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WFP in Syria Overseeing the UN’s ‘most complex’ relief operation

Every day, the United Nations food agency (WFP) needs $2 million (CHF1.98 million) to help feed vulnerable people in Syria. The Swiss humanitarian worker Jakob Kern, who has been leading the WFP’s Syria action since December 2015, talks to Swiss public television (SRF) about the challenges of his job. 

After 30 months, Kern is leaving the Syrian capital Damascus, where, as WFP Syriaexternal link Country Director, he has led the UN’s biggest relief operation. During this time, he oversaw 350 staff and nine field offices spread across four countries and regularly accompanied aid convoys in the troubled Middle East country, which has been wracked by over seven years of conflict. 

The WFP Syria relief operation is probably the UN’s “most complex” worldwide, he told the WFP Blogexternal link in an interview in German. In Syria, WFP supplies essential food aid to elderly and handicapped people, women and children. Monthly food rations are distributed for groups of five people: around 50 kilograms of basic food items, such as beans, lentils, wheat, oil, sugar and salt. 

Security was a major concern in Syria and the situation became particularly critical at the beginning of 2018, when fighting renewed, accompanied by massive air raids. During this period, locals told Kern and his team that the fact they knew they were getting monthly food aid kept them alive. 

Challenging family life

After Damascus, Kern begins a new mission at WFP’s headquarters in Rome, where he will be responsible for food purchasing and transport to around 80 countries worldwide. 

This will not be the first time in the Italian capital for Kern and his family. He used to live and work there with his wife and two sons, who now currently live in Bangkok, Thailand. He admits that his greatest challenge is combining family life and professional life. Owing to security threats in Damascus, the UN does not allow employees to be accompanied by family members. During his Syria mission, Kern could visit his family every four to six weeks. He also spoke to them every day via Skype. 

Born in Appenzell Outer-Rhodes in 1961, Kern lived in the United States for 30 years. He has also lived in ten other countries on four continents. His work at WFP began 20 years ago in Liberia. He has since completed missions in Eritrea, North Korea and Rome. 

Stagnant donations 

The World Food Programme (WFP) is struggling with funding problems. According to executive director David Beasley, WFP’s Syria operation still needs $310 million (CHF307 million) this year. The goal is to reach 4 million people, out of the 6.5 million who are seriously food insecure. “However, at this stage we are only meeting approximately 3 million due to lack of resources,” he told The Guardian newspaperexternal link in April. 

Outside Syria, in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, the UN food agency needs $1.4 billion (CHF1.39 billion) for 2018 and it is still $340 million (CHF336 million) short of that. “At this stage, we will have to cut 500,000 people’s food in Jordan starting [in] June,” he told the paper.

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