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Interview with UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mbaranga Gasarabwe

As protests against poverty mount in Guinea, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mbaranga Gasarabwe says the challenge will be to see whether foreign donors stump up funds to help the troubled West African nation.

QUESTION: You mentioned the significance of the general strikes [in a briefing] earlier today. To what extent are the strikes in June an indicator that we may see increased violence in the near future?

ANSWER: Not violence. What I was explaining was that for a national strike to go on for two weeks demonstrated that there was somehow a message from the overall population that they are fighting for something, that is what I was saying. During the national strike there was also the issue of baccalaureate school exams. There was a guarantee that the national authority would ensure the holding of the exams. And then finally nobody showed up to process the exam. And the “bac” is very important. When the students couldn’t pass the exam they demonstrated in the street. Some of them were killed and then there was a kind of violence. The authorities explained that some people had used this opportunity to infiltrate the strike and demonstrate.

Q: You spoke in the briefing about the level of poverty, malnutrition and the fact that mortality is increasing. About 54 percent of the population is living under the poverty threshold. Is there a risk that while other countries in the region are stabilizing after years of war, we may begin to see Guinea destabilizing?

A: Those are issues that have definitely caused concern. We are focusing on how to have the government and civil society ensure that [people] can feed themselves. That’s about establishing good policy and a commitment from the government to make sure that they are working towards [economic] growth. For example, we are helping them to strategise on achieving the Millenium Development Goals, and the poverty strategy with the UN Development Framework.

In addition to a commitment, we need to make sure that they have the money to implement what they have to implement, and that’s where the challenge is. If they have money, this is where I think good management, good governance should also be focusing, to help them to implement their policies.

They are looking to see if the IMF (International Monetary Fund) will implement a programme. If it’s established, it will give a window of opportunity [and encourage] other donors to put money in. Then there will be a real bridge for them to implement some of their policies. We are talking about electricity and other big reforms. This requires a lot of money, which you can't do if you don’t have the funds. You have seen the statistics I gave you - the annual GDP is US$ 3.3 billion versus their foreign debt servicing of US$ 3.4 billion.

Q: So how is the government, the UN and the international community addressing the issue of poverty and malnutrition? For example, is the government providing subsidised food, and is that effective?

A: To tell you the truth Guinea is not like Niger. People are not really lacking food. Food is there. I think part of the challenge with the population of Guinea is: how do you change the habit of feeding yourself. If you cannot afford a bag of rice, then, change to something else. They like rice. This is their basic food. The FAO and WFP are trying to see if we can subsidize the population to diversify the food they eat. If you don’t have rice you can eat this, you can eat that.

Q: Two specific humanitarian questions. There are 35,000 Liberian refugees in Guinea. They are meant to be repatriated in 2006. What’s their current status? Is their repatriation on track? Are they receiving support?

A: Yes, they are on track. And I think there is a very good support on the commitment from the Liberian government. [Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf], the president of Liberia, has sent a very clear message that they want those people back. Now there is a strategy going on between UNHCR and all the agencies involved [clarifying] why they are going back and how they are being settled in Liberia, and that they are not scared to return.

Q: And the second question is about international donors. What was your view of the donor reaction to Prime Minister Diallo being sacked?

A: Everybody is there to help the country. And if I may say about the meetings we are in, we have established a very good working relationship with the G8 ambassadors. We have a meeting with the G8 ambassadors, IMF, World Bank and UN every two weeks. We go through so many issues, and I brief them on humanitarian issues. It’s a big challenge to move from humanitarian to development. We have challenges on the development front, and in some places you have to face the humanitarian issue again; like epidemic disease coming up again.

Q: So Diallo’s departure was seen as a bad or good thing?

A: I know that journalists make a big deal about the departure of Diallo. You know, if you look at it clearly, the position is not mandatory, it’s not constitutionally appointed. Of course he was performing very well, and he was a reformist and so on. By removing him - it was a pity, but he is not all the government. Now we are waiting to see the new government perform well and look at the right policy issues and implement them for the well-being of the population. So that’s why we have to be very careful when journalists say, “Oh, the prime minister is gone, so are you going to stop everything?” It is a government, we deal with the government, we deal with the country, we deal with the population of Guinea, so we are here not working with an individual, we are working here as an international community working with whoever is appointed. So that is how we address it.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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