- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

Special correspondent John Zarocostas interviewed James T. Morris, executive director of the World Food Program (WFP), in Geneva last week for The Washington Times. Mr. Morris, 59, spent six years in the Indianapolis city government as chief of staff for then-Mayor (now U.S. Sen.) Richard G. Lugar. Mr. Morris went on to become president (1973-89) of the Lilly Endowment Inc., a charitable foundation, and has served in several high corporate and institutional posts. He is currently on the board of governors of the American Red Cross and chairman of the board of trustees of Indiana University. Last year, the WFP fed 77 million needy people in 82 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, at a total cost of $1.74 billion.

Question: What is the situation in feeding the North Korean people amid the recent nuclear standoff, during which some major donors like Japan have held back aid to North Korea?

Answer: Well, most of our major donors are comfortable and capable of separating the humanitarian issues in North Korea from the political issues. We’re actually a little bit better resourced in Japan at this time in 2003 than we were a year ago.

The U.S. has been very generous, and continues to be so. The European Community is helping us. South Korea has been very generous. Canada and Australia have been supportive.

Japan, which is one of our best donors worldwide, has chosen not to help us in North Korea. [Editor’s note: This is partly because of Pyongyang’s clandestine naval forays to kidnap Japanese citizens from their homeland to train spies in North Korea, and suspicion that it is smuggling drugs into Japan to earn hard currency.]

Our work in North Korea is very important. We’re the only, the largest international worldwide United Nations presence there. We have 110 employees. We have offices in six places in the country, including Pyongyang. We’ve conducted a nutrition survey with UNICEF that shows over the last 4 years we have decreased the percentage of underweight children under age 7 from 60 percent to 20 percent. We’re essentially feeding 4 million children and very vulnerable women, and they need our help.

Q: What are the requirements for the current year, and what is the shortfall in donor support?

A: We are going to bring in about 500,000 tons of wheat and rice and other commodities, and we’ve raised about 390,000 tons of what we need. So we have about 75 percent and 80 percent of what we need. We need another 100,000 tons to get through the end of the year.

Q: Can you get this?

A: Well, we’re working very hard to get it. The U.S. has been very generous. We anticipate another 60,000 tons of food from the U.S.

President Bush told me that the United States would never use food as a political weapon. And the people that we’re serving have in no way contributed to the political difficulties, especially the children. The children have to have good nutritional support in the early years of their life if they’re going to make it. So South Korea and the U.S. have been very generous in our work with [North Korean] children.

Q: What is the U.S. contribution to the appeal for North Korea?

A: Well, traditionally the U.S. has provided close to half. It won’t be quite half this year, but the U.S. will provide more than 100,000 tons of food this year.

Q: In money terms, what is the total amount?

A: I suspect the total U.S. commitment to our work in North Korea in 2003 will be something closely approaching $75 million.

Q: There have been questions about whether some of the aid is feeding the North Korean army, rather than going to people in need. Do you have independent audits showing this is not the case?

A: Well, I’m comfortable the food the World Food Program provides is not going to feed the army. The army has the pick of the food that they want in the country.

The food we bring into the country is rice and wheat, and we sense [the army] would not want it. This nutrition survey we conducted with UNICEF shows the very substantial progress and health improvement in children under 7. So we know that the food that is intended for the kids is getting to them. Otherwise, the random nutrition sample would not have shown these remarkable results that have been demonstrated.

Q: North Korea has an antiquated agricultural system. Their irrigation is dependent on heavy energy use that’s really not sustainable now that they don’t have Soviet subsidies. Is that message getting through to the North Korean authorities, and are they doing something to overhaul their agriculture?

A: Well, they need to do a lot more. The whole world wishes they would invest their resources in part in a stronger agricultural program. This is a country that doesn’t have a lot of arable land. It’s very mountainous and rocky, and they are, as you correctly point out, operating at a very small percentage of their capacity, energywise. This is a country that needs to focus a lot on agriculture.

Q:President Bush told you he’s not going to use food for political ends. Is the fact that you’re the only U.N. agency very active in North Korea helping to defuse tensions?

A: Well, I hope so. We work very hard at telling the story of the generosity of our donors in North Korea. So the people of North Korea know that the people of Australia and Canada and the [European Union], Germany, South Korea, the U.S. care deeply about them.

We’ve had our first-ever contribution from Russia — $10 million to help our work in North Korea. So I think it’s very important to have a very strong international presence [there].

Q: China, the major power in the region, seems to opt for bilateral channels rather than use the multilateral system that the United Nations can provide. Is Beijing likely to use the U.N. more in the future?

A: Well, China is increasing its support of the WFP. I had a good visit from the leaders of the Chinese late last fall, and will visit there again before year-end. And I’m hopeful they will see the value in working multilaterally.

When you deliver food help through the World Food Program, you can be assured 90 percent of it will be targeted to the hungriest, poorest people in the country. When you deliver bilateral aid, you leave it up to the government to determine where it will be distributed.

And an organization like the WFP has many partners and a huge amount of experience in working with the poorest. We know how to do our work, and we do not have a political agenda. Our agenda is to see that the poorest, the hungriest — especially women and children — don’t starve.

Q: You mention that the WFP doesn’t have a political agenda. But are some of your staff at risk in crisis areas like Afghanistan or Iraq? Has the WFP lost resources — people or supplies — because of the difficult environments you work in?

A: We’ve lost 58 people over the last 14 years, working in dangerous places around the world. … It’s not an easy way to spend your life. From time to time, there are thefts and looting, but it’s a very small percentage. We generally are very well protected.

And nearly everything that somebody gives us gets to somebody who needs it.

Q: You said earlier that security is still a major concern for supplies going into Iraq from regional sourcing areas. Are the United States and coalition forces providing adequate protection for your convoys?

A: Well, I think the U.S. and the occupying authority is very concerned about the security issue for people, for our transport, and for our warehouses, our silos, our mills — and the quality of our security is improving all the time. But it’s still a tough issue, a tough place to do business. There’s so much change in that country. And the traditional institutions do not function anymore as they once did. So these are very difficult [times]. Security is a huge problem.

Q: How much does security add to the cost of operations in places like Iraq or Afghanistan?

A: Well, it’s a substantial expense. We hire people to guard our warehouses, to guard our convoys, and on occasion we’ve had looting and lost things. That is an expense. It’s a significant issue.

Q: There’s been a dispute between Brussels and Washington over genetically modified organisms and seeds and a European moratorium on GM foods. Are the Europeans giving the WFP adequate supplies of non-GM foods for needy countries?

A: Well, the European are very generous. The European community has given us twice as much food this year as last year’s support. The Americans were clearly the most generous. In 2001, the U.S. provided 60 percent of our support. Last year, 50 percent of our support.

For us to feed the hundreds of millions of people, especially children, who need help in going to school, who need help in the early years of their lives, everybody’s going to need to do more. We’re working very hard to encourage European countries.

Last year, the [United Kingdom] was very generous. The [European Union] substantially increased their help. So we’re making progress.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide