30 April 2005

May the Food Force be with us all

By Marguerite Finn

The UN has come in for a lot of stick recently. Former UN Secretary General, U Thant, once remarked: "The United Nations is a mirror of its members." So we, the peoples of the UN, now have an opportunity to reform this battered, creaky but internationally legitimate leviathan.

As a member of the Norwich Branch of the United Nations Association, I am continually amazed by the extent and variety of the activities conducted throughout the world, on a daily basis under the UN banner, activities its critics seem determined to ignore.

The bulletins I get detail the actions of up to 30 UN Agencies on any particular day. These might involve anything from fighting the first outbreak of polio in Yemen for nine years (WHO - World Health Organisation) to helping Congolese refugees cross some of the world's most rugged terrain to return to their homes (UNHCR - UN High Commissioner for Refugees). Simultaneously, OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) in the Horn of Africa swings into action after torrential rains sweep away entire villages in Ethiopia and Somalia.

Meanwhile, UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) continues its daily task of repairing buildings and providing food and education to around a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA's 'Special Hardship Programme' also targets the most impoverished families living in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In 2004, approximately 50% of the Palestinian population was living below the official poverty line. Standards of health and education had deteriorated and unemployment had increased as Palestinians encountered problems reaching their places of work, schools and hospitals due to the construction of the Israeli Barrier.

The UNHCR is now warning that fighting is threatening the existence of Colombia's indigenous peoples, caught between Government, rebels and armed militia, while at the same time, it struggles to provide water and food for 1.8 million people uprooted by the conflict in Darfur.

Here comes news of another disaster: chronic poverty, combined with failure of the rains in 2004, has left 2 million Kenyans in need of food aid. Between May and August 2005, the World Food Programme (WFP) will provide 83,000 tons of food to these drought-affected people. While in Niger, locust infestation and scanty rainfall has left an estimated 350,000 children under 5 years suffering from malnutrition and stunted growth. What can be done? WFP, the world's largest humanitarian agency rises to the challenge. Each year, it provides food aid to an average of 90 million people, including 56 million hungry children, in more than 80 countries.

Most of us know little about this life-saving work being done by the United Nations. The statistics seem literally mind-boggling and too uncomfortable to read.

So the World Food Programme has come up with a novel way to spread the word. It has just launched the world's first interactive humanitarian video game (comprehensively reviewed in EDP Centro 20.04.2005), which shows how WFP responds to actual food emergencies - just like the real life situations in Kenya and Niger.

"Food Force" is a PC based video game which can be downloaded free from http://www.food-force.com/ . It offers a welcome change to the gratuitous violence of most of today's video games. While playing Food Force, youngsters will avoid video games that reward players for killing innocent bystanders and blowing up islands again and again. Neither are Food Force characters predominantly male or white - gender and racial balance ensures that all play a vital role in the operation - just as in real life.

This is a wise move by the UN Agency - to use today's technology to reach out to the wider public. Are games-players, however, too steeped in violent "blow them away" games to overcome their feelings that "Food Force" is "uncool" and "a bit cissy"?

No one these days can be under any illusion about the dangers faced by humanitarian aid workers in the field; many have lost their lives bringing aid to others. What better way to celebrate their dedication and bravery than to learn more about the difficulties they routinely face and "Food Force" offers a great way to do it.

As Kofi Annan says: "Humanity will not enjoy security without development, it will not enjoy development without security, and it will not enjoy either without respect for human rights In their modest ways, all local United Nations Associations are involved in the great humanitarian work of the UN, whether raising vital funds or lobbying MPs, they support and sustain a global institution which remains the last best hope of mankind.