Last week, the UN released its annual Needs and Priorities document for the DPRK. The document outlines humanitarian need present inside the country and how the UN and its partners plan to respond to these needs.
It is at once a celebration of success and a plea that the situation is – both needed to convince donors that their money is needed and will be used in an efficient, effective response.
The 2019 Needs and Priorities surveys humanitarian need in four main areas: food security, health, nutrition, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). Throughout the document, the UN emphasizes the cross-cutting nature of these issues and argues for a coordinated, holistic response.
The 2019 Needs and Priorities has some significant changes from the 2018 version. Most notably, the UN is scaling back the number of people it is aiming to target – from 6 million to 3.8 million.
In the 2016 and 2017 Needs and Priorities releases, the target numbers were 13 million North Koreans. However, the 2019 version appears to have employed a different methodology, nothing that only ‘direct beneficiaries’ are included in the 3.8 million figure.
This would thus exclude individuals who do not directly receive aid from a UN or partner program but are still (hopefully positively, though as a fund-raising tool the document is not aimed at considering the potential aid to do harm) affected by aid efforts.
By contrast, the 2018 document began shifting towards considering direct beneficiaries in the health sector but still included indirect beneficiaries in other areas. So while the number of targeted individuals has fallen rather dramatically, the methodology for calculating this figure has also changed significantly.
The UN is scaling back the number of people it is aiming to target
Need has not declined, and has in fact risen – 10.3 million North Koreans were identified as needing humanitarian assistance in 2018, while in 2019 that figure has increased to 10.9 million.
Earlier Needs and Priorities from 2017, 2016, and 2015 listed much higher figures of 18 million, but the 2018 document calculated people in need differently. UN Resident Coordinator Tapan Mishra explains in the foreword that the 2018 figure has a “tighter focus on the most vulnerable.”
With both people in need and targeted figures undergoing methodological shifts in the past years, it’s important to not simply compare figures without accounting for these changes.
All Needs and Priorities from 2015 have mentioned the differences in humanitarian need between rural and urban populations, but the 2019 document pays particular attention to this aspect.
This includes a box on page 10 highlighting data showing discrepancies between urban and rural populations, as well as regional differences.
Honing in on this aspect of need in the DPRK serves as a reminder for donors and the international community that Pyongyang is not representative of living standards in the country as a whole.
Agencies will have to start closing life-saving projects, the UN warns, unless there is enough money to keep them open
One notable change in access that transpired in 2018 was the ability of international staff to monitor in Jagang Province. Access to the province remains low, with the first monitoring visit in October 2018 and only two agencies having restricted ability to enter the province, but is notable for existing at all.
WHAT’S STAYED THE SAME
Sanctions have created operational challenges for humanitarians in the last few years, a theme that is brought up several times in the 2019 Needs and Priorities.
While narratives of aid in the DPRK from previous decades often centered on access challenges imposed by the North Korean authorities, this has now shifted to also include constraints from external forces in the international community. The 2019 document explains:
Last year, thanks to the generosity of donors who supported the UN and INGOs, agencies reached two million people with humanitarian aid despite the challenges and delays which are an unintended consequence of sanctions imposed on the country.
Another consistent challenge that is highlighted in the 2019 document is securing adequate funding.
Agencies will have to start closing life-saving projects, the UN warns, unless there is enough money to keep them open. Funding requirements have gone up, though not significantly, from $111 million in 2018 to $120 million. However, 2018’s request for $111 million was only 24 percent funded.
Sanctions have created operational challenges for humanitarians in the last few years
While this is an improvement from a decade ago– in 2009 only 12.4 percent of requested funds were received, though the request was much higher at $492 million, and in 2010 17.5% of the requested $137 million was received – there is still a massive gap between the funding the UN says its bodies and partners need and what they are actually receiving.
Humanitarian agencies working inside the DPRK work with government partners. Unlike other groups attempting to engage with and/or improve live for North Koreans that opt for communication that is not sanctioned by the DPRK authorities, such as human rights activists, humanitarians have a more careful line to tread.
The 2019 Needs and Priorities reflects this in its explanation of why agricultural production is one million tonnes short of fulfilling needs – ‘due to shortages of arable land, lack of access to modern agricultural equipment and fertilizers, and recurrent natural disasters.’ Structural and policy problems are left out.
WHAT DOES 2019 HAVE IN STORE?
There are three key areas to watch for UN and partner engagement in the DPRK, in 2019 and beyond.
First, food production in 2018 was at its lowest in over a decade and down over 9 percent from 2017.
Food security and agriculture received the lowest percentage of requested funds out of the four sectors in 2018, with only 8.5% of funds received. In 2017, the food security sector reached only 15.3% of the 4.3 million North Koreans it aimed to target. One aspect to watch for in 2019 is not only the overall funding for the DPRK, but if food security continues to struggle in particular.
Second, a number of programs and surveys are being undertaken in 2019 that will reveal potentially new insight into the humanitarian situation inside the country.
Humanity and Inclusion (formerly Handicap International, operating in the DPRK as European Union Project Support Unit 7) will work with the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD) on their second disability sample survey.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) will support a Population and Housing Census in 2019, the first since 2008. In other contexts, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often work as implementing partners for the UN. This is not the case in the DPRK, but last year the DPRK authorized a partnership between Humanity and Inclusion, the KFPD, and UNICEF.
Food production in 2018 was at its lowest in over a decade
Finally, the document repeatedly addresses the impact of sanctions on humanitarian activities. UN Security Council sanctions have clear exemptions for humanitarian assistance, but these exemptions do not address the difficulties of banking and finding suppliers willing to work with humanitarian agencies engaging in the DPRK.
Despite exemptions, the 2019 Needs and Priorities explains that suppliers can be hesitant to work with DPRK contracts because of bureaucracy, lengthier port clearance timelines, worries about their reputation, and higher costs.
Even if humanitarian exemptions are processed and approved in a timely manner throughout 2019, attitudes towards supplying humanitarian agencies for DPRK work may still cause delays and challenges.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: by nknews_hq on 2015-09-09 14:16:39