Responding to the world’s biggest emergency, meet Kate Newton, Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East & North Africa, at the World Food Programme, based in Cairo.
This region delivers some of the UN organisation’s most critical operations, with 13 million dependants in Yemen, where after 10 years of civil war in Syria the need continues to rise, and where the destruction of Lebanon’s main grain silos in August injured staff members and triggered systemic disaster.
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- How has Covid-19 compounded food insecurity in the Middle East?
- What is the impact of conflict across the Middle East?
- How did the World Food Programme integrate the local market into its relief effort for Lebanon?
It’s predicted Afghanistan will become the world’s most demanding emergency, with 23 million needing to be fed next year at a cost of US$2.6 billion. That’s up from the 13.7 million people helped so far this year.
The need is expected to surpass not just that of Syria and Yemen but also Ethiopia and South Sudan, all of which are in Kate Newton’s remit.
Across the 13 countries she oversees, many fail to attract much media attention. Refugees in Algeria’s Tindouf camps, established in the 70s, remain stateless and in limbo, for example; aid recipients in Gaza, Iran and Iraq are also overlooked.
In the region the World Food Programme (WFP) is not only responding to war and political unrest, but also inflation – finding ways to continue delivering meals within a budget, while the price of a food basket rises exponentially.
“Elon Musk’s challenge to the WFP triggered a conversation about the role of business in humanitarian aid”
In the longer term she sees it as critical that the WFP integrates its influence and spend into opportunities, for young people in particular, to help ease them off the need for aid.
Tesla founder Elon Musk challenged the World Food Programme in October to publish the numbers, detailing how hunger would be solved in exchange for a US$6 billion donation from him.
It fuelled a wider conversation about the role business could play in humanitarian affairs, which have traditionally relied on government aid.
Kate Newton can see how work and training opportunities, in particular, could be funded and supported by private enterprise.
“There’s a big demographic bulge toward a young population,” she says. “Young people need to be occupied, they need jobs. They need opportunities and hope.
“If you look at this region about 90 per cent of our resources go to emergencies and 10 per cent go to other programmes. It’s always a balance, making sure that we’re covering emergency needs, which everybody understands.
“There’s a push toward something more than free food and cash – young people need jobs”
“But when you’ve got groups of people who’ve been receiving assistance maybe over a 10-year period, as we see with millions of refugees across the region since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, there comes a point where it makes sense to look at how we’re using resources and whether we can start to move people away from free food assistance and into something else.
“So, in collaboration with other UN agencies, our partners and with government, we really we want to look at what we can offer to young people. And it’s something we’d be keen to explore with business donors.
“We’ve always had in our operations some kind of livelihoods work. Often that’s been in rural areas on things like water management and adapting to the impact of climate change, helping people to maximise the use of their land.
“But we’re seeing a big push toward needing to provide something that’s more than just free food and cash transfers in urban areas. We have a lot of people whose livelihoods are quite uncertain post-Covid, in urban areas. A lot of those people are young and able-bodied and they’d like to be able to work.
“Obviously we’re a food aid organisation but we do have a significant outreach into these countries. We work with large groups of refugees, with community leaders, with local government. We have offices in a lot of these countries which can help to get the data and help us in collaboration with other agencies to put these resources to best use.
“It’s complex. If we’re moving people into jobs, the jobs need to be there. We need to have market opportunities we can link people up to.
“We welcome the private sector’s interest and the innovation that can bring”
“So, for example, in Iraq we’re doing quite a lot of work on how it might be possible for groups of young people to be trained remotely in IT skills and connected into job opportunities with companies, plugging gaps in the skills market.
“We’ve got a similar programme with Turkey that’s quite small scale where we have been training chefs.
“We link up with restaurants and help to find job opportunities. Turkish cuisine is really famous so quite a lot of the young people who’ve applied to the programme are really keen not just to work in a restaurant but to become a highly qualified, highly skilled chef.
“That programme is going really well. There’s a finite number of jobs in restaurants, so we realise that it’s not a catch all solution. But it’s one of the things that our staff in the region have been working on.
“We very much welcome this growing interest of the private sector in our work. We want to keep looking at how we can work on innovation, of which the private sector brings a lot to the table.
“We’re really looking at partnership in a new way in terms of how we can work more closely with international financial institutions. It’s about us having a strong relationship with government but being seen as a partner to government and harnessing the private sector.”
“About $3 billion went to the Middle East last year – Covid has increased the need dramatically”
It’s considered increasingly important that private sector funds can be accessed as donor governments deal with constrained budgets.
The WFP secured a record level of contributions last year at US$8.4 billion, about $3 billion on which was directed to the Middle East.
“We’re anticipating next year that need’s going to be much higher, thanks to the impact of Covid-19,” Kate Newton says.
“The signs that we’re getting from donors across the world is that government budgets are under a lot of strain. Developed countries are all still looking at how they’re going to pay for the impact of Covid over the next few years.
