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Saudis donate $500M to UN food program

Canada pledges additional $12 million in aid to flood-ravaged Burma


Steven Edwards


The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, May 24, 2008


UNITED NATIONS - After making huge profits from the soaring oil prices that have helped drive up the cost of food, Saudi Arabia announced yesterday it was making what the United Nations is calling an "unprecedented" gift of $500 million to the World Food Program.

The size of the contribution bumps Canada from its position as second biggest country-donor to WFP, the world's largest distributor of emergency food, to third -- with the United States remaining in the top spot.

It comes as WFP yesterday thanked Canada for its promise to help transport helicopters to Burma for an anticipated expansion of its relief operation there.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday during his visit to Burma that the country's top leader, Gen. Than Shwe, had agreed to allow all foreign aid workers into the cyclone-ravaged region to deliver relief to thousands who remain in dire need.

Later in Ottawa, International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda said Canada would give an additional $12 million to the relief effort -- topping the government's original pledge of $2 million for the country, also known as Myanmar.

"Our government remains deeply concerned about the growing impact of the cyclone on the people of Burma and we are pleased to see Canadian aid entering the country," she said.

But international aid groups reacted cautiously to the pledge by Burmas's reclusive rulers to open up the country -- noting they have a record of reneging on promises to the UN.

Red-faced federal bureaucrats were forced to rent a Russian cargo plane for the job of delivering the helicopters after it was learned none of the country's C-17 aircraft was available despite a promise by Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier this week one of those planes would be lent for the job.

"We are most grateful to Minister Bernier for his rapid life-saving action on behalf of the Canadian people," said Josette Sheeran, WFP's executive director.

Canada will deliver up to five of the 10 helicopters WFP wants shipped to the region -- ferrying them from a base in Ukraine to Bangkok in Burma's neighbour, Thailand.

Canada as recently as Thursday was emphasizing its special focus on delivering food aid amid the current food crisis, telling a right-to-food conference in Geneva it has this year increased its contributions by $50 million over the past year to give a total of $230 million.

But the Saudi pledge far outstrips the $109 million Canada has given to WFP so far this year, and more than meets the target of the program's April appeal following price increases of as much as 50 per cent for wheat, rice and other staples.

"This contribution completes the World Food Program's appeal target of $755 million to respond to the rise in fuel and food costs," UN spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.


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