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UN struggles to combat hunger in world’s worst combat zones

Since South Sudan’s creation four years ago, conflict within the country has left millions displaced or dead. Among the living, 2.5 million need food assistance, and the number could grow to 4 million by the end of the year. Judy Woodruff talks to Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Program, about helping South Sudan and the challenges of meeting demand in other combat zones.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The nation of South Sudan is barely 4 years old, and for much of that time, the fledgling country has been at war with itself, a conflict that’s displaced more than two million South Sudanese in just the last 16 months.

    It’s estimated that 50,000 people have died in the fighting. Among the living, more than 2.5 million need food assistance. That number could be four million by year’s end.

    Ertharin Cousin is executive director of the World Food Program. That’s the U.N. agency that is charged with helping the South Sudanese in need. The WFP is also facing four other major crises elsewhere in Africa and in the Middle East.

    Ertharin Cousin was just in South Sudan late last month, and she joins me here tonight.

    It’s good to have you on the program again.

  • Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director, World Food Program:

    Yes, thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so you were just there weeks ago and you were saying it’s gotten worse since then.

  • Ertharin Cousin:

    Yes, it has gotten worse.

    I was in Juba and Ganyiel, where, when I went to visit Ganyiel, which is an island surrounded by swampland, I had the opportunity to talk to women. One mother told me she had walked for weeks and months in order to reach a place where there was safety and where there was food, where she had nothing to do but — the only thing she could do was feed her children water lilies until she could get to a place where we were providing them with food.

    She came from the Upper Nile region, because Ganyiel isn’t — is — and she was in the northern part of Upper Nile and I was in lower part of Upper Nile. The northern part of Upper Nile, where Malakal is located, has gotten worse. And in fact two counties in the Upper Nile region, we have been forced to suspend activities because three of our staff were kidnapped within the last 10 days.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How does the — what can the World Food Program do in a situation like that, where the fighting, the civil war elements are just getting more complicated?

  • Ertharin Cousin:

    Well, what it requires is we are agile with the other members of the humanitarian country team. We go in, we provide the assistance, we move out. But the challenge is when we can’t go in at all, and that’s what we’re finding now as the conflict becomes ever more difficult and you’re breaking down into more of tribal conflicts with militias that — where there’s very little command and control, as you would think about in a traditional conflict situation.

    It’s much more about local fighting parties. And so it’s very difficult for us to have anyone even to talk to about our staff who have been kidnapped.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you do in a situation like that?  What is it that the World Food Program and other agencies like yours, what do you need at a time like this?

  • Ertharin Cousin:

    So, what we need to do first and foremost is not forget the victims of this, the women, the children who need our assistance.

    We are $250 million short from what we need to provide the support that is required for the 2.5 million people who we know are now in desperate need of food assistance between now and the end of the year, particularly nutritional assistance for children.

    And we also need to ensure that the entire global community, not just the agencies, let their voices be known that humanitarians must be provided with the access that is necessary to provide assistance. And, finally, what we need to particularly do in South Sudan is we’re looking to expand our school feeding program because we want to ensure that particularly boys, and we want to target about 160,000 additional children for school feeding, so that those boys can hear and see a different way out, a different narrative than the one that their fathers saw who for decades fought for their own freedom.

    And now those same boys are seeing that conflict seems to be the only answer. Keeping them in school would provide a different set of outcomes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The World Food Program has frequently put out the word that it needs more money. Your shop, your office has done that. What’s the response to that and who is it who is falling back in their pledges to the World Food Program?

  • Ertharin Cousin:

    Well, the reality of it is that WFP, the World Food Program, is 100 percent voluntarily funded and the majority of that today is being provided by governments.

    And governments like the United States are extremely generous in providing us with assistance. The challenge is that because you have Syria Iraq, South Sudan, now Yemen, Ebola, Central African Republic, the needs are so large that it requires that we broaden the number of donors who are supporting our organizations and seek additional support, particularly from private sector individuals.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned Syria and Iraq. Let me quickly ask you about that.

    Syria, this is a war that has gone on, a civil war, for years, so many displaced Syrians both inside and outside the country. How is the World Food Program getting help to them?

  • Ertharin Cousin:

    Well, we are providing support inside Syria to approximately 4.2 million people on an every-month basis. And we’re providing support in both the opposition-held areas, as well as the government-held areas.

    But there are still besieged areas where we’re challenged in reaching those parties. Outside Syria, we are continuing to support approximately 1.7 million people. But, unfortunately, because this has — the Syrian conflict has gone on for so long, it has required us to reduce the size of our benefit inside Syria, which means that the basket of food that we’re providing is 30 percent smaller today than it was this same time last year, and the support that we’re providing financially, because outside Syria it’s not about the availability of food; it’s access to food.

    So we provide a conditional cash voucher that allows the refugee to purchase food. But the challenge is that we have been forced now to cut that voucher by about 15 percent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because?

  • Ertharin Cousin:

    Because of lack of funding.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, well, then let me quickly ask you about Iraq, next door. A number of the Syrians have gone into Iraq, Iraq of course having its own crisis which grows worse by the day with the Islamic State group.

    How is the World Food Program dealing — are you able to keep up with the situation there?

  • Ertharin Cousin:

    Well, inside Iraq, we are supporting about 1.5 million internally displaced parties as a result of the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

    And last year, Saudi Arabia, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia provided a $500 million contribution to the entire international community, which part of that supported WFP for the entire year. Unfortunately, that pot has run dry, and we’re now in a situation where we are significantly underfunded in Iraq at a time when we just saw 90,000 people leave Ramadi with the recent bombing campaigns in Anbar province.

    We are trying to reach approximately 60,000 of those 90,000 with just the basic food needs to support their ability to feed themselves while they run, while they move, while they try to find safety.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, individuals who are watching, is there anything they can do?

  • Ertharin Cousin:

    Go to www.wfp.org, join us, help us, and contribute, provide your support, provide your voice to your governments to ensure that they continue to provide the support that is necessary, so people don’t forget the victims of the crisis around the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it’s a very difficult story, set of stories to listen to.

    Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Program, thank you.

  • Ertharin Cousin:

    Thank you so much.

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