Is­sues tack­led in­clude mal­nour­ished chil­dren, pop­u­la­tion growth, refugees

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By LIU XUAN li­ux­[email protected]­nadaily.com.cn

Ed­i­tor’s note: With this year mark­ing the 40th an­niver­sary of United Nations’ agen­cies op­er­at­ing in China, this story looks at how their roles have evolved amid the coun­try’s rapid de­vel­op­ment.

Meng Yu­tong, a 30-some­thing part-time events host­ess, was play­ing the WeChat game An­i­mal Restau­rant when she sud­denly saw Xiao Hong, an an­i­mated fig­ure, ap­pear in the vir­tual eatery.

“I feel so hungry. Can I have some­thing to eat?” asked Xiao Hong, a skinny lit­tle girl with a broad smile.

As she was treated to a bowl of vir­tual noo­dles, Xiao Hong dropped

sev­eral car­toon hearts on the ground be­fore say­ing: “The noo­dles were re­ally de­li­cious. Thank you so much, but many of my friends are still starv­ing. Can you help us?”

Meng, who is from Bei­jing, col­lected sev­eral hearts, won­der­ing at first if they were a spe­cial re­ward con­nected to the game, which is played free of charge. But in­stead, she had just un­know­ingly helped do­nate nu­tri­tious meals to hungry chil­dren in Xiangxi Tu­jia and Miao au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture, Hu­nan province.

Par­tic­i­pants in An­i­mal Restau­rant are given more hearts for gen­eros­ity to hungry pa­trons, but there is a limit to how many hearts they can ac­cu­mu­late over a given pe­riod.

The image of Xiao Hong rep­re­sents mil­lions of chil­dren in less-de­vel­oped ar­eas of China, with the over­all aim of ap­peal­ing for more peo­ple to help them.

The cam­paign has been jointly launched by the UN World Food Pro­gramme and WeChat.

An­i­mal Restau­rant play­ers can vol­un­tar­ily take part in the char­i­ta­ble ac­tiv­ity to col­lect hearts. Af­ter the num­ber ac­cu­mu­lated by ev­ery­one tak­ing part in the game from Aug 27 to Mon­day reached the re­quired 99.99 mil­lion, two en­ter­prises — Xiang­nian Food Co and the Yonghui Su­per­stores chain — do­nated 500,000 nu­tri­tious meals to Xiangxi.

Ac­cord­ing to The State of Food Se­cu­rity and Nu­tri­tion in the World 2019 — a re­port re­leased by the UN, although China has made re­mark­able progress in im­prov­ing nu­tri­tion, there are still more than 6.9 mil­lion chil­dren age 5 and younger ex­pe­ri­enc­ing slowed growth and malnutriti­on. Most of them live in pover­tys­tricken ar­eas.

Since 2017, China has car­ried out a plan to pro­vide mi­cronu­tri­ent sup­ple­ments for in­fants and chil­dren up to 24 months old. Ru­ral stu­dents ages 6 to 15 can also en­joy free school meals un­der the Na­tional Stu­dent Nu­tri­tion Im­prove­ment Pro­gram.

“But cur­rently there is no plan to im­prove nu­tri­tion for preschool chil­dren ages 3 to 5,” said Qu Sixi, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the World Food Pro­gramme China Of­fice.

In May last year, the WFP started its three-year Preschool Nu­tri­tion Im­prove­ment Pi­lot Project in two poverty-stricken coun­ties — Yong­shun and Long­shan — in Xiangxi. The project is aimed at of­fer­ing healthy, bal­anced meals for chil­dren at 25 lo­cal kinder­gartens and preschools.

Hu­nan’s ex­pe­ri­ence and the model used there will also be applied in the Guangxi Zhuang au­ton­o­mous re­gion next month, al­low­ing more preschool chil­dren in pover­tys­tricken ar­eas ac­cess to nu­tri­tious meals, Qu said.

This is just one of the in­no­va­tive projects the WFP is car­ry­ing out in China. It works closely with the cen­tral govern­ment to share knowl­edge and best prac­tices to re­duce poverty, as well as shar­ing the coun­try’s ex­per­tise in end­ing hunger around the world.

When the agency ar­rived in China 40 years ago, more than one-third of the pop­u­la­tion was hunger-stricken.

As the food as­sis­tance branch of the UN and the world’s largest hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tion, the WFP’s op­er­a­tions in China in­creased rapidly, be­com­ing the agency’s largest glob­ally within a decade.

But the of­fice also re­al­ized that China wanted to avoid de­pend­ing on in­ter­na­tional food aid, so it fo­cused on de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tance and help­ing peo­ple to feed them­selves.

For ex­am­ple, Gansu province has al­ways ex­pe­ri­enced droughts, and harsh weather con­di­tions make it dif­fi­cult to grow food.

