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Ain't no mountain high enough: WFP Country Director Richard Ragan talks about challenges in Nepal

Nepal may be small, but the mountainous country presents vast logistical challenges to WFP. Country Director Richard Ragan talks to web writer Michelle Hough about the peace process and WFP's creative responses to Nepal's challenges.

Introduction

Nepal may be small, but the mountainous country presents vast logistical challenges to WFP. Country Director Richard Ragan talks to web writer Michelle Hough about the peace process and WFP's creative responses to Nepal's challenges.

1.WFP has over 40 years’ experience in logistics, but how does it cope with the remoteness of many communities in Nepal?

On a clear day, I pull myself out of bed in Kathmandu, which sits squarely in the middle of the country, and from my

So far, the only things we haven't exploited for delivering food are elephants
rooftop see Mount Shisapagma.

It's the 12th highest mountain in a country which is home to eight of the 14 highest mountains on earth.

Just behind it sits Tibet so Nepal is really quite a narrow country. But one shouldn't be fooled by the size, geographically this stands as the most challenging place I've ever worked.

Sometimes I feel like we're trapped, logistically speaking, in an expanded version of Steve Martin's famous movie "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" that should be called "Planes, Porters, Tractors, Trucks, Yaks, Donkeys and Helicopters”.

So far, the only things we haven't exploited for delivering food are elephants.

2.What are the other challenges facing WFP in Nepal?

Today, Nepal stands at a "political crossroads" and faces probably the most important set of issues in her history.

What's truly interesting for those of us working and living here is that we are witnessing the birth of new country.
The country has just emerged from a decade long civil war, and its citizens have pretty much decided to dissolve the Monarchy in support of a multi-party democracy. In this new context, a plethora of issues has emerged, leading to a sharp increase in tensions.

Furthermore, the government is trying to hold free and fair democratic elections in one of the most geographically remote locations on earth - not an easy task.

What's truly interesting for those of us working and living here is that we are witnessing the birth of new country.

3.The Nepal office won an Innovation Award from WFP this year - what's this all about?

The award highlights innovative projects and encourages other WFP offices to replicate them.

We took what was already a great idea and with a few small tweaks developed something that now has a much broader impact
We outfitted our 30 field monitors with satellite phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) so that we could receive and transmit "real time" information on the peace process as well as emerging humanitarian issues.

What made our staff so proud was that their project received votes from over 47 WFP bureaux, winning over some very creative initiatives from other country offices around the world.

"Deep field" assessment

The project initially looked exclusively at food security but we thought it made sense to take advantage of what is really the only "deep field" assessment capacity in the country to offer something more comprehensive.

We partnered with the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs OCHA and the UN Mission to Nepal (UNMIN) and together we are trying to offer donors and governments a unique perspective on trends in the more remote parts of the country.

Honestly, we took what was already a great idea and with a few small tweaks developed something that now has a much broader impact.

4.How else are you trying to improve WFP’s work in Nepal?

We are taking every opportunity to extend much needed services, even those outside our mandate, to remote populations.

For example, we partnered with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the government’s Health Department to provide health care services and medicines during emergency food distributions in remote areas receiving food assistance as a part of WFP's emergency drought operations.

WFP provided the air ops and the ‘pull’, attracting people from the surrounding communities to the distribution location.

Through this partnership, several thousand people have received health care services not otherwise available in such remote areas. In many communities, we met people who said that this was the first time in their life that they had been able to see a doctor.

I would like to continue to explore other ways where other organisations could ‘piggyback’ on WFP’s reach into remote areas to extend critical services and improve lives.

5.What is WFP doing to support the peace process and the transition to democracy?

I think the most exciting work we're doing here is in support of Nepal's transition from conflict to peace.

To respond to Nepal's emerging peace, we've put together a programme that has three main components which focus on conflict-affected parts of the country, which in most cases, also happen to be the most food-insecure areas.

"Soft landing"

A critical infrastructure component provides communities new assets, or rebuilds assets destroyed during the war eg. bridges, schools and water systems. Under this, we're also piloting a food and cash for work project in the districts where the civil war started.

Then we aim to give people a soft landing as they return home -- this includes those internally displaced by the conflict as well as former Maoist combatants.

6.You were in DPRK and Zambia before. How does Nepal compare to working in these countries?

Prior to Nepal, I was the Representative in Zambia during the last Southern Africa drought, followed by North Korea - also as the Representative - when we ended a decade of large-scale emergency operations.

Both were immensely challenging in different ways - frankly I don't think there is a WFP Representative job anywhere in the world that isn't challenging in its own way.

In Zambia, during the height of the emergency, we had a full blown, heated debate over the use of Genetically Modified (GM) foods.

North Korea on the other hand was sort of like running a marathon with constant political challenges.

Copyright: 2007 WFP/Photo unit
Richard Ragan (left) in his spare time
As the largest international organisation in arguably the most isolated place in the world, we regularly faced challenges that WFP simply didn't have a precedent for dealing with.

Nepal, on the other hand, has been on my radar screen since I was kid dreaming about the great mountaineers of my generation. When I was in my 20's, I spent two seasons mountaineering here so I jumped at the chance to get back.

7.What drew you to working for WFP in the first place?

I first started working closely with WFP while covering UN issues while working in the White House on the National Security Council (NSC) during the Clinton Administration. What really attracted me to the organisation was that WFP

What really attracted me to the organisation was that WFP seemed to be the most "can do" of the UN agencies
seemed to be the most "can do" of the UN agencies.

It was also during this period that WFP doubled in size and became the world's largest humanitarian agency so the idea of working in a high growth environment, particularly because I wanted to be in the field, was what drew me to WFP.

In addition to the work, I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit that having an opportunity to spend time in the Himalayas served as a strong draw towards Nepal.

"Nuts"

So far, I've had a chance to snowboard in the Annapurna range which may have been one of the most intense alpine experiences I've ever had.

This season I'll head back to the Annapurnas as sort of a warm-up for an attempt to climb and snowboard down Cho Oyu, which sits just next to Mount Everest.

The name Cho Oyu translates as "Turquoise Goddess" and it is the 6th tallest mountain in the world at 8,201 metres high.

Of course, my wife thinks I'm nuts, but then I think her job of taking care of our 2-year-old twins and 5-year-old daughter is much harder.