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Going with the grain of WFP

Pamposh Dhar | Updated on October 16, 2020 Published on October 15, 2020

Relief in sight: Through the conflicts and the famines, and now through a pandemic, too, WFP continues to ship food around the world   -  REUTERS/ EDUARDO MUNOZ

A former employee recalls how the World Food Programme, recipient of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, acquainted her with the grim and disparate realities of her country

* Last year, WFP supported 97 million people in 88 countries. This year, it seeks to help 138 million

* I had colleagues who had moved to India after postings in Somalia and Ethiopia, with stories of the human tragedies unfolding there and of the immense logistical effort it took to get food to those who needed it most

* Back in the ’80s, one of my challenges was to convince donors to continue to support our programme in a country that had declared itself self-sufficient in foodgrains

I was 29 years old and out of a job, living in New Delhi. My default setting was to look through the newspapers for “wanted” advertisements. But then I thought I would see if I could find not just a good job, but my dream job.

I had always wanted to work for the United Nations, but at that stage I did not have a clear preference among the various agencies that were active in India. And, of course, I had no clue if any of those agencies were looking for someone with my skills set. Nevertheless I decided to take a chance.

This was 1988, long before the age of the Internet. So I hauled out a thick directory, looked up the addresses of all the UN agencies listed there and sent them all letters to say I wanted to explore the possibility of working for them.

A few days later, I received a reply from the India Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), inviting me to a meeting with him. A few weeks later, I became WFP’s first public information officer outside its headquarters in Rome.

I left WFP in 1993 to move to Hong Kong. Sadly, WFP did not have an office there. It was a move I wanted and never regretted; yet, as I left India, I knew I would never find the same level of satisfaction in another job.

The more I learnt about WFP’s projects around the world the happier I was to work for an organisation that provided food to people in war-torn and famine-hit regions, to undernourished children everywhere, to poor families who did not have enough to eat. I had colleagues who had moved to India after postings in Somalia and Ethiopia, with stories of the human tragedies unfolding there and of the immense logistical effort it took to get food to those who needed it most.

Sadly, large parts of the world still face war, conflict and extreme hunger. Through the conflicts and the famines, and now through a pandemic, too, WFP — the recipient of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize — continues to ship food around the world. Last year, it supported 97 million people in 88 countries. This year, it seeks to help 138 million.

Back in the ’80s, one of my challenges was to convince donors to continue to support our programme in a country that had declared itself self-sufficient in foodgrains. Although as an Indian I was proud of this self-sufficiency, I soon realised it really just meant that India produced enough for those who could afford to buy. Given the high levels of extreme poverty, it was certainly not a nutritional self-sufficiency for all the people of India.

As India no longer suffered famine, the India programme focused on two areas: Food for Work (FFW) projects that provided family rations to supplement the incomes of minimum-wage workers; and nutritious mid-day meals for pre-school children, pregnant women and lactating mothers.

One summer in the early ’90s, newspapers published reports of people dying of hunger in Madhya Pradesh (MP). Although this was not part of my remit, I went to see my director to point out that we were running an FFW project in the affected area. Could we not shift some of the food just to keep people from starving?

I knew this was a tricky suggestion because the official Indian position was that simple food aid projects were no longer needed. Somewhat to my surprise, my director asked me to immediately travel to MP to report on the situation and make an official recommendation. I was struck by this strange mix of bureaucracy and flexibility, but I recognised that it was important for WFP to respond to their own “expert” report rather than reacting to newspaper reports not backed by the government.

It was an innovative solution in a difficult and politically sensitive situation. I went to MP and submitted my report within a few days. WFP was then able to divert some of the food rations already in the area to help those in the drought-affected villages. The rations were reimbursed later to the FFW project.

That trip to MP lives on in my memory for another reason: It brought me into contact with people from my own country I would never otherwise have met.

Grim as their situation was, these people continued their traditions of generosity and hospitality. As I was saying goodbye, they suddenly produced berries gathered from the forest as a gift to me for visiting them. I saw this same incredible generosity among people with so little to spare in other parts of India too — Assam, Rajasthan, Karnataka.

I met people from extremely poor households in a remote tribal belt in MP — people who had faced hunger long enough to have gone blind from malnutrition. I saw hamlets with no young men, as they had migrated elsewhere in search of work. It was my country, but not my world — not until I joined WFP.

Pamposh Dhar is a writer and editor based in Singapore

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Published on October 15, 2020
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