To solve the prob­lem, the WFP launched an aid project in Gansu with in­vest­ment of $18 mil­lion. With pro­fes­sional as­sis­tance, farm­ers were able to build an ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem, which in­creased agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion and im­proved in­fra­struc­ture.

On com­ple­tion in 1995, lo­cal food pro­duc­tion had risen by 6.38 times com­pared with 1989, ac­cord­ing to the WFP.

In spring 1998, tor­ren­tial rains caused the worst flood­ing in China since 1954. Ar­eas along the Yangtze River were se­ri­ously dam­aged and mil­lions of res­i­dents af­fected.

“The of­fice also helped vic­tims of the 1998 floods to recover,” Qu said. “We re­sponded with an emer­gency food aid project for peo­ple af­fected in An­hui, He­bei, Hu­nan and Jiangxi prov­inces, and con­trib­uted about $88 mil­lion.”

But Qu said that from 2005 to 2016, WFP China was rel­a­tively quiet. “This was the time when China made great progress in end­ing hunger thanks to its rapid de­vel­op­ment,” he said.

It was also a pe­riod when the coun­try moved from be­ing a re­cip­i­ent of WFP aid to be­com­ing a sig­nif­i­cant donor to the agency’s global op­er­a­tions, Qu added.

In March 2016, the WFP signed a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing with the govern­ment to re­new and strengthen their part­ner­ship for end­ing global hunger. The agency hoped China could share with other coun­tries its ex­pe­ri­ence and achieve­ments in re­duc­ing poverty and malnutriti­on.

Qu said an up­com­ing project will involve WFP China se­lect­ing dozens of young farm­ers from Zim­babwe to come to China for three months.

They will have the chance to re­ceive com­pre­hen­sive train­ing, from agri­cul­tural and so­lar tech­nol­ogy to e-com­merce. If they de­cide to start a busi­ness, the of­fice will pro­vide fund­ing and send an in­struc­tor if needed.

Based on the mem­o­ran­dum, WFP China de­vel­oped a Coun­try Strat­egy Plan for 2017 to 2021 with a bud­get of $29 mil­lion. The plan is in line with sev­eral na­tional pri­or­i­ties, such as the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) and the Food and Nu­tri­tion De­vel­op­ment Plan (2014-20).

“We are now work­ing with dif­fer­ent min­istries, de­part­ments and aca­demic and re­search in­sti­tutes, as well as com­pa­nies and or­ga­ni­za­tions in var­i­ous fields and projects,” Qu said. “There is broad scope for fur­ther co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the WFP and China. We want to do some­thing good for the world.”

UN Pop­u­la­tion Fund

The UN Pop­u­la­tion Fund, or UNFPA, was in­tro­duced in China in 1979, just af­ter the start of the coun­try’s re­form and open­ing-up pol­icy. At the time, the na­tion was also fac­ing a se­ri­ous chal­lenge — its con­tin­u­ally-ex­pand­ing huge pop­u­la­tion.

At the time, the pri­mary task of UNFPA, the UN’s sex­ual and re­pro­duc­tive health agency, was to work with China to col­lect and use pop­u­la­tion data for fur­ther de­vel­op­ment.

Ba­batunde Ahonsi, the agency’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in China, said it sup­ported set­ting up in­sti­tu­tions and per­son­nel train­ing so that the coun­try could make up-to-date pop­u­la­tion data avail­able for pol­icy plan­ning.

With UNFPA’s sup­port, China gained a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of its pop­u­la­tion size and de­mo­graphic trends. Mod­ern de­mo­graphic anal­y­sis tech­niques helped the coun­try to con­duct its first mod­ern cen­sus in 1982.

The agency also acted as a bridge con­nect­ing China and the global com­mu­nity in aca­demic ex­changes.

It in­vited in­ter­na­tional ex­perts to China to give train­ing to staff mem­bers from the Na­tional Bureau of Statis­tics, en­abling the cen­sus to be con­ducted.

The pop­u­la­tion fund also se­lected young Chi­nese ex­perts and schol­ars and sent them overseas for fur­ther stud­ies.

Ahonsi said: “UNFPA con­trib­uted to the es­tab­lish­ment of a pop­u­la­tion stud­ies sys­tem in China. There are cur­rently more than 20 ma­jor univer­sity de­part­ments of­fer­ing cour­ses in de­mo­graph­ics in China, which have ben­e­fited from the efforts UNFPA made at the time.”

In the 1990s, UNFPA’s work be­gan to fo­cus on re­duc­ing ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity and pro­vid­ing high-qual­ity ma­ter­nal, child health and fam­ily plan­ning ser­vices to grass­roots com­mu­ni­ties.

In co­op­er­a­tion with the UN Chil­dren’s Fund and World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, UNFPA sup­ported the in­te­gra­tion of fam­ily plan­ning with ma­ter­nal and child health ser­vices and the build­ing of fa­cil­i­ties in 305 coun­ties in 26 prov­inces, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and au­ton­o­mous re­gions.

