Doing what’s right, whatever it takes — Inácio dos Santos, Timor-Leste

On August 19, the world pays tributes to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service. To celebrate World Humanitarian Day, we meet World Food Programme staff working each day around the world to save lives and feed dreams.

Simona Beltrami
Aug 2, 2017 · 4 min read

When Inácio joined the World Food Programme during the 2006 emergency in Timor-Leste, he worried his six-month contract would not be renewed. With a few breaks due to funding shortages, he has been with the organization for over nine years now. Read his story as part of a series celebrate World Humanitarian Day (19 August 2017).

Inácio helps offload boxes of Plumpy Sup, a nutritious supplement used to combat malnutrition in children, to be distributed on Atauro Island. Photo: WFP

Sitting in waters that host the world’s widest variety of reef fish, Atauro Island in Timor-Leste is considered a biodiversity paradise. On land, however, the situation is less idyllic: fishing and farming communities struggle to produce enough food, and children are malnourished.

“Every three months, we travel to Atauro to deliver specialized nutritious supplements to combat malnutrition,” says Inácio, a father of four who works as Programme Assistant for the World Food Programme (WFP). While lower than the national average, stunting rates in the municipality of Dili, which includes Atauro, remain high at 39.7 percent.

On the island, WFP distributions happen at two remote health posts that can only be reached on a small boat.

“When the weather is fine, all is well. But in bad weather, sailing is dangerous and the only alternative is a five-hour walk through mountainous terrain, carrying the food boxes,” explains Inácio.

“Sometimes we take a calculated risk and go by boat. The people we serve need this special food — if we don’t bring it to them, how can we solve their problem of malnutrition?”

With 50 percent of children under 5 suffering from stunting, Timor-Leste’s malnutrition rates are among the highest in Asia. Inácio works with communities to improve nutrition in children and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Photos: WFP

Inácio is not new to difficult situations. He joined WFP in 2006, when the country was plunged into chaos by fighting between rival military factions. “At the time I was working for the Ministry of Finance, National Statistics Department, and my supervisor encouraged me to apply for a post as Field Monitor Assistant with WFP,” he recalls.

Because of the violence, thousands of people were forced from their homes. Inácio’s job was to visit camps and monitor the distribution of rice, oil and beans by NGOs.

“Visiting the camps could be dangerous,” says Inácio, remembering how he and his colleagues were threatened and insulted on several occasions.

“Sometimes, ethnicity was the problem — the people in the camps would not accept our presence as we were from the east of the country and they were from the west,” he explains.

Other times, the food would not be enough for everyone and this would trigger violent reactions. “Once my supervisor and I were in Metinaro, a town to the east of Dili. As the night fell, we stopped the distribution. The people were so angry they chased us and beat us up.”

‘Thinking that I can have a role in reducing the number of malnourished people in my country is what keeps me going.’

Even at quieter times, there can be pressures. “People from my community — and even some relatives — sometimes are upset because I do not give them free food,” says Inácio. “What I tell them is that whoever wants WFP assistance must go to the health facilities to register — if they qualify, they will get the food.

“Our aim is for our food to reach those who need it, and treat malnutrition in vulnerable people. Thinking that I can have a role in reducing the number of malnourished people in my country is what keeps me going.”

Learn more about WFP’s work in Timor-Leste

Read more stories about WFP humanitarians.

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