Making Aid Work

Op-ed in the DailyNK

May 25, 2011

A recent US State Department announcement of an official mission to Pyongyang has revived speculation that the Obama administration is preparing to resume large-scale food aid to North Korea. That report raises the question of whether those organizing such a mission will learn the lessons of past mistakes.

The State Department announcement said that special envoy for North Korean human rights Ambassador Robert King, together with Jon Brause, a USAID official with prior experience negotiating aid protocols with North Korea, were traveling to Pyongyang. In earlier columns Stephan Haggard and Lee Chong Cheol debated the advisability of providing such aid to North Korea. Here I address the monitoring issues with which King and Brause will presumably grapple.

The North Korean government has never shown any willingness to adhere to the norms of humanitarian assistance practiced around the world. This is more than a technical consideration. In a world of limited resources, we should give aid where it has the greatest effect and where there are assurances that the government exhibits does not act to subvert donor intent.

There are strategies for working around such lack of cooperation. They include providing aid in forms unsuitable for elite consumption; cooking it onsite to limit diversion; and sending it to the worst affected areas so that even if the aid is diverted into the market, it will still reach people in need. Other methods would be auctioning off aid at the point of entry so that the rents are retained by the donor, not diverters; and conducting nutritional surveys to determine if people in need are affected-and terminating the program if they are not. In short, send barley and millet to Chongjin, not rice to Nampo.

The willingness of the United States to resume aid is likely to revolve around just such issues of monitoring. Beginning in 1995, the World Food Program (WFP), which has handled most US aid going to North Korea, negotiated a series of access agreements. These have always been problematic. The North Korean side has objected to the use of Korean speakers, limited WFP access to recipients, restricted monitoring, and refused to provide a complete list of recipient institutions such as hospitals and schools. Over time the WFP was gradually able to negotiate better terms. This process reached its zenith in 2005 when WFP reached an agreement "in principle" that provided for:

  • Household food information. Every four months the WFP would undertake baseline household surveys, interview local officials and others (e.g., farmers, factory officials, etc.), hold focus group discussions, and take observational walks.

  • Distribution monitoring. The WFP would shift at the margin to monitoring distribution centers and food-for-work projects, interview those receiving food aid there, and increase monitoring visits to nonhousehold sites (e.g., county warehouses, factories producing food products with WFP commodities, and institutions receiving food aid).

  • Ration cards. All WFP beneficiaries would be given a WFP-designed and printed ration card that would be checked by the WFP at distributions.

  • Commodity tracking. WFP staff would be allowed to physically follow food aid from the port of entry, to county warehouses, to three to six Public Distribution Centers (PDCs) per county. It would also implement a more uniform and consistent system to track commodities by waybill number, paving the way eventually for an electronic system to track bags from port to delivery.

The 2005 package was never implemented, however, in part because of improved harvests and generous aid from South Korea and China. Later that year North Korea pulled back and threatened to expel the WFP and the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

But elements of the agreement nonetheless found their way into the next agreement concluded in June 2008. Those negotiations revealed a split within the North Korean side. The United States was the main donor and indicated a desire to spread its contribution across the WFP and a consortium of American NGOs. On the North Korean side, the counterpart organization to the NGOs was the Korea-America Private Exchange Society (KAPES). The WFP's counterpart was the National Coordinating Committee (NCC). The US government could effectively impose its will on the NGOs for whom the North Korea project was a potentially major initiative with the advantage that they were facing the relatively cooperative KAPES. By contrast, the US government had had less complete sway over the WFP, which had been dealing with the more hard-line NCC.

In effect the US negotiated a deal with KAPES, which was then extended to the WFP-NCC operated program over the vociferous objections of the NCC. From the outset, the NCC had refused to adhere to the terms of the agreement, particularly the use of Korean speakers. Although accounts differ, it appears that WFP management may well have subsequently explicitly or implicitly signaled to their North Korean interlocutors that strict adherence was not mandatory, presumably in an attempt to maintain access. Problems with the WFP program from the donor's perspective led to interruptions in the WFP-operated component and its eventual suspension in late 2008. The NGO-managed effort continued in operation until early 2009.

Last month the WFP tried to revive the aid by releasing a letter of understanding that appeared similar to the 2008 agreement with some notable improvement in the areas of commodity tracking and regional offices. But there is no reason to believe that the North Koreans will be any more likely to stick to the agreement this time. Some in Washington have begun to advocate cutting out the WFP and NGOs entirely. They advocate instead working through private subcontractors who presumably would be more scrupulous about implementing donor instructions. This brings us back to the mission announced by State. Politically King and Brause will have to come back with an agreement that does not just look better than the previous one on paper, but establishes some basis for confidence that actual implementation will improve.

Whether South Korea should also provide official aid is obviously a matter for South Korea to decide. But South Korean involvement could immeasurably strengthen US efforts in one respect: If South Korea is a major donor either through the WFP or some other mechanism, it would be very difficult for North Korea to object to the use of Korean speakers in monitoring. The ability to communicate in Korean would seem to be a prerequisite for a credible program in North Korea.