About 500,000 doc­tors have ben­e­fited from the train­ing, and due to the project’s suc­cess, the World Bank has ex­panded the model to an­other 285 coun­ties, Ahonsi added.

With the ar­rival of the 21st cen­tury, Ahonsi said China needed to tackle its age­ing pop­u­la­tion, low birth rate and mas­sive ur­ban­iza­tion.

UNFPA’s main work cen­tered on help­ing the coun­try move from an ad­min­is­tra­tive ap­proach to client­fo­cused fam­ily plan­ning as well as es­tab­lish­ing a sys­tem for universal ac­cess to sex­ual and re­pro­duc­tive health ser­vices.

In 2014, the agency worked with au­thor­i­ties in Wu­gong county, Shaanxi province, Changfeng county, An­hui, and Jing’an county, Jiangxi, to tackle gen­der im­bal­ance, in co­op­er­a­tion with the Na­tional Health and Fam­ily Plan­ning Com­mis­sion and the China Pop­u­la­tion and De­vel­op­ment Re­search Cen­ter.

The project helped in amend­ing some gen­der-dis­crim­i­na­tory reg­u­la­tions in nearly 100 vil­lages, sup­port­ing women’s rights and in­ter­ests in ar­eas such as land own­er­ship and po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion.

On ar­rival in China, UNFPA launched its first Coun­try Pro­gramme, a long-term ap­proach to ad­dress­ing pop­u­la­tion is­sues.

The agency has launched eight Coun­try Pro­grammes, each hav­ing its own phased ap­proach and last­ing four or five years, co­in­cid­ing with the na­tion’s dif­fer­ent de­vel­op­ment stages.

The lat­est pro­gram, which runs from 2016 to next year, is aligned with na­tional pri­or­i­ties out­lined in the 13th Five-Year Plan for Na­tional Eco­nomic and So­cial De­vel­op­ment for the same pe­riod, and will con­trib­ute to the UN De­vel­op­ment As­sis­tance Frame­work.

The on­go­ing pro­gram fo­cuses on ar­eas rang­ing from sex­ual and re­pro­duc­tive health to youth is­sues, from gen­der equal­ity and em­pow­er­ment to pop­u­la­tion dy­nam­ics.

Since tak­ing up his role in China in 2017, Ahonsi said he has sensed the rapid changes in the coun­try’s eco­nomic and so­cial de­vel­op­ment, and the grow­ing role it plays on the world stage.

He added that is also worth learn­ing of the achieve­ments China has made re­gard­ing its pop­u­la­tion pol­icy and the im­prove­ments to sex­ual and re­pro­duc­tive health ser­vices.

“China is slowly tran­si­tion­ing from a ‘pro­gram coun­try’ that re­ceives de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tance to a ‘part­ner­ship coun­try’ that sup­ports the de­vel­op­ment of other coun­tries,” he said. “And the UN can play a sup­port­ive and fa­cil­i­tat­ing role dur­ing China’s tran­si­tion.”


In 1979, when some 260,000 forcibly dis­placed Viet­namese, Lao­tians and Cam­bo­di­ans crossed into south­ern China, the govern­ment turned to the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees and in­vited the agency to help man­age the in­flux, mark­ing the start of its op­er­a­tions in China.

Si­vanka Dhana­pala, the agency’s current rep­re­sen­ta­tive in China, said, “That was one of the big­gest crises in the re­gion at the time, and also the first such crisis the Chi­nese govern­ment had ever dealt with.”

Dhana­pala said the UNHCR’s main re­spon­si­bil­ity was to pro­vide guid­ance on the recog­ni­tion of refugees and to of­fer fu­ture life sup­port.

“Doc­u­men­ta­tion is a very im­por­tant le­gal re­quire­ment, be­cause it not only en­sures you ac­knowl­edge the (refugees’) ex­is­tence, but also en­ables them to ac­cess ba­sic ser­vices, such as food, shel­ter, health, ed­u­ca­tion and even job op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he said. “These were all ar­eas that the Chi­nese govern­ment and UNHCR worked very closely to­gether on.”

Dhana­pala said this showed the “ex­traor­di­nary gen­eros­ity” of China at the time, as the coun­try was not as eco­nom­i­cally ad­vanced as it is to­day, but was ready to as­sist, along with the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

The refugee agency also helped set­tle the new ar­rivals in com­mu­ni­ties in six prov­inces and re­gions in south­ern China — Guangxi, Guang­dong, Yun­nan, Hainan, Fu­jian and Jiangxi.

A num­ber of refugees have re­turned to their home coun­tries, while some have re­mained in China and in­te­grated with lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

For ex­am­ple, in 2005, the au­thor­i­ties in Yun­nan started to is­sue the refugees with ID cards and hukou (house­hold reg­is­tra­tion) cer­tifi­cates, giving them more ac­cess to a range of so­cial wel­fare ser­vices.

