- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2002

The United Nations will spend $285 million feeding Afghanistan's neediest people through the end of this year, the executive director of the U.N. World Food Program said yesterday.

Catherine Bertini told reporters in Washington the assistance would go mainly to internally displaced people, refugees and widows all of whom are threatened by a prolonged drought that has left the year's harvest in doubt.

"All eyes are on the harvest and whether the drought will continue," Mrs. Bertini, an American, told a handful of reporters at the National Press Club. "Predictions are that there will be a reasonable harvest."

Mrs. Bertini, who recently returned from Afghanistan, said $285 million had been allotted for food and related services from April through December. About half of the assistance will come from the United States.

Mrs. Bertini said the program will provide about 544,000 tons of food with the money. She estimated the organization had provided about 260,000 tons of food since gaining access to the countryside following the rout of Taliban forces.

The bulk of the food will be wheat, but later in the year the organization hopes to provide indigenous foods such as pomegranates, nuts, potatoes, lentils and oats, much of which will come from farming in Afghanistan.

Farming employs an estimated 70 percent of the Afghan work force. Crops are already in the ground, but it is too early to tell if there will be anything to harvest come July.

Until then, the organization is offering free food and, regardless of harvest yields, will continue to do so throughout the year for vulnerable groups, like the widows, refugees and internally displaced.

There are other hindrances to the organization's efforts to deliver relief. Warring factions, particularly west of Kabul and south of Jalalabad, mines and the remoteness of some areas make it difficult to get food to all those in need.

Part of the operation's budget will be used for helicopter missions to assess relief needs in these remote areas and, if necessary, deliver food.

World Food Program spokesman Jordan Dey, who accompanied Mrs. Bertini to Afghanistan, said in some areas villagers prefer donkeys to Land Rovers because of their agility in the difficult mountain terrain.

The operation in Afghanistan will not be restricted to the delivery of food, Mrs. Bertini said, but will include implementing work-for-food and literacy-training programs.

Mrs. Bertini thanked the United States for its substantial funding of the program, but also estimated there are 770 million people worldwide in need of food and said the United States should play an even larger role in hunger relief.

"With the additional resources we can feed so many more people," Mrs. Bertini said. "But the needs are still very, very great."

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