Interview with new WFP Country Representative, Richard Ragan

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has been working in Nepal for over 40 years and is one of the few humanitarian agencies that has managed to maintain its programmes in the remotest parts of the country despite the last decade of conflict.

A ceasefire and peace talks, along with the restoration of the political system by King Gyanendra, offer the best chance for a settlement to the civil war in many years. WFP’s new Country Representative to Nepal, Richard Ragan, spoke to IRIN about the food agency’s work in the current changing political climate in the Himalayan kingdom.

QUESTION: If the UN is asked to provide support in Nepal’s peace building efforts, what role can WFP play?

ANSWER: We support programmes that demobilise forces. Once the demobilisation occurs, there is the key question of reintegration and what people who were once soldiers are going to do next.

As the food organisation of the UN, we have food. You can treat it as a commodity that can be used as money. We’ve done literacy training for people who say they can’t read. We tell them we will give you food to learn [how] to read, develop skills and train people in micro-finance and to use computers.

What limits you is creativity and we’re willing to be very creative in the transition process. Because we have this particular field presence, we can play important roles - something that the government wants us to do.

Q: What should be done in the long term to help Nepal overcome its food scarcity problem?

A: There are two ways to deal with the food deficit problem. One is you produce enough food to feed the population and, two, you grow your economy so you can buy food in the international market. Nepal is, on one hand, blessed with some of [the] world’s most beautiful mountains while, on the other [hand], faces challenges due to the difficult terrain for farmers to produce food.

So, it’s always going to be tough for Nepal on [the] production side to produce enough food. Nepal can try to introduce different varieties of crops, which are drought resistant or grow better in the mountains with colder climates. Potatoes are not indigenous to Nepal but have been introduced in the mountains and eaten by everybody. Those sorts of things have a huge impact on rural Nepal’s food security.

We have to think creatively about introducing the right kind of things to people in remote parts of the country. The other element is growing your economy. Now [when] there is peace in Nepal, you can focus on the economy.

Q: Reports suggest that WFP is running short of funds globally, are programmes in Nepal affected?

A: Believe it or not Nepal has been relatively well funded and it is not a large-scale operation as in other countries. For instance, WFP has a US $200 million operation in North Korea, whereas in Nepal it is only about $20 million. Darfur is a billion dollar operation. It is easier to fund smaller operations, but for the bigger ones [it’s] harder to get support.

Q: Should Nepal rely on WFP for its food security?

A: Nepal should never rely entirely on WFP. What we can bring to [the] table is our experience around the globe as the largest humanitarian agency in the world and one of [the] key UN agencies with development assistance. But at the end of the day it is up to the national authorities and the people of Nepal. We have experience around the world and we are here only at the request of the government and if it thinks we can contribute, then we can try to do that. But [the] best part of our job ultimately would be the government to say: “we don’t need you anymore”.

We left China two years ago after a four-year operation. China said: “Listen, we are [a] food producing and food exporting country and our economy is growing. Now it’s time for WFP to leave.” We left the Philippines in 1996, which is also an exporting country, but because of the peace process, the government asked us to come back. They felt we were an organisation that could move quickly - where our people work better in the field than they do in capitals and headquarters. We have very action-oriented staff and they work in the toughest places in the world and they get work done.

Q: Being new to the job, what challenges [do] you foresee working in Nepal?

A: The biggest challenge is the next phase of [the] peace process and what that means for Nepalese living in the countryside. How that dynamic plays out is to me, a key thing to watch. We will continue to work no matter what.

It’s important to see the new government takes shape, see how the ceasefire is implemented [and] what the security environment, particularly in the countryside, [will] result [in]. If the ceasefire doesn’t hold, insecurity becomes the menu of the day in the countryside, and makes it very difficult for us to work.

We, as a UN [agency] have basic operating guidelines but if we can’t operate under those guidelines, we can’t work. If someone is trying to hinder our ability to move into an area, we won’t operate.