Af­ter hand­ing the pro­gram over to the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties, the agency re­mained in the coun­try at the re­quest of the govern­ment to deal with the ar­rival of any fur­ther refugees and asy­lum seek­ers.

The agency, which is re­spon­si­ble for refugee iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and reg­is­tra­tion, con­ducts a se­ries of interviews called Refugee Status De­ter­mi­na­tion to as­sess whether asy­lum seek­ers qual­ify as refugees to re­ceive fur­ther pro­tec­tion and sup­port.

Ac­cord­ing to the UNHCR, there are more than 200 rec­og­nized refugees liv­ing in China, many of them from So­ma­lia, while the re­main­der mainly come from Mid­dle Eastern and African coun­tries. They en­tered China legally, but be­came refugees be­cause of changes tak­ing place in their home coun­tries.

Mean­while, the of­fice is re­assess­ing part of its work and strate­gic ob­jec­tives in China as the na­tion plays a grow­ing role in global hu­man­i­tar­ian af­fairs, said Dhana­pala, who has worked in the coun­try since Jan­uary last year and has wit­nessed and been in­volved in the agency’s trans­for­ma­tion.

“We are try­ing to fig­ure out how to ef­fec­tively ed­u­cate the pub­lic and raise aware­ness of refugee is­sues among them in China,” he said.

Dhana­pala said more than 70 mil­lion peo­ple have been forcibly dis­placed world­wide, the high­est num­ber ever recorded. “We need more younger peo­ple to be in­volved in our work who are will­ing to go out and con­trib­ute to hu­man­i­tar­ian efforts,” he said.

In June, the agency launched a three-day film fes­ti­val in Bei­jing to ob­serve World Refugee Day, which falls on June 20.

The se­ries of refugee-themed films in­cluded Caper­naum, which de­picts their lives and the harsh re­al­i­ties they face.

“It’s a way of telling their story. I think this is the most com­pelling way to gen­er­ate em­pa­thy, raise aware­ness and con­trib­ute to solutions to refugee is­sues,” Dhana­pala said.

The agency is also work­ing closely with the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties to mo­bi­lize po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial sup­port on global refugee is­sues.

For ex­am­ple, in 2016, China pledged hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance to ad­dress the global refugee crisis through bi­lat­eral and mul­ti­lat­eral chan­nels.

“It’s very pleas­ing to see China’s good­will in of­fer­ing more as­sis­tance on forced dis­place­ments around the world, and there­fore sup­port­ing refugee op­er­a­tions glob­ally,” Dhana­pala said.

He added that it was time for less­de­vel­oped coun­tries to learn from China, which had stepped up to co­op­er­ate with the agency in work­ing to find fea­si­ble solutions to refugee is­sues.

“It’s par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing to work here at this time, be­cause China is un­der­go­ing this shift from be­ing a re­cip­i­ent to a hu­man­i­tar­ian and de­vel­op­ment player. I feel ex­cited to be part of the UN efforts in se­cur­ing China’s sup­port, and work­ing with the govern­ment and the peo­ple,” he said.

“I think in the long run, it (China’s sup­port) will be a ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to hu­man­ity.”

China is slowly tran­si­tion­ing from a ‘pro­gram coun­try’ that re­ceives de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tance to a ‘part­ner­ship coun­try’ that sup­ports the de­vel­op­ment of other coun­tries.” Ba­batunde Ahonsi, UN Pop­u­la­tion Fund rep­re­sen­ta­tive in China


Refugees re­ceive China-sourced do­na­tions from a United Nations World Food Pro­gramme ware­house at a refugee camp in Zaatari, Jor­dan, in 2017.


Li Ning, the UN World Food Pro­gramme’s good­will am­bas­sador against hunger, feeds chil­dren in Le­sotho, south­ern Africa, in 2008.


Left: Chi­nese schol­ars re­ceive train­ing from an in­ter­na­tional de­mog­ra­phy ex­pert in the late 1980s. Cen­ter: The WFP Of­fice in China launches a wet­land restora­tion project in Guang­dong province in 1982 as part of an emer­gency food as­sis­tance pro­gram for peo­ple af­fected by nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. Right: A WFP field officer plants a friend­ship tree in Quzhou, He­bei province, in Novem­ber, 1984.


Top: Chil­dren en­joy clean wa­ter in Guizhou province thanks to an agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ment project con­ducted by the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and the WFP in the late 1990s. Above: Non-food items are pro­vided by China in 2017 to im­prove ba­sic liv­ing con­di­tions for refugees and asy­lum-seek­ers at the Ton­gog­ara camp in Zim­babwe through the South-South Co­op­er­a­tion As­sis­tance Fund.

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