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As global hunger crises worsen, the UN's World Food Programme faces a funding shortage


The crisis of hunger has grown dire in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Millions of people are fleeing their homes to escape fighting between Congolese government forces and a Tutsi-led rebel group called the M23 movement, believed to be backed by Rwanda. Many civilians have arrived in the eastern city of Goma, near the border with Rwanda. The World Food Programme is distributing food and aid in Goma. And its executive director, Cindy McCain, joined us from the city yesterday. And we want to alert you, our conversation includes descriptions of sexual assault. Director McCain, thanks so much for being with us.

CINDY MCCAIN: Well, thank you, and thank you for covering this issue.

SIMON: Well, tell us, please, what you've seen. What would you like us to know?

MCCAIN: Well, I just walked back in from a field visit, and what I've seen is almost undescribable. There's obviously hundreds of thousands of people that are displaced, that are living in not really shelters. They've got some cover over them. There's a lack of food. There's a lack of sanitation. I mean, it's exactly what you would think in a crisis like this particular crisis here. The other issue in all this that we seem to forget is not just the food crisis but the treatment of women.

SIMON: Tell us about the treatment of women - what you've seen, maybe some of the accounts that you've heard.

MCCAIN: Well, there's - you know, women are faced with a great deal of problems here. The particular one that we're talking about are women that go out to maybe gather wood, go out looking for water and things like that. And then they're raped. And they're not just raped once. They're raped consecutively. And so I sat down with a group of women today that had been - they're survivors of this, and they're living in a refugee camp. It's devastating, but these women are so powerful that they're willing to not only talk about it but to help their fellow sisters.

SIMON: I have to ask, Director McCain - and I apologize if this sounds naive - but who was sexually assaulting them? Who was raping them?

MCCAIN: Everybody - both sides and military. I mean, it's a little bit of everything. The treatment of women in particularly DRC has gone on for a very long time. In the early years that I started coming here in the '90s, this was a problem. So it's something that's really been ignored by the international community, certainly. And DRC has not gotten a handle on it at all.

SIMON: I understand you were in South Sudan earlier this week, and refugees have been heading there to escape the war just north in Sudan.

MCCAIN: Yeah, yeah.

SIMON: Please tell us what you saw there.

MCCAIN: Yes. The refugee flow has increased. It's been a steady flow since the beginning of this war. And the countries that are taking the brunt of it, like Chad and partially in Yemen and Ethiopia, you know, are bearing the brunt of this. What we're seeing are desperate people that have walked, in some cases, months to try to get across the border for safety concerns. One particular woman that I talked to - she was holding her grandson, who was a small - he was a toddler. She'd been moving for a couple of months to try to get across. They were the only two survivors of their family. It's tragedy after tragedy.

SIMON: Director McCain, World Food Programme is confronting a funding crisis at the same time, isn't it? I gather the worst in...


SIMON: ...Its 60-year history. Why is that? What's your analysis?

MCCAIN: Well, I think the previous years were unprecedented for funding. Now these years are much leaner. We're at half of what we were funding-wise before. It's donor fatigue. It's a lot of places other countries want to - instead of sending their money overseas - I'm talking about constituents of parliaments - instead of sending their money overseas, they're saying, no, we want to keep it at home. And we're seeing some of that in the United States of America right now.

SIMON: Indeed. And what do you say to that? What do you say to people who say, look. We have problems enough in the United States, and we have to keep our resources here?

MCCAIN: Well, that's why I'm here. I'm trying to remind everybody, these are deadly crises, and we cannot ignore them. If we ignore these crises, what it will do to this region in terms of stability and instability and migration - because, as you know, if there's no food where they're at, they'll migrate to try to find food for their families, and that's certainly understandable.

SIMON: I have to ask you about Gaza, where the World Food Programme is...


SIMON: ...Active.


SIMON: You've signed on for a call for a cease-fire. What are you urging the Israeli government to do?

MCCAIN: We need a lengthy, if not forever, cease-fire in Gaza. And we need access. We - right now, WFP does not have access to be able to give food and find people at scale. We need complete, unfettered and safe access into Gaza. The northern half of Gaza is one - literally one inch from famine. We're going to - about to go over the cliff. And southern Gaza is desperate also. You read the news. We've had trucks looted as we've tried to go in. We've been stopped at checkpoints, forced to turn around, and then our trucks get looted. I'm not faulting anybody for that, but it's time that all of the parties get together and realize we can't fix this unless you let the humanitarian community in to do their jobs.

SIMON: Do you believe, Director McCain, that starvation is being used as a weapon in Gaza?

MCCAIN: I won't say that. I'm not really sure. I - what I do and what I see is just the - our ability and inability, sometimes, to be able to feed desperate people.

SIMON: What do you think of President Biden's pledge that the U.S. and perhaps allied nations will build a port in the Gaza shoreline to help bring in food?

MCCAIN: Listen. Anything will help us get food in, I'm for. We would also like to see not just that port, but I'd like to see the Port of Ashdod opened, as well, and the Gate of Karni in the north opened. We need as much access and open gates as we can to get in. We need another road. There's a back road that's a military road that would be really easy for us to use to get to the north. We need that opened.

SIMON: Who can open it?

MCCAIN: The Israelis can, and I'm hoping they will.

SIMON: It occurs to me when you talk about people in the United States who say we have to keep our aid and resources here, you know some of the people who were saying that. You've known them for years, haven't you?

MCCAIN: (Laughter). Well, yes. And I have done my very best to present the argument and show why we need to be in there and why we cannot forget these people. We can't turn our backs on people like this because it affects the entire world. As I've said many, many times, the crises that are going on in the world right now are national security issues, both for the United States, as well as worldwide, and we have to pay attention to it. We have to.

SIMON: Cindy McCain, executive director of the World Food Programme, speaking to us from Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Director McCain, thanks so much for being with us.

MCCAIN: Thank you. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL BACHMAN'S "MARFA TX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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