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WFP Hopes for a 'Reasonable Harvest' in Afghanistan - 2002-02-06

The United Nations World Food Program is launching a new effort to feed Afghanistan's hungry citizens. Hardest hit areas will get most of the aid. The U.N. agency hopes its humanitarian aid and a successful harvest will help the country recover its self-sufficiency.

Although life is improving in Afghanistan, World Food Program Executive-Director Catherine Bertini, who just returned from Afghanistan, says there is still a great deal of humanitarian work to be done. For starters, she says the new WFP operation predicts 544,000 tons of food will be needed in Afghanistan, most of it initially given as free food distributions. She stresses that this figure is just an estimate, which could increase if the harvest in June and July is not good.

"All eyes are on the harvest and what might happen in the harvest, and whether or not the drought will continue," said Ms. Bertini. "It is very hard to predict and when we make our proposals, our plans, for feeding programs from April through the end of the year, we're assuming that there will be a reasonable harvest." Having sufficient food is only one problem. Another problem is reaching tens of thousands of people who are starving to death in remote mountainous villages.

Ms. Bertini says this is why the agency is hiring six helicopters to conduct assessments in these near inaccessible areas. The World Food Program's Jordan Day says helicopters also may be used to carry small amounts of food aid to remote areas.

"The helicopters can carry one metric ton, which is not a lot, but can be life-saving food until we can get trucks or donkeys or horses in hard-to-reach areas" said Mr. Day. "There are some places where it takes two days to drive by Land Cruiser and then another two days by donkey or horse - I'm talking about really remote areas."

The World Food Program says it is helping feed about six million Afghans. But Ms. Bertini says there are also plans to help rebuild Afghanistan's infrastructure and help rebuild hospitals, roads and schools.

She says her most vivid memory is the eagerness of Afghan children, especially girls, to return to school. "The enthusiasm was overwhelming," she recalls. "Imagine, it was cold. This was January. School isn't starting for another couple of months. But these children were already anxious to begin their studies, and the women who still hadn't been paid their salaries, the teachers, were there to support them."

Some of the funding for the $285 million WFP operation will be partly drawn from pledges made at last month's reconstruction conference in Tokyo. Ms. Bertini says she hopes donors will continue to be generous.