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Off the Wall

Dear Gecko,

It would appear that the adhesive on your overworked feet is wearing a bit thin as the facts do not seem to stick.

Your summation of an UNTAC report (Gecko column, Phnom Penh Post, Aug, 13-26) claiming that WFP rice was being taken out of Cambodia nearby CT6 by WFP's own contracted transporter implied of course that there was something afoul up in Thmar Pouk. Our own "chinchoks" in the area report something quite different.

It is precisely because of such possibilities that WFP has employed a team of 40 food monitors who for the past six months have directly monitored 97 percent of all distributions of WFP food aid in the country and 100 percent in the Thmar Pouk area.

To give you an idea of the scale of such activities, in an average month there are over 500 individual distributions involving over 8,000 metric tons of food to some 450,000 persons in 180 distribution points in 16 provinces. By the way that amounts to approximately 107,000 bags of rice every month. This total programme requires a logistics and monitoring operation of greater complexity and scale than any other employed by any agency in the country.

WFP can assure the gecko that the level of accountability for the food aid operations in Cambodia is probably higher than any other operation of its kind in the world.

Through agreements with the Cambodian authorities, every kilogram of food donated through WFP to Cambodia is delivered by WFP, stored in WFP warehouses, dispatched only under WFP's authority and directly monitored by WFP.

What this means is that we are fully aware of the movement of food aid through Cambodia all the way down to the hands of the beneficiary who has been documented, registered and issued food coupons. What happens to the food aid once it has been received by the beneficiary is another story but one which we also document. This leads us back to Thmar Pouk.

A fraction of the beneficiaries, particularly amongst the returnees, are known to sell some of the assistance they have received. This is due either to the fact that they need cash or that they have other means of support and do not depend on food aid. On a systematic basis WFP records the degree to which food is sold by returnees and we can assure you it is minimal compared to the total quantities distributed.

Contrary to the Gecko's information, the UNTAC Border Control Unit at CT6 have confirmed to WFP that they have only seen Cambodian paddy and not rice leaving the country to Thailand. You can well imagine that the 107,000 jute bags with WFP markings distributed every month are reused and can easily be filled with paddy. Nevertheless, if we assume that the Gecko of the as yet unknown UNTAC source of the story knows the difference between paddy and rice, it is possible that some rice sold by returnees to middlemen made its way across the border.

That leads us to the SPR transport company. The Gecko must know that SPR transport has been contracted by UNTAC, UNHCR, CARERE and WFP for all sorts of deliveries in Cambodia. Besides being a very professional operation, their trucks often look like a professional athlete with the logos of many sponsors plastered all over each truck.

While under contract with WFP to deliver food to western Cambodia, SPR is accompanied by a WFP convoy escort direct to the WFP warehouse. When not under contract, of course, what SPR does is not WFP's business.

After all this, if we assume that SPR trucks not under contract with WFP transported some of our rice purchased from beneficiaries across the border to Thailand the implication left is that this rice then comes in again as new rice. I must point out however that WFP does not purchase rice from SPR which only provides transport services.

The WFP rice is purchased in various locations in Thailand and delivered to the WFP warehouse in Aranyaprathet by the actual supplier. It is then inspected for quality and loaded onto SPR trucks under WFP supervision for transport.

At the end of this story, it is possible that SPR brought some small quantity of rice into Thailand that was purchased from beneficiaries in Cambodia. It is farfetched however to imagine that they would then transport this rice to some unknown location in Thailand, rebag it into new jute bags with the correct new markings and then deliver it to the actual WFP supplier as new rice. SPR is not that desperate for small money.

As stranger things happen every day, witness the Gecko's own column, we are still interested in seeing the photos.

- Scott Leiper, Director of Operations, World Food Program

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