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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The New WFP Program

by | July 12th, 2013 | 07:00 am

Last month, the World Food Program agreed on a new two-year $200 million program for the country that starts this month; the organization is hoping for contributions of 207,000 MT of grain. The program will target about 2.4 million people, almost all pregnant and nursing women and children; these populations are reached in part by a focus on institutions such as nurseries, kindergartens, primary schools, baby homes, child centers, boarding schools and pediatric wards. If the last program is any indication, about half of imports will support more than a dozen factories that produce fortified biscuits and Super Cereals. The program will also include a food-for-work component designed to support public goods such as rehabilitation of agricultural infrastructure.

It is highly doubtful that the WFP will meet these objectives, however, because of declining donor interest in the country.

First, a short recap of the DPRK’s recent relations with the WFP. The last program (Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO) 200114, “Nutrition Support for Women and Children in DPRK”) started in July 2010 but was replaced by an emergency operation from April 2011 to June 2012 as the country entered one of its recurrent periods of elevated distress; the standard program then resumed and was in operation through June of this year.

The most recent quarterly report we have on the project, covering January through March (.pdf here), shows how the shortfalls arise and are distributed. The organization faced a break in the wheat pipeline in January. As a result, the WFP was forced into triage, channeling food to factories located in the North and East and temporarily halting food production in four of the 14 factories. 200,000 primary school children in Southern and Western parts of the country were effectively cut off by March. Pregnant and breastfeeding women in these areas received corn and pulses but lacked access to Super Cereal and faced a reduction in the number of feeding days. The April funding update (.pdf here) showed that of funding requirements for the remainder of the program of about $50—high perhaps because of the demands of the lean season–only $9.4 million had been received. Only Russia and Switzerland appeared as country donors; the remainder was made up by the multilaterals themselves through mechanisms such as the Central Emergency Response Fund.

A feature of recent programs is an increase in monitoring, including household visits. These visits do not appear to be randomly selected—although we are happy to be corrected–and the number of households visited is small; it is hard to draw any convincing inferences, but the findings are probably relevant for the distressed segments of the population. The general picture is mixed. The harvest was an improvement over 2011, households seemed to be consuming three meals a day and PDS rations—as reported by the government—were holding stated at 400 grams per person per day during the first quarter, short of the government target (573 grams/person/day) but better than nothing. The DailyNK information on food prices shows that they have moderated during a period when rations are typically tight, perhaps reflecting the release of inventory. On the other hand, a table that divides households on the basis of consumption and diversity of diet into three categories—poor, borderline and acceptable—still finds 80 percent in the poor and borderline categories.

Information provided in recent WFP reports confirms what we have long argued. Coverage of the food situation oscillates with broader security concerns and ennui. But as the UNICEF nutrition survey of last year showed clearly, large swaths of the population remain chronically food insecure; that report estimated that nearly 28 percent of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition and four percent are acutely malnourished. Moreover, the improvements in the harvest that were visible last year are unlikely to be sustained; WFP/FAO projections suggest total output could fall by about 5 percent. Despite the pictures from Pyongyang, North Korea remains a humanitarian challenge.

Household food consumption category between 1st quarter of 2012 and 2013