Our meeting with the World Food Programme

Posted on: April 18, 2008 Posted by: Manin Oem Comments: 0

Our meeting with the World Food Programme

If you’ve crossed paths with a newspaper in the past 2 weeks, you’ve probably seen that headlines around the world are talking about the price of rice and the rising cost of food globally. I’m not going to spend time talking about the ins and outs of why prices are going up (for more on this, stay tuned to our upcoming PEPY newsletter). Instead, I’d like to talk about the realities in Chanleas Dai, and our recent meeting with the World Food Program here in Phnom Penh.

The rising price of rice is very real, with effects that we are only beginning to see in communities across Cambodia. Over the course of the past several months, the price of rice has increased from 250 US dollars/metric ton to 650-700 US dollars/metric ton. This is a HUGE increase that is having repercussions from the wealthiest to the poorest of families. Daniela, Aline, and I met with the World Food Programme this afternoon. We originally contacted them because our school in Chanleas Dai was once a part of their School Feeding Program, which we noticed had stopped there this year. Though students at some of the other schools nearby were still getting daily breakfast of rice, iodized salt, vitamin fortified oil, and vegetables, our students were not. Last year it wouldn’t have been such a big a problem, but this year, with drought, the school pond drying up for the first time ever, and families needing to buy rice who had always been able to provide enough for themselves in the past, it seemed the program was stopping just when people really needed it. We learned that based an assessment of the PEPY Ride School, the WFP to took them off their “most needy” list and abolished the school feeding program there. This was particularly troublesome to us. Based on rising educational indicators (building quality, attendance, teaching, retention), the students were no longer getting fed — something we think they need as much as (really, more than) an education.

We questioned the impact of our programs — were we actually hurting these students and their families because our presence there made the WFP move? While we were increasing attendance and retention rates (and hopefully along with it, education) we were doing nothing to help feed kids — still a HUGE problem in our communities. If WFP left because we were “doing good,” weren’t we actually harming the well-being of those students?

This is still a concern, and one that we might have to address one day. In this case we were told they removed their program from the school because of “lack of transparency” in the monitoring process among local school and community leaders, which, unfortunately, we have seen before. However, in the process of corresponding with WFP and trying to encourage them to reinstate the feeding program at PRS, we learned that they were actually planning to “suspend” ALL feeding programs throughout Cambodia due to the high prices of rice.

So unfortunate that at the height of a country-wide food crisis (and really a global one) the WFP has to suspend its programs in the most needy areas. Unfortunate really isn’t strong enough of a word. Disappointing. Hurtful. Damaging.

These families have relied on WFP for years, and in the MOST CRITICAL time, they are left with nothing. It’s not the fault of the people we met with at WFP. They were kind, bright, hard-working Cambodians who recognized the problems of the situation. The hard eyes we encountered when we asked tough questions weren’t showing a lack of understanding, but rather an acceptance of the reality that they had little if any power to change the situation. The structure is already in place and was created long before they began their jobs. The WFP told us they bought last year rice at $250/metric ton. Their budgets included a cushion for rising rice prices, up to $350/ton. Now, however, the prices are $650-700/ton, over DOUBLE what they paid less than a year ago. There is no means for their budget to sustain the projects, or others like them across the globe. Cambodia, I know, is not the hardest hit by this. In many countries there are already more dire situations. But still, it becomes personal to us. How can you measure how dire a situation is when we’re talking about hunger, basic needs, and increased poverty?

Though Cambodia is better off than some, we are talking about a gray area, where the poverty line is unmistakably high and would be even higher if we considered the number of individuals and families who are living just at the gray area between poverty and a viable living. They might have some choices, but aren’t certain choices still dire when we’re talking about individuals and basic human rights? Is it worse to go into debt which can never be repaid, becoming a slave to exhorbitant interest rates, or to suffer from severe malnutrition but keep your cow? Is it worse to pull your children out of school at age 12 and send them off as migrant workers in Thailand or beg in the streets so he doesn’t have to? How do we measure poverty, really? Starvation seems like too severe of a measure. It’s not here yet, but that doesn’t mean the situation isn’t dire. I know the people we met with like it far less than we do, though perhaps it’s a bit different for us as we know so many individual children and families who will be affected by this come May.

There used to be (and there are until May, technically) two WFP programs in Cambodia; a school feeding program and an individual take home ration program for the poorest students in schools that have been removed from the feeding program. This makes sense. If WFP leaves a school, they put the most needy students on a take home ration program. If they deem the whole school in need, they feed them all once a day. Now, both are scaled back. The take home program still exists, but with no rice. Instead, the kids get oil and vegetables (peas). They are still better off than the kids in the poorest schools, where the feeding programs are not being replaced with anything. I couldn’t help but point out the contradiction while we were discussing this with the WFP folks. “So the poorest kids are getting nothing at all the students from better off schools are still getting something?” The stoic reply was simply that they can’t expand their programs during a time of cuts. Understandable, and also understandable that the poorest kids at good schools still need the oil and peas. But still, that’s a LOT of students left with absolutely nothing.

At PEPY, we’re talking about options. It’s a hard discussion. Do we do an emergency ration or feeding program in the meantime? For just our school, or all the schools in the area (many of which are probably worse off economically)? How do we manage that? Is it based on school attendance as the WFP take home rations were (though not closely monitored)? Do we have the funding for that? It’s not in our budget. It would take a huge chunk of our budget. It was never discussed until three weeks ago. We’re an educational organization.

But how can we convince anyone of the importance of education if their stomachs are not full? How can we expect children to attend or concentrate in class when they are hungry? Aren’t basic needs the first step to making sure education is a possibility? We’re still talking. It’s not easy to consider how we might help in this emergency time of need, but it’s almost impossible to consider not stepping up and filling in where other organizations have left gaping holes and empty plates.

Thoughts are welcome. Donations specifically for rice are welcome (www.pepyride.org). We know we will do something, at least something. We’re just not quite sure what.

In the meantime, I keep wondering what it will take for us to change this world enough. These price changes didn’t just “happen.” Though I’m not the best person to say why they are changing, I know that a combination of environmental, social, and political factors are creating circumstances that raise rice prices and hurt my heart. The WFP isn’t going to make it better, so what’s going to change things? I can’t help but think of Wolfgang Sachs and “Planet Dialectics,” a book I was required to read for my sociology comps. He talked a lot about the ideas of efficiency and sufficiency. Efficiency being new ways to make technology more environmentally sustainable (i.e. green computers, recycling, low wat light bulbs, solar power, etc). His argument was that no matter how efficient we become, we are always going to need to change something else… to increase our “sufficiency,” our sense of enough.

I’m not sure I’m a good example of this with my constant international flights, my daily diet coke/coffee habit, and my need for a fan constantly buzzing in this heat. But I agree that it’s going to have to happen, not just for me but for the world in general. And I think it would make both me and the world happier to be slightly less caffeinated, comfortable, and wanting; and slightly more sufficient.