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Justin Smith worked as a journalist before joining WFP in 2010. He tweets at @justin_eugene
Graan Jaff is the chief of WFP operations in the western Côte d’Ivoire town. For the past few months, he’s been at the middle of the country’s upheaval, working to get food to the people who need it. Jaff, who's based in the western town of Man, says that tens of thousands of people on the run are hungry and scared, and that reaching them with help is no easy job.
What’s the situation where you are?
It’s pretty chaotic. People are in shock, and we’re seeing large numbers on the move, either heading towards the border with Liberia and Guinea, taking refuge with host families or simply hiding out in the bush.
What kind of shape are these people in?
They’re obviously frightened for their safety and very distressed about having to leave their homes. We’re also beginning to see signs that they’re running out of food. Levels of malnutrition aren’t at crisis levels yet, but they are starting to go up and that has us worried.
What is their access to foods like? Are the markets still working?
It’s hard to say. The country’s banks have been closed for months and all of the cash is drying up, so supermarkets and food stores are completely empty. Food is also starting to dry up at the open markets, not to mention cash crops, which under normal circumstances would help to keep the markets alive.
What effect will this have on farmers and their harvests?
We’re getting into the rainy season here which is planting time for farmers. Obviously, the ones who’ve had to flee their land won’t be able to plant, which means they won’t have a harvest to come home to. Right now, we’re working with our partners to find a way to keep them from using up their food reserves or having to eat their seeds.
How difficult is it to get food to the people who need it?
There are a number of challenges that we have to overcome, from an extremely volatile security situation to the fact that many of those who need our help are in shock and in hiding. In some cases, getting food to them means conducting large-scale food distributions and in others, it means going door-to-door in host communities.
In a situation this complicated, how do you figure out how many people need help and how best to get it to them?
It’s quite difficult, but fortunately that’s one area where we have a lot of experience. Before we distribute the food, we go out into the field to conduct rapid needs assessments, which give us a basic idea about who needs food and how bad they need it. We do more in-depth analyses later to determine how people are coping and how long they’ll need our help.
How are the host communities holding up?
They’ve been very generous so far, but we know from our initial assessments that their resources are wearing thin. There are thousands upon thousands of people fleeing west and in many places they outnumber the local residents.
What kind of logistical challenges are we encountering on the ground?
Right now, the borders are all closed and that’s been a major challenge. To get around it, we’re now airlifting rice and other basic necessities into Man. Re-opening up the port of San Pedro as an alternative to Abidjan is still a main priority. As I said, the security situation is an enormous burden, but lately we’re finding new ways to reach parts of the country that we didn't have access to before.
Is it too early to start thinking about what happens after the fighting stops?
Not at all. We’ve already begun planning for the next phase and are thinking now about how to set up a cash voucher programme in the region, so people will be able to start buying food again on the local markets.
What about you and your colleagues? What’s it like to live in the middle of an armed conflict?
If you work in these situations long enough, you get to be pretty tough-skinned about them. Apart from being dangerous, there are a lot of early mornings and long days spent negotiating with military officers and local authorities, and solving problems at distribution sites. You have to be assertive about getting want you want. I’m running on caffeine for most of the day and not eating much until evening, but it’s all in a day’s work.