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World Food Programme beefing up its Syria program

By Tom Watkins, CNN
updated 7:10 AM EDT, Wed September 25, 2013
A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations. A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Executive director for U.N. program says access in Syria is a serious worry
  • The program has 80 international staffers and 300 national staffers supporting the region
  • Ertharin Cousin praises aggressive planning, which averted disaster in Niger

New York (CNN) -- The World Food Programme is ramping up its Syria operations in anticipation of greater demand from inside and outside the country, but lack of access is proving problematic, the U.N. group's executive director told reporters Tuesday.

"Most of my time has been spent with donors as well as the representatives from the neighboring countries regarding our operation in Syria," Ertharin Cousin said at the Social Good Summit, which coincides with the meeting of world leaders here at the U.N. General Assembly

The program, which provides services to 3 million Syrians inside the country and 1.2 million outside, is making plans to boost those numbers next month to 4 million inside the country and 1.5 million to 1.7 million outside, she said.

The program has 80 international staffers and 300 national staffers supporting the region. Though some of them are working from Amman, Jordan, others are spread across all 14 governorates of Syria, she said.

Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Programme, said Tuesday at the United Nations that the effort to feed Syrians is ramping up.
Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Programme, said Tuesday at the United Nations that the effort to feed Syrians is ramping up.
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But the group has had access "issues of access" to some areas "for some time," she said.

Cousin did not say whether those issues were caused by the government or rebel forces. "What I've said is that bullets don't tell you what side they come from," she said. "There's enough complicity to go around we need all parties to provide us with access."

WFP is not involved in politics, she said. "We deal with the consequences of failed politics."

Because of their apolitical stance, WFP representatives are able to talk to all sides in the civil war, "and that's what we do," she said.

But the outlook is grim if access is not gained soon. Cousin predicted that images of children suffering from severe malnutrition will emerge from the country this winter for a third year in a row. "Those pictures will get worse and we, as the international community, should not wait until we have famine-like conditions before we bring attention to the fact that we don't have access to too many of these areas."

She credited aggressive planning with helping authorities avert a famine last year in Niger.

The challenges can go beyond meeting nutritional needs, she said, citing one Syrian man's anger over the bread offered to him in a refugee camp in Jordan where she was visiting recently.

"He said, 'This is not Syrian bread; it is Jordanian bread, and they have their own recipe for bread,' " she recalled.

The program worked with Jordanian bakers to rejigger the recipe. "When we have the opportunity and the ability to meet not only nutritional needs but cultural needs, we try to comply," she said, adding that that was not always possible.

Last year, WFP fed nearly 99 million people in 88 countries, she said. It is 100% voluntarily funded, and each year it must raise the funds it expects to use by asking for them. Last year's total was just over $4 billion.

But its resources are finite. Some 10 million people in Yemen are "food insecure," meaning they live in hunger or in fear of starvation, she said.

And Haiti has reduced the size of its school feeding program, despite ongoing need, "because we're underresourced," Cousin said.

Over the long term, more challenges await.

She said WFP is working with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to prepare for the effects of climate change by getting more drought-tolerant seeds to farmers.

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