohen.

Mr. Cohen says sometimes donor nations and other contributors face financial problems themselves. But he says the World Food Program will remain effective as long as there is demand for its services -- that despite the challenges, the missions of mercy will continue.