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Updated: November 24, 2013 20:20 IST

Hungry for change

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'What India needs is help in implementation; in learning from best practices from within and outside of the country' - Ertharin Cousin
'What India needs is help in implementation; in learning from best practices from within and outside of the country' - Ertharin Cousin

In view of the National Food Security Act, World Food Programme’s Executive Director Ertharin Cousin discusses the organisation’s plans to assist India’s fight against hunger

In the wake of the passing of the National Food Security Act, Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), visited New Delhi last week on the invitation of the Ministry of Agriculture. Seeking to engage and enhance WFP’s strategic partnership in a country that is home to over a quarter of the hungry people in the world, and ranks 63rd on the Global Hunger Index released on 14 October 2013, Cousin met with a number of important policy makers, including K.V. Thomas, Minister of State (Independent Charge), Ministry of Food, Consumer Affairs & Public Distribution and Sharad Pawar, Minister for Agriculture and Food Processing Industries. Excerpts from an interview:

You’ve just returned from the Philippines. Tell us a little about the situation there; post-Haiyan, as well as the progress made by World Food Programme’s rescue and rehabilitation efforts?

It’s now almost two weeks since the typhoon in the Philippines. The emergency relief operation in the early days after the dramatic and devastating typhoon hit was very challenging. The Wednesday after the typhoon, WFP had only managed to reach 50,000 people. The devastation was such that the roads were not open, you couldn’t get boats into the docks, and so we couldn’t reach people. But as of yesterday, we have dispatched food to more than 2.5 million people in the areas that are affected, together with our partners. That’s the difference between where we were and where we are now. Flying over Tacloban recently, I saw houses that were completely destroyed, and visited evacuation centres with more than 2000 families, but I also saw the roads cleared, people going back to houses and beginning reconstruction. The Philippines people are marching forward, and WFP is moving with them. We recognise that this is going to be a long road back and investment and effort is what is required. This is going to be a very complex operation, where you need cash for work and food for work programmes that you can give to people to support their food needs while they rebuild their house and livelihood.

In your opinion how does the world view the recently passed National Food Security Act by India?

The reality is that we as a global community recognise that we have the tools and the knowledge to eliminate hunger and food insecurity. The passage of the bill signals that the Indian government has the public will. It’s this will that we are too often missing. You cannot create sustainable, durable solutions to food and security without government leadership. That is what we have now in India. As a number of ministers have reminded me, most of the programmes on the bill are not new, but all of these have been taken and put under one umbrella. They’ve been prioritised and it is that prioritisation and their focus on the issue that will make the change.

How do you compare and contrast the Indian situation to that in other parts of the world suffering from food insecurity and hunger?

I think there are a couple of contrasts. The primary contrast is the size of the country and while India has reduced the number of vulnerable poor people in the country in the past ten years, that percentage is still in whole numbers larger than entire countries. This size is a significant factor and challenge in India’s goal of achieving food security and elimination of hunger. The similarity is the efficiency and effectiveness that’s required in a public distribution system to eliminate leakages and duplications. We’ve seen those challenges in other places. We know the kinds of technology solutions that we can bring into India to assist in implementing programs that are much more effective and efficient and fit the target audience.

And a little bit about WFP’s plans in India, with regards to policy making and implementation?

The best practice model that we developed for Targeted Public Distribution System reform becomes one tool that we can use. We are already supporting its scale up in Odisha.. We can meet with other state governments and provide that as an option. We have talked to the ministry about potentially using an ICT (Information and communications technology) e-commerce tool as a pilot programme that we can introduce in different states. Like any pilot, we will measure going in, implement, measure coming out and then write about outcomes and put the programme into practice in other states. The reality of what WFP can do is identify tools that have worked abroad as well as tools that have worked in India and pilot them in very diverse locations across the country. I wouldn’t call it handholding because this is a very sophisticated government in India. There are some contexts that you work in and you have to bring a level of technological and intellectual capacity. That’s already in place in India. What India needs is help in implementation; in learning from best practices from within and outside of the country. WFP is the operational agency in the UN and what we have built our reputation upon is our ability to perform. Bringing that expertise to the implementation of policies is where we see the opportunity to assist.

During this visit you have had several interactions with ministers and representatives of various organisations. Have there been any concrete takeaways?

There have been a number of concrete takeaways. Professor Swaminathan hosted a round table discussion with eight different ministries where each of the ministers and secretaries presented opportunities where they could use WFP’s assistance and the good part about that was that the World Bank was there and the representatives from UNDP as well as UNICEF were there. I don’t want to identify any particular one but I can tell you that we are now developing a menu of opportunities for us to pilot projects and we will, over the coming weeks, work particularly with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Minister of Food to identify from that menu the key priority projects that they want us to focus on and we will create a programme plan on how to move forward.

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