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LONDON - As international leaders and donors gather here for the Conference on Afghanistan on Tuesday and Wednesday, the United Nations World Food Programme is calling on the world community to focus more of its energy and attention on the millions of poor and hungry people in Afghanistan.

"Afghans have made remarkable progress since the Bonn agreement was signed in 2001. The country has a new constitution, an elected President and new parliament. Millions of children, including girls, are back at school. Most noticeably for WFP is the drop in the numbers of hungry people from 9 million in 2002 to 6.5 million this year. But donors must remember that food is still a serious issue for poor Afghans," said Charles Vincent, WFP Country Director for Afghanistan.

"The London Conference will see the launch of the Afghanistan Compact, a blueprint for ongoing reconstruction over the next five years in vital areas such as security, governance and economic and social development. The benchmarks set out in this document signify that Afghanistan is well and truly on the road to recovery," said Vincent.

"Nonetheless," he added, "peace is still not assured, and we must remember there are still millions of extremely poor and hungry people who need help. Over fifty percent of children are malnourished. One in three people living in rural areas is unable to meet basic nutritional requirements each day".

Earlier in January this year, WFP launched a new relief and recovery operation in Afghanistan. The three-year programme aims to assist an estimated 6.5 million, particularly women, and will cost around $360.2 million to deliver. To date, only 11 per cent of the operation has been funded. WFP urgently requires some 21, 000 metric tonnes of food valued at $13.7 million to meet a shortfall over the next six months.

Nationwide assessments in 2003 found that 3.5 million Afghans are extremely poor and chronically food insecure; a further 3 million are seasonally food insecure. Most are landless or land-poor with no assets. These people generally cope by reducing the amount of food they eat and accumulating debt. They are often forced to take their children out of school to work their lands, and marry their daughters at a young age.

An estimated 400,000 people a year are seriously affected by natural disasters such as floods and heavy snowfalls. Around 150,000 desperate people displaced by years of war, many of them kuchis (nomadic pastoralists), live in camps in southern Afghanistan.

"With a strong focus on how to solve the problem of security in Afghanistan, the international community must remember that humanitarian assistance to poor and hungry Afghans ? often living in troubled areas - is an important part of achieving peace," said Vincent.

Major donors to WFP's new operation in Afghanistan are: India (US$21.9 million), the United States (US$13.7 million), Japan (US$2.6 million), and Switzerland (US$1.2 million).