“The signal we’re getting is that resources are going to be really tight. So, we’re also looking at how we can work as efficiently and effectively as possible and where we might need to trim back operations, where we might need to prioritise people in need.
“We’ve got country officers now doing quite big re-verification exercises. Even with refugee caseloads they’re categorising the needs of people and trying to decide how we might make cuts.
“Some of our staff were injured in the Lebanon blasts. Our office was badly damaged”
“We can apply a range of solutions if it comes to the crunch like giving alternative-month distributions. Or prioritising the winter months. Obviously, we’re having discussions with all our donors before we do that.”
Her first deployment in the region was to Lebanon in the wake of the port blast.
“Two days after I arrived in Cairo, the port blast occurred in Lebanon,” she explains. “I left a day or two later to go and help the country office to manage that.”
Ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut had exploded, causing hundreds of deaths. The damage to nearby property included the country’s key grain silos.
“We do spend a lot of time looking into the future, building scenarios to predict foreseeable risk. But then you get the occasional show-stopper like that.
“Some of our staff had been injured so they obviously needed time off. Our office in Lebanon had been badly damaged so staff could not work from there.
“In Lebanon things continue to worsen. Initially we were assisting refugees from Syria there”
“The explosion at the port had destroyed the grain silos and therefore we had to quickly mount an operation to bring more grain, more wheat flour, into Lebanon, so that there wasn’t a crisis in the supply chain for food.
“As the weeks went by, we did a more detailed assessment and realised the operation didn’t need to be as big as we’d expected because the free market was responding very quickly.
“We decided in combination with others we could provide food baskets and then quite quickly move to giving some cash support to families, which was more appropriate, and helped to support the local market.
“From the humanitarian perspective in Lebanon things continue to worsen. Initially in Lebanon, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, we were assisting refugees from Syria.
“In recent years we’ve increasingly been assisting the host community in Lebanon. Since the beginning of the economic crisis that is scaling up.
“You’ve got a combination of factors: economic crisis, the impact of Covid-19 and then the fallout from the Syrian crisis which has affected Lebanon.”
“Since 2008 WFP has scaled up cash-based aid. There’s been a seismic change in modalities”
Increasingly food security researchers are recommending direct cash payments, which Kate Newton says the WFP began introducing over the past decade.
“Traditionally, we were assisting governments by receiving and distributing grain surpluses that were donated by other governments.
“Certainly since 2008 WFP has been scaling up cash-based operations. There’s been a seismic change in terms of looking in every situation at which modalities are the most appropriate.
“Sometimes that’s giving vouchers. Sometimes it’s vouchers that are specifically for food. Sometimes it’s a combination of vouchers and cash and sometimes it’s cash.
“Across the Middle East region, we have some countries with significant currency fluctuations. If you see the price of a food basket really escalating – Lebanon is a good example recently – but other countries like Syrian and Yemen are also affected – it’s quite useful to be able to have a blend of options.
“Sometimes we need to be topping up with food simply because the prices in the markets are so volatile that there have been gaps in supply that we couldn’t have predicted.
“In Tunisia, we’re helping the government scale up its school meals programme”
“Our outlook is always to work in the most sustainable manner. We work everywhere at the request of the country, and we always work to support the role of the government.
“Depending on the country, sometimes we’re building the capacity of the government by implementing support and sometimes we work alongside partners, helping to ramp up the capacity of the government to do its job.
“In some of the countries where we manage humanitarian operations, the government may be a party to conflict. In that situation we look at how we can work with the agreement of both parties in a neutral, apolitical manner.
“We work in a manner that maximises the support to municipal and national authorities and essentially to hand over our programmes over time.
“In Tunisia, for example, we’re helping the government to scale up its school meals programme and its national protection system.
“In other countries such as Lebanon we’re working alongside the government, so we actually handle the transfers to support the government. In that case it’s a direct relationship with the recipient.”
“Anyone working in food insecurity is increasingly worried about adaptation to climate change”
In keeping an eye to the future, managing climate change is attracting the increased attention it needs, she says.
“Climate change is obvious and anyone working on food and food systems, dealing with food insecurity is increasingly worried about adaptation to climate change.
“One area we’re really aware of in Egypt – which will be hosting the next COP summit next year – is water management and water scarcity. Management of the Nile and any policy work looking at this issue is of great interest to us.
“In most of the countries where we work, the climate is getting drier or it’s changing. We know that there are going to be water issues in this region.”
Other innovations apply technology to help recipients access nutritious food that has been sourced locally.
“We’re always interested in how we can do things better,” she says. “We try to make the best use of technology, for example, to register people and help manage systems. We give people electronic cards that they can use to withdraw funding or pay for food, and we can track what they buy on most cards.
“We’re interested in encouraging people to eat a healthy diet. We’re interested in how we can use that knowledge to encourage people to buy fresh foods and to benefit local markets.
“We look at how farmers in the areas where we operate can contribute to those operations or benefit from them. All of that is something we continue to research.”
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