Speeches

Opening Remarks To The Executive Board

Delivered on: 13 February 2012
Executive Director Josette Sheeran
Opening Remarks to the Executive Board
13 February 2012
Rome, Italy
Ms. J. Sheehan, Executive Director: Thank you President Pattanayak. I want to thank you so much for your leadership, as well as India’s leadership, on the issues of defeating hunger and creating opportunity for all. I think it is very fitting that India’s leadership on hunger issues for many decades is now reflected in the Presidency of this Board. I want to thank you personally for your leadership here in Rome, and at the World Food Programme, and welcome you here today. You have predicted a speech looking at past and future strategies. I have put aside my speech that I worked on this weekend and really feel that this is more of a fireside chat, a profound statement of gratitude to all of you, a heartfelt goodbye, and I’d like to offer some reflections on where we have been together. So pull up a chair, let us talk for a moment and share where we are.
 
I felt that this would be more appropriate because I am in a room surrounded by people who really have been through so much together in these past few years. I will talk about some of the things we have all seen and done together and also to the World Food Programme staff throughout the field. I believe that we have built an organization, a team, and a Board that are truly focused on the critical task of defeating hunger and meeting the challenges that we have today. Words truly cannot express my profound gratitude for the honour and privilege of serving with each of you. WFP has a noble mission to reach the most vulnerable among us when they have lost everything, when they do not even have the capacity to fill even this humble cup with food. We know the red cup well.
 
Many of us, while in service to WFP, have met starving people. This level of abject suffering, one so intimate with death, moves us and inspires us to action, but it is also something that recalls memories in all of us. I have rarely found an audience or group that cannot remember in their own lifetime, or their grandparents’ lifetime, a story of profound hunger - the farthest back I have to go is two generations… It is a place where we all meet and it is a place that calls for deep compassion, dignity, and, all too often on behalf of the humanitarian workers and WFP staff, courage, bravery and even sacrifices. This is the very responsibility we are entrusted with: to ensure that in this century of great modern advances we do not forget or fail at the most basic of human tasks: the need for a simple nutritious cup of food a day by all people. This should be every child’s birth right and yet for one out of every seven people on earth it is still an unattainable dream.
 
My awakening came in the 1980s when famine was claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands in Ethiopia. I was a new mother and as I held my first child in my arms, I remember the image that came on the television of a mother in Ethiopia holding her child who was crying and near death. I remember feeling there is no more haunting cry than that of a child whose cry of hunger cannot be answered by their parents. I also remember feeling this is not necessary. We are at a point in human history where we know how to ensure that everyone has enough food, we know how to stop this. And I remember being filled with the conviction that now was the time to draw the line in the sand and say this image, this scene, needs to be relegated to history.
 
Since that time I have held in my mind a vision that is so real that I can see it and I know it will happen in my lifetime: an image of an Africa that will not only feed itself but will help feed the world. And in every task and role that I have had – whether it is in trade or economics or diplomacy – I have taken that as one of my primary missions and causes to advance in every way possible. I see an Africa that does not produce refugees but that once again is a refuge, as it has been for thousands of years, as Archbishop Tutu says. I know this is possible. I feel it as much as I feel each of you here and your commitment to this cause. I have also seen first-hand that no one chooses dependency in life.
 
Dependency is a collapse of hope, for it is the very nature of humanity to protect one’s self and one’s family and to try to better one’s life. All you need to do is click on WFP’s website and look at the faces of the women in South Sudan today - you will see that face of determination to overcome the odds and to allow their families and children to live. But those who have been robbed of all options – either by a disaster, a war, or betrayed by the very systems and people that should be leading them and protecting them – sometimes must fall on the mercy of others. Yet we have seen that, if given half a chance, the hungry and dependent transform into a powerful link in the productive lifeline of hope.We have seen that here at WFP.
 
We live in deeply troubled times. During these complex and multi layered crises the world is falling upon institutions which were designed for another era, for a different world. When WFP was created, the colour television, hand-held calculators, cell telephones, personal computers and the internet were still in the realm of science fiction or a dream yet to be attained. Our institutions are not fit for purpose - this is not a condemnation, it is just a fact.They were born in another era and so often they were unable to respond to the mass of discontinuities and disruptions caused by information flowing at the speed of light, trillions of transactions reaching even the most remote places on earth. This has been deeply evident in our work at the World Food Programme where, when I came on board, we were not only doing all of our accounting in bags of grain (as we had from the beginning) but we only repriced our commodity basket once every one or two years because the market was so steady and if it moved it usually moved down, the prices of food went down and the quantity went up. Today, instead, we check the prices on an hourly or daily basis.
 
And yet, just weeks after I came on board, we saw a drought in Australia coupled with a rise in fuel prices. Along with a few other disasters, this triggered the most rapid increase in food prices on record, doubling the price of food literally throughout the world in just six months. This was the world’s first globalized humanitarian disaster, fuelled by radical interconnectedness in which an event in one corner of the globe overnight played out in every village on earth – as I called it, a silent tsunami. If we had not yet understood our interdependence, this was the wake-up call. The great food crisis also revealed the severe discontinuities in national capacities to absorb shocks and disasters as the world divided into those nations and people with resilience and those without. There were many more mega disasters to follow – on the financial front, on the conflict front and even on the political front.  We saw just 13 months ago a 26-year old vegetable seller self immolate with the cry, “How do you expect me to earn a living”? Little did he know that this moment would ignite the frustrations of millions who would rise up to demand greater dignity and opportunity.
 
It also revealed a lack of readiness on the part of public institutions at local, national and international levels to cope with the challenges and demands of our time. As Sun Tzu said brilliantly centuries ago, ”Tactics without strategy are the noise before retreat”, and fortunately at WFP we had begun the arduous process of forming a real strategic plan in consultation with other United Nations agencies, NGOs, nations, and our staff by drawing on best practices of the learnings and evaluations over many years. We developed the Strategic Plan in deep consultation with this Board and created a concise 20 page document that focused on this agency’s core strengths, comparative advantages, and ensured