Jean-Pierre de Margerie was appointed the new Cambodia country representative for the UN’s World Food Program in February. He comes from French-speaking Canada and has been working at WFP since 1993, for which he has worked in Rwanda, Nepal and in Southeast Asia for 10 years. Before arriving in Cambodia, he was stationed in North Korea.
WFP is the principal UN agency providing food aid; it currently assists nearly one million food-insecure Cambodians through programs in the education, health, and rural development sectors.
The agency defines food security in terms of the amount of food physically available, the ability to acquire adequate amounts of food, and the individual’s use of food and capacity to absorb nutrients, which is related to health status.
Mr de Margerie spoke to The Cambodia Daily’s Paul Vrieze last week about the food security situation in Cambodia.
Q: How do you assess the food security situation in Cambodia at the moment?
A: Despite significant improvement in recent years in reducing malnutrition and poverty levels, many Cambodians still suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Though there is a continuous rice surplus at national level, food availability is insufficient in some areas of the country, while food access problems are widespread and often based on household’s insufficient income.
Cambodia is currently listed [by the International Food Policy Research Institute] as one the 33 countries with an “alarming or extremely alarming level of hunger.” Cambodia unfortunately tops the list of Asian countries in terms of hunger prevalence-second after Bangladesh-and slow in progress in reducing hunger-second after North Korea.
Q: How are rising food prices and the global economic crisis affecting food security in Cambodia?
A: Back-to-back effects of first the high food price crisis of last year and now the economic one are likely to not only create categories of “new poor” in some vulnerable sectors and areas of the country, but also push into deeper food insecurity the already chronically poor. Last year, a majority of poor households facing higher food prices had to resort to very damaging coping mechanisms…. This could be the case this year, where people are going to increase their debts, selling their land, pulling their kids from school because they think they’ll be able to generate some kind of income. Some people might start selling households items or productive assets….
We make the difference between sustainable coping mechanisms and damaging coping mechanisms. What’s not sustainable is that when you reach such levels of debt that you have to sell your agricultural tools. That’s when you start to get in this vicious poverty circle that you just cannot get out of.
The average plot of land held by Cambodians used to be a few hectares. Now, I think it’s below half a hectare. Apparently, one of the causes is that when people need additional money they start selling their land.
Q: Do you think this lean season [the period from July to November when household food stocks run traditionally low] will be a particularly difficult season? How many more people will become food insecure?
A: During the 2008 lean season the number of food insecure people increased by more than 50 percent to 2.8 million individuals. The number of food insecure people could top 2.8 million individuals during the upcoming season. The largest proportion of food insecure people was found in the Tonle Sap and plains zone last year. Among the reasons for this is that Tonle Sap area is vulnerable to flooding and is one of the poorest areas of the country.
Q: If food insecurity should rise sharply during the next few months will WFP be able to deal with it on the short term?
A: We’re monitoring the food security situation…. We have a three-prong strategy, which consists of: First, ensuring our existing food-based safety nets…are maintained; second, rapidly scale-up, within months, these existing programs to a potential half-million more food-insecure Cambodians. Third, as new information becomes available on emerging vulnerabilities, possibly develop new quick-action programs. The question is…how do we put safety nets in place that will prevent people from resorting to damaging coping mechanisms, so they can resume normal activity next season.
There is the issue of prevalence of food insecurity, preventing the number of food-insecure to rise, and then there is question of severity, those that are reaching levels of drastic food insecurity, which might put their health at risk…. A recent national nutrition survey found that the level of child malnutrition is reaching 15 percent in poor urban areas. There is now a working group put together to deal with this, because when you reach these levels you are talking about emergency intervention, you are talking about life-threatening situations…. We have to detect as quickly as possible those that reach these critical levels of food insecurity.
Q: Should the government be concerned about the current food situation?
A: The Cambodian government is concerned…. They are working with WFP and other stakeholders on this issue. The government takes it very serious and we are in full dialogue with them right now to make sure they remain on track, and if there is a need to take immediate action they are at the forefront.
Q: Is there anything particular to the Cambodian food-security situation when you compare it to other countries with food-security problems?
A: One thing I find in particular is that you have this huge supply of surplus rice and you see these hunger indicators that show people simply don’t have enough to feed themselves. Some other countries, like North Korea, don’t even produce half the food it needs; it’s totally dependent on food imports or food aid. So there’s this disconnect somewhere, there’s clearly this issue of redistribution of rice. But, [this rice surplus] also makes me realize Cambodia has the capacity to solve this problem…that’s why I am optimistic in the potential of this country to resolve these issues, hopefully in the short term.