Do no harm

  • A return to rational, measured discourse is the only way to tackle the WFP controversy
Do no harm

Jul 2, 2015-

The recent controversy concerning the World Food Programme’s (WFP) distribution of rice to earthquake victims in various parts of the country has served to illustrate just how complicated foreign aid is, both in narrative and in practice. While locals in districts like Gorkha and Nuwakot have complained of ‘substandard’ rice distributed by the WFP and its partners, the aid agency has issued repeated clarifications to the contrary.

But things took a most unwelcome turn on Wednesday, when John Ging, Director of Coordination and Response at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), criticised the Nepali media for its coverage of the WFP affair. Addressing a press conference, Ging is said to have described the media coverage as ‘nonsense’. Citing a field visit to Sindhupalchok district, he related that the people he had met with were happy with the WFP’s work.

Ging’s response was unfortunate. Instead of responding calmly and communicating clearly the WFP’s position, while doing all it can to dispel the controversy through transparency, the agency seems to have grown defensive and exasperated. Furthermore, following Ging’s comments, remarks on Twitter on Thursday morning by Rensje Teerink, Ambassador/Head of the European Union delegation, only served to further stoke the fire. One especially distasteful allusion that Teerink repeated on Twitter was that it was “perhaps better to focus on Syria and Yemen”.

This issue has clearly touched raw nerves, provoking rash and unbecoming reactions from both sides. Some even went so far as to Tweet under the hashtag #WFPgoback. Both Nepali stakeholders and members of the diplomatic community and donor agencies must maintain calm and address the controversy in a matter befitting partners—without resorting to rabble rousing or petty threats.

There have been problems with the rice that the WFP distributed in the past too, namely in Jajarkot in 2009. This time around, a report from a parliamentary oversight committee has insisted that substandard rice was distributed. Somewhere along the distribution mechanism, something seems to have gone wrong. And it is up to the WFP to find out where and communicate this clearly to the Nepali media. Inedible or rotten food can pose a major public health concern and the WFP, a responsible and respected international aid agency, should take steps to make certain that it does no harm in the name of doing good.

That said, criticism against the WFP and the larger donor community has also taken on unsavoury hues. Many of these donors and agencies have been critical partners for Nepal in many trying times, including in this earthquake. All the good work they have done must not be forgotten. Ground realities are such that Nepal needs assistance from international organisations and donors, especially when it comes to food and reconstruction efforts. It would, thus, be wise to attempt to conduct a measured dialogue. The monsoon is at the doorstep and food, among others, is still a major concern for many, especially in remote areas of the affected districts. Being at loggerheads will most certainly not help anyone.

 

Published: 03-07-2015 08:08

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