HAVANA TIMES, Oct 29 (IPS) – Three new international cooperation agreements channeled through the United Nations system in Cuba are aimed at strengthening food security, especially in the poorest parts of the country.
“Thanks to the joint work of the international community, the United Nations and the Cuban government, we have been able to provide more assistance in such important areas as food,” the United Nations resident coordinator in Cuba, Susan McDade, told IPS.
“Four years ago it would have been difficult to imagine this kind of collaboration,” achieved by means of “better coordination” among U.N. agencies, which has made it possible to mobilize resources towards sectors of development identified as priorities by Cuban officials, she said.
McDade, who is from Canada, said the three agreements involve a total of 35 million dollars for projects that will have an impact throughout the country, but with an emphasis on the easternmost provinces that cover one-third of the island.
That part of the country, which includes the cities of Las Tunas (662 km east of Havana), Holguín (743 km), Granma (744 km), Santiago de Cuba (861 km) and Guantánamo (905 km), is the least developed part of the island, and the consensus is that it must be given top priority in development aid plans.
Many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by the international community at the U.N. general assembly in 2000, have been achieved in Cuba, while others are on the way to being met, said McDade, who is also the resident representative of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP).
But “some eastern provinces and municipalities are not making the same progress,” she pointed out.
A study by the National Statistics Office (ONE) on progress towards the MDGs in eastern Cuba made it possible for U.N. agencies and local authorities to identify which areas should be especially targeted in development efforts, including maternal health programs, promoting greater access to food, and defense of the environment.
Some of the problems in eastern Cuba are caused by the lack of a habit of eating vegetables rich in micronutrients and iron, shortages in protein, especially among the lowest-income sectors, and a higher teen pregnancy rate.
Studies show there is no “chronic hunger” in Cuba, although there are certain levels of anemia and scarcity of micronutrients in some segments of the population, especially children under two, young mothers, nursing mothers and people with chronic health problems.
The eight MDGs set a 2015 deadline for halving extreme poverty and hunger rates from 1990 levels, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and maternal health, reducing child mortality, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability, and developing a global partnership for development.
The first of the programs mentioned by McDade, which will involve 8.5 million dollars in aid, is focused on “support for the fight against anemia in disadvantaged groups in Cuba,” which will directly benefit the 24 poorest municipalities in the five eastern provinces and the western province of Pinar del Río.
That initiative will provide financing for a dairy company in Pinar del Río to expand production in order to make an iron-fortified porridge which includes milk, to be provided to children between the ages of six months and five years, pregnant women, and other people facing a risk of anemia.
Boosting Decentralization in the Countryside
The second project, called “support for new decentralization initiatives and production stimulation in Cuba,” will include seven million dollars in aid to bolster the participation of the small private sector as a dynamic agent in local development. Individual producers and cooperatives from five municipalities in five different provinces will be the beneficiaries.
“This program is aimed at promoting decentralization in agriculture, in line with the government’s new policy of promoting economic activities that contribute to import substitution,” said McDade, who added that small farmers involved in the program will be provided with tools, credits and facilities for repairing tractors, among other services.
Both initiatives will be partly financed by the MDG Achievement Fund (MDG-F), whose main donor is Spain.
The MDG-F is a U.N. instrument that backs up national efforts to meet the MDGs, fight inequality and increase active participation by civil society in social and economic development.
Diversification of agriculture
The third agreement mentioned by the U.N. resident coordinator will involve 20 million dollars in aid from the European Commission, channeled through the UNDP, up to Sept. 30, 2011, with the aim of diversifying agriculture.
The plan is to strengthen local food production capacity, while improving farm management and the availability of local produce in 27 selected municipalities. In addition, efforts will be made to improve quality and quantity of skilled farmers in another 10 municipalities.
The government of Raul Castro has made the recovery and increased efficiency of the agriculture sector, whose difficulties were aggravated by the damages caused by three hurricanes last year, one of the top priorities of his government.
The total economic losses caused by the hurricanes were estimated at 10 billion dollars.
The U.N. system worked hard to mobilize international humanitarian support to help this Caribbean island nation get back on its feet in the wake of the hurricanes. McDade, however, whose nearly four- year stint in Havana is coming to an end, says this is one of the pending challenges.
“Although we all hope that Cuba will never again be whipped by three hurricanes in one month, we can imagine that it will continue to be vulnerable to such disasters. Looking towards the future, the United Nations has to perfect its capacity to mobilize more swiftly on such occasions,” she said.
Cuba as well as other nations in the region “are facing tremendous challenges caused by climate change and its effects,” said McDade. “In my four years here, we have had equally serious problems of flooding and drought in the eastern region; I saw both extremes.”
She said the main climate change-related challenge facing Cuba is designing an adaptation plan, which involves rational, sustainable use and management of resources and the inclusion of environmental considerations in economic planning, among other aspects.
“The key question here and in any country is that the plans are drawn up at a national level, but the implementation takes place at a local level, which means close coordination between central and local bodies is required. I believe Cuba has the capacity to do this, but it is an area where the U.N. system would like to work more in the future,” the U.N. official said.
U.N. cooperation in Cuba covers programs and projects in areas of local human development, natural disasters and risks, the environment and energy, health and food security, all of which are in line with priorities identified by the government.
This year McDade will finish her mission in Havana, where she was posted in February 2006, and will travel to Uruguay to head the U.N. system in that South American country.