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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Sources: The UN Overview of Needs and Assistance

by | June 11th, 2012 | 07:00 am
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Each year, the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office (RCO) in Pyongyang publishes an extremely useful overview of the country; the 2012 edition, covering 2011, has just been released (in .pdf). A number of multilateral agencies and NGOs continue to quietly soldier on in the country and seek to coordinate activities despite perennial funding shortfalls and ongoing problems of access and monitoring. As the report notes, the government continues to literally hold the population hostage, extending more favorable operating conditions contingent on the resources provided.

Those on the ground include:

  • Six UN resident agencies: FAO, UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, WFP, and WHO
  • Six European NGOs (Save the Children, Premiere Urgence, Welthunger Hilfe, Triangle, Concern Worldwide and Handicap International) operating under the aegis of the Europe Union’s Aid Cooperation Office (FSO), and are known internally as EUPS (European Union Programme Support) units.
  • The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Italian Development Cooperation Office, a Swedish Agricultural Rehabilitation Project
  • The International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and ICRC.

Programmed needs for 2012, which are already scaled back to reflect weak donor interest, totaled just under $200 million for 2012; committed funding stood at less than $80 million and $15 million of this came from the UN’s own Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). As the report notes drily, “contrary to the principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD), and at variance with the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality, humanitarian agencies note that there is an inherent link between the political environment and provision of funding to the UN and partners.” In addition, the report notes a bias toward provision of food vs. other pressing needs with respect to health in particular.

One of the few bright spots in the report is the increase in country participation in appeals. In 2011, the number of donors increased from nine in 2010 to 22; developing countries are joining the ranks, with Brazil among the top three donors and Indonesia contemplating a donation through the WFP.

Yet as is always the case, the core of the report is bleak and confirms many of the concerns we have raised in this blog over the last year. Some highlights:

  • Environmental disasters and particularly extreme weather do play an important role in these humanitarian challenges. But many of these, including flooding, are the result of poor land management in the past. Moreover, these problems only underscore the importance of policies to address ecosystem management, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.
  • At the macro level, the report notes the sluggish growth over the last five years—a decline in per capita income over the period—but also the contraction in agriculture’s share of output and very high inflation (topping out at over 100% a year), although moderating somewhat in 2011.
  • Annual cereal import needs remain in the vicinity of 1 million metric tons a year, more or less; this year the need is somewhat less—about 740,000 metric tons—as a result of an 8.5 percent increase in production over 2010/11.
  • Nonetheless, food vulnerability and longer-term effects of poor nutrition remain acute. The 2009 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) found the national prevalence of Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) in children under-five at 5.2 per cent and of Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) at 0.5 per cent. But in November 2011, the WFP conducted a Mid-Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) screening of 696 children aged 6-59 months from nurseries and kindergartens in counties to which the program had access and the results were worse (we don’t know if they would have been better or worse than would have pertained across all counties.) Global acute malnutrition rates were 12.5 percent and severe acute malnutrition (SAM) was 1.6 per cent. The corresponding rates for children under-two (223) were GAM 18.8 per cent and SAM 4.5 per cent. A separate UNICEF screening in 25 counties in four Northeastern provinces showed broadly comparative results (17.4 percent acutely malnourished, including moderate and severe cases). Diarrhoea is one of the main contributing factors of chronic and acute malnutrition, and UNICEF is working to improve rural sanitation guidelines.  A broader nutritional assessment is scheduled for this year.
  • The health system is severely stressed. Nominally universal, the one bright spot is relatively high rates of immunization. Nonetheless, North Korea is the one country in the entire Asia-Pacific which is not on track to meet Millennium Development Goals (MDG) 4 (reduce child mortality), 5 (improve maternal health), and 6 (combat malaria, HIV, and other diseases). Neonatal death remains one of the most pressing issues, with rates well above an unweighted global average including all poor developing countries.
  • Both malaria and tuberculosis pose challenges (incidence of 345 and 423 per 100,000 people respectively.)
  • Access to water remains problematic; a striking statistic is that despite the fact that 90 percent of the country purportedly had access to piped water in a 2009 survey, the 2008 census found that fully 22 percent of the population over age 15 is involved in collecting water. Naturally, the rates are higher in rural areas (30 percent) but fully 18 percent of urban residents also report collecting water, often from contaminated sources.
  • The lack of power surfaces throughout as a theme, affecting everything from agriculture to the health care system.

The report details the precise plans of each agency, which except for the WFP are constrained to relatively small programs. But despite the heroic efforts of these international civil servants and NGOs, the consistent point of the report is the ongoing failure of the regime to prioritize the basic human needs of the population. It does not need to be this way.