Interview with Jean-Charles Dei, WFP representative

Over the past five years, civil strife in the northwest of the Central African Republic (CAR) has caused tens of thousands of people to flee, abandoning their farms and villages and leaving the country vulnerable to a food crisis. The unrest continues as the army tries to end attacks by armed groups in the country's northwest. Since December 2005, 10,000 people have fled from there into neighbouring southern Chad and, according the UN World Food Programme (WFP), an equal number of people who stayed in the CAR have fled into the bush. On 21 March IRIN spoke to WFP's representative to the CAR, Jean-Charles Dei, about the food security situation. The following is an excerpt of that interview:

QUESTION: What programmes are there to help the CAR, in this post-conflict period, in achieving food security?

ANSWER: We are now running two operations: one is concerned with development and the second with the country's recovery. We are constantly facing problems linked to resources because, so far, we have received less than 20 percent of our funding requirement while the needs on the ground are growing, mainly in the northwest where there has been instability since December 2005. Moreover, we are planning to have a permanent WFP representation in the northwest region.

Q: In which town will the permanent representation be based?

A: We are planning a mission due to start in the first half of April. We are going to Kaga-Bandoro, Bossangoa and we are going to conduct a technical assessment of which site would be ideal for WFP to stock food in anticipation of the growing needs in the northwest region.

Q: You are talking about food aid to residents in the northwest; is it a short-term action?

A: Absolutely. We are moving backwards. We had planned development assistance for the CAR but we are now in a context of emergency assistance that concerns the northwest part of the country where more than 10,000 people have crossed the border to seek refuge in neighbouring Chad; and 10,000 others are scattered in the bush, fearing reprisals. Those in the bush are surviving on wild herbs and roots; an affront to human dignity.

We, therefore, try to see at what point our mission would alleviate the suffering of people trapped in the various recurrent crises.

Q: UN agencies in the CAR have recently decided to provide aid to residents of the trouble-prone town of Markounda in Ouham Prefecture. How much aid has the WFP provided there?

A: We first provided aid through CARITAS-Bossangoa for 600 vulnerable persons whose situation was reported as tragic. Unfortunately, because of constraints on the ground, CARITAS has not contacted the WFP again a follow up of the food distribution.

Now, the UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees], the WFP and the other UN agencies are all concerned with the management of this emergency in the northwest. WFP is now working as part of the [UN] country team with an international NGO called COOPI that has just returned from the scene, in Markounda. We cannot quantify our assistance to the region for the time being as we have just started operations.

Q: Does WFP have enough food stock to cope with humanitarian problems in the CAR?

A: We are having serious problems as far as our resources are concerned. The international community is so timid when it comes to meeting the country's demand for humanitarian needs. Moreover, there is a great polemic within the international community that always ignores the crisis in the country.

I appeal to the conscience and the availability of the international donors to continue to generously meet our growing needs, for most of the people trapped in this crisis are mainly women and children.

Q: Why is the international community so reluctant to help?

A: I cannot speak on the behalf of the international community. ... Each donor has his own agenda and his own reasons why he does not want to provide assistance to the CAR. It is a pity that decisions taken against a government could worsen the humanitarian situation of people predominantly composed of children and women. This is not acceptable as far as the WFP in this country is concerned.

Q: How do you perceive the food situation in the CAR?

A: CAR is not a desert country where food security is a real problem. But, there is a purely structural problem because there is agricultural potential [here] that is beyond the people's understanding. It is a problem of goodwill: sharing responsibilities among the government, the humanitarian agents and the international community so that the country could emerge [from its situation of crisis]. If agricultural potential exists but there is no security we cannot do anything.

Q: What do you think could be the nature of the next development aid for the CAR?

A: We have a health project and an education programme. These are our key sectors of development assistance. The programmes cost 9.5 billions CFA [US $16.7 million] but are not fully funded by the international community. We return to the beginning: I mean we have to ensure health and education for the CAR people so that future generations will be well equipped to fight underdevelopment. This cannot be possible in a context of food insecurity.

Q: UN agencies are complaining that responses to their appeals for emergency funds have fallen short of expectations. Do they really plead for the CAR when they meet with donors?

A: Absolutely. Although the UN team is working hard, people cannot see the efforts the team is making through daily contacts with embassies and representatives of international donors. We have to be realistic. The same donors are funding crises in the [Sudan's] Darfur region, various disasters and humanitarian crises throughout the world. They have, therefore, erroneously, developed a tradition of saying that people are not in need of assistance if they're not going to die tomorrow or the day after.

Concerning the CAR, we are experiencing a crisis, a sleeping crisis or a silent crisis. People are dying slowly. They are not immediately dying of hunger but they are dying of diseases linked to hunger. We have to make the donors understand this and tell them OK, look, if you want this country to attain its full potential and be a donor to other countries in trouble you have to make a joint and lasting sacrifice, immediately, to help CAR. Rather than sending bits of aid that takes the country nowhere, we can say we have to help up this country once and consequently put up a substantial amount of money to fund education. This cannot happen unless donors display political will.

All African countries are in the same situation as the CAR. Africa is generally neglected and CAR even more neglected.