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World Food Program director on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Doctors are operating without anesthesia. Fuel is running out. Food is running out. These are the conditions today in Gaza. Aid trucks are trickling in across the Egyptian border. Those trucks include aid from the U.N. World Food Programme. Cindy McCain is the executive director of that agency. She is just back from the region, and she's here with me now, live in the studio. Ambassador McCain, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CINDY MCCAIN: Thank you.

KELLY: It's good to see you. I know that you are in contact with World Food Programme staffers on the ground. You've still got several dozen there - like, 90 something. What are they telling you? What's your current understanding of the situation?

MCCAIN: Well, it's a complete catastrophe. We have a - people that are - have been moved around, that are - you know, they're IDPs within the country. They have...

KELLY: Internally displaced persons.

MCCAIN: Right. They have no food. They have no water. They have no fuel. And what does that mean? That means that they're - No. 1, they're starving to death. And No. 2, there's going to be disease like nobody's business unless we get in there. And the trouble is, as you said, there have been a few trucks that have gotten over the border. That doesn't mean anything. We need hundreds of trucks to get across the border to help mitigate what this catastrophe could mean.

KELLY: Yeah. I was looking - it is a few dozen that have gotten in through the weekend. Normal crossing would be 400 trucks a day.

MCCAIN: A day, right.

KELLY: So it's a tiny trickle in the bucket.

MCCAIN: Right. Right.

KELLY: I also - just to follow up on fuel, the United Nations is warning that UNRWA, the largest humanitarian provider in Gaza - they say they will run out of fuel tonight - so, like, as we speak. Your organization is warning that there's enough food left for about 12 days. And then what? What happens?

MCCAIN: Well, No. 1, you're correct about the fuel. The fuel is gone. No. 2, with regards to our own situation there, the numbers vary from place to place and from region to region within the country. Bottom line is there isn't enough food. Bottom line - people are starving to death. And as always, it's women and children that take the brunt of this. We need immediate, sustained and safe access to get into that country to help save lives, and we don't have it right now. We've been given a truck here, a truck there, which means nothing in the scheme of things. As you said, we need hundreds of trucks to go in.

KELLY: How hopeful are you that the situation will change?

MCCAIN: Boy, you know, I'm the eternal optimist in many ways, but I'm not hopeful right now. I'm really not from what I'm seeing. I'm - you know, we're seeing the political, you know, wills at bay. We're seeing, of course, people trying to mitigate the circumstances via negotiations, etc. But nothing's working. Nothing's happening. Both sides are not talking. And No. 2, they're not dealing with the issue of people who are going to die. They're going to die, you know, as a result of no food, no water, no ability to support themselves. And without the opportunity and without given the humanitarian access that we need, we can't do anything about it. And so it just breaks my heart. I lose sleep over this at night.

KELLY: Wow. Just to make sure I understand the situation, is the food there? Are the supplies there, like, lined up, ready to go, and you just need somebody to, you know, lift the gates and let them through?

MCCAIN: We have quite a few - and by quite a few, I'm not going to give numbers because it's - it varies. But we have way in the high double digits of trucks outside the Rafah Gate that could go in immediately. And as you've said, prior to the war, they were taking 400 trucks a day over the border in supplies and commodities, etc. So given the opportunity for free and unfettered access that's safe, yes, we could go in and feed a half a million to a million people, depending on where we are and what we were doing. But we don't have that. And with the food that we have, which is strictly emergency food - I mean, this is the kind of thing that you don't have to cook. You can eat it immediately, will give you calories, will give you energy, that kind of thing.

KELLY: So who are you calling on to try to change this?

MCCAIN: Everybody. I was on Capitol Hill today talking to anybody who'd listen to me about this.

KELLY: But it's Egypt that controls that border crossing.

MCCAIN: It's Egypt right now for where my trucks sit. It's Egypt. It is. I mean, both countries, Israel and Egypt, of course, are in this. And something has to be done from a diplomatic standpoint. But that's not - you know, that's not my arena. My arena is the humanitarian aspect of this.

KELLY: There are concerns being raised that aid that is intended and clearly desperately needed by civilians, that that aid could be taken by Hamas. Are you concerned about that? How do you prevent it?

MCCAIN: Not like other people are, and here's why. Because we have a sizable organization that was on the ground, we have people that are in positions that know the players, that know who the bad guys are and know who the good guys are. Now, with that said, you know, we have the ability to track and trace. We have the ability to identify those who are supposed to get the aid by facial recognition, all those kinds of things - eye scans, etc. But the problem is it's a war zone.

KELLY: Yeah.

MCCAIN: Things are going to happen. And so to say 100% can I guarantee, no I can't.

KELLY: Just to broaden this out a little bit, you and I last spoke a little over a month ago, and the reason was that the WFP has a funding crisis. You were out of money. You were struggling to provide food aid. And that was even before this war...

MCCAIN: Yeah. Yeah.

KELLY: ...Between Israel and Hamas. Where does this latest conflict leave you?

MCCAIN: Gosh. It's - you know, it's taken a critical situation worldwide to something that's near disaster. As you know, as we talked earlier, we've had to cut aid in many places. We've had to extremely limit aid in others. We've taken millions off the rolls of being able to have regular food. And this was prior to all of this. And now you double down with this kind of situation, and we're in a situation that's dire. Countries are coming to the aid of this particular crisis, yes. Not enough, but they're coming. And - but still, the rest of the world's still at play here. We have - the world's on fire. You go from the Sahel to Chad, go into Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, Ethiopia, and on and on and on, and there just isn't enough money. There just isn't.

KELLY: In just a few sentences, for people listening who are feeling powerless, what can we do?

MCCAIN: Well, what I tell people - and especially today on Capitol Hill and others - we can look at this two ways, and here's what I would suggest. No. 1, you can, with your heart, give money to people who are going to starve to death - give organizations like mine and others - or you can do it for national security interests because this is a national security problem.

KELLY: Cindy McCain, executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme, thank you for speaking with us.

MCCAIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Matt Ozug
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Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.