An NGO Breaks Ranks

April 4, 2011 3:30 PM

The most difficult problem in formulating a reasonable North Korea policy—whether military, political or humanitarian--is the absence of decent information. Although we shoot ourselves in the foot in this regard, the root problem is North Korean: outsiders never know whether official claims are true or not.

This battle is now being fought out with respect to food aid, yet with an interesting twist. The overwhelming majority of NGOs with a history or footprint in the country have argued for aid.  A rapid food security assessment carried out by five NGOs in February—Christian Friends of Korea, Worldvision, Mercy Corps, Global Resource Services and Samaritan’s Purse—reached dire conclusions that foreshadowed the later FAO/WFP/UNICEF report released in March. A consortium of European agencies working in North Korea (UK’s Save the Children, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Ireland’s Concern Worldwide, Belgium’s Handicap International and France’s Triangle Generation Humanitaire) have also issued an unusual joint appeal according to The Guardian. Even the hawkish South Korean Ministry of Unification has allowed the Buddhist Korean Sharing Movement to make a token shipment (W30 million or about $27,500).

But according to our friends at the Daily NK, the German NGO Welthungerhilfe (translated as Agro Action) has sounded a skeptical note, raising doubts about the recent FAO/WFP/UNICEF report.  We were intrigued, checked out their website and were pleasantly surprised at the scope of their work: about 80 million Euros of projects since they entered in 1997. These range from direct food delivery to building of greenhouses, assisting cooperatives with terracing and water supply and even revival of a hydroplant.

We worry that their skepticism stems from the natural tendency to see success wherever you have worked. But they could be onto something that we will discuss in a later post: that the looming crisis of the public distribution system (PDS) does not necessarily mean the absence of adequate aggregate supply. And we completely agree with another point raised by the Welthungerhilfe representative: that North Korea would benefit far more from overall agricultural reform than from never-ending food aid.

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