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WFP Standby Partners Stories: Maria-Angelica Alvarado, Protection Officer (Colombia)

Since 1991 WFP collaborates with a vast network of Standby Partners consisting of public and private organizations complementing WFP’s operational capacity by providing staffing, equipment, and services.Standby Partnerships are activated in various job positions and provide crucial support to WFP operations in emergencies or when WFP needs specific technical expertise. In 2021, 104 experts supported 37 Country Offices, 5 Regional Bureaux, and Headquarters. To request and deploy experts Standby Partners please reach out to WFP Standby Partnerships team in the Emergency Operations Division at: standbypartners@wfp.org.

 
Maria-Angelica, a Protection Specialist deployed in Colombia ©WFP

The humanitarian context in Colombia is complex, with multi-dimensional challenges. The country’s 50-year-long armed conflict has resulted in 6 million internally displaced people (IDPs). Furthermore, the crisis in neighboring Venezuela has spilled into Colombia, with more than 2 million Venezuelan migrants still living in-country and subsequently increasing humanitarian and protection needs.


We spoke with Maria-Angelica Alvarado, a Protection Specialist deployed in Colombia by NORCAP. Maria-Angelica told us how she strived to strengthen WFPs protection activities during her Standby Partners assignment in Colombia.

 

Maria-Angelica joined WFP while the Colombia Country Office was scaling up its humanitarian operations to respond to a massive influx of Venezuelans migrants in country, the largest exodus in Latin America’s modern history affecting in total nearly 6 million people in the region. Due to lack of food and loss of livelihoods, migrants were increasingly moving to Colombia or passing through to reach Ecuador, Perú and other countries in South America, with a clear impact on local, host government capacities. As the impact of the COVID epidemic significantly affected the capacity of local labor markets to provide employment and income, the condition of many migrants across the region became increasingly vulnerable.


Since 2018, at the request of the Government of Colombia, WFP implements a large humanitarian emergency operation to provide assistance to vulnerable migrants and receiving communities, mostly concentrated in the departments of La Guajira, Norte de Santander and Arauca on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, as well as Nariño in the southern border with Ecuador. “Overall, WFP has been assisting about 1.1 million vulnerable migrants every year in Colombia, providing an extraordinary contribution to the response of the Colombian state”, confirmed Carlo Scaramella, WFP’s Country Director in-country.

Michelle brings her sick baby across the river into Colombia to get medicine from the Red Cross that she can't get in Venezuela ©WFP

While Standby Partners agencies usually deploy international experts, Maria Angelica was a Colombian national deployed in her own country, in view of her deep knowledge of the regional context and 18 years’ experience in migration emergencies. Despite her broad prior experience as a humanitarian, this was her first assignment with WFP. “At the time I began my mission, the situation was critical”, recalls Maria. Venezuela had stopped producing ID cards and passports, so many people leaving Venezuela were crossing the border at illegal and often dangerous points called “trochas”, crossing rivers, jungles, mountains and desertic areas. “Migrants would walk 11 hours a day, enduring freezing or extremely hot temperatures, and often falling victim to widespread situations of violence and abuse by illegal actors and local gangs. It was heart-breaking to see people leave their relatives and life behind”.

Colombia-Venezuela border at Los Patios Bridge (Cucuta, Colombia), one of the main entry points for people crossing from Venezuela into Colombia ©WFP

Maria’s assignment started with conducting protection assessments to better understand contextual risks, a critical element to inform programming. “Good planning is paramount to reduce the potential for risks”, she stated with conviction. In such a fluid and dynamic situation, with continued flows of vulnerable migrants, “WFP's priority was to scale up all possible protection measures to mitigate risks and provide much needed assistance”. Consequently, to ensure that WFP assistance would not create harm or risks to any beneficiary, “I worked hand in hand with activity managers to ensure that distribution points were safe for migrants”. Activities were organized to minimize time moving to assistance sites, travel costs and waiting time, and “we worked hard to ensure that assistance would not generate discrimination or stigmatization”, recalls Maria.


WFP assistance targeted the most vulnerable, especially single mothers, unaccompanied children, senior citizens and people with disabilities, in a situation of humanitarian need and facing protection risks. As part of WFP’s emergency response, migrant families living in temporary shelters or informal settlements received pre-paid cards valued at US$ 34 (or 96,000 Colombian pesos) exchangeable for food and other basic need items at local shops previously selected by WFP.

Migrant families waiting in front of a WFP registration point ©WFP

Additionally, WFP supported hot meals provision through a number of local partners, including the Catholic Church. At the height of the crisis, every day 50,000 hot meals were distributed across 34 kitchens located in the four affected border departments. For over one year, the community kitchens in border areas and key urban centres became inclusive, safe and friendly spaces for many of the most vulnerable migrants families and their children. With the onset of the COVID crisis, however, WFP had to very rapidly switch modality, which among others led to an expansion of cash transfers and vouchers, as well as the use of in-kind rations for migrants passing through Colombia and heading to other destinations.

A community kitchen at the Casa de Paso de la Divina Providencia ©WFP

WFP also supported Colombians who had expatriated to Venezuela and, due to the crisis, had decided to move back to Colombia. As part of its response operations, WFP provided assistance to Colombian returnees and host communities to help them cope with the dynamics of migration. “I love successful reintegration stories”, says Maria, citing a family who “a year after returning to Colombia was managing a shop, with the kids back in school.” Today, much of the emphasis of WFP’s work is dedicated to promoting the socio-economic integration of both migrants and returnees.

Maria interacting with migrants ©WFP

Reflecting on her Standby Partnership experience, Maria concludes: “The experience of WFP in Colombia demonstrates that food assistance can be a very powerful instrument to keep people safe, ensure their dignity, promote their socio-economic reintegration. Although WFP is not a protection-mandated agency, I very much value the work of WFP in upholding their ethical responsibility to beneficiaries, in contributing to protection outcomes, and in ensuring that projects are designed and executed in an unharmful and responsible manner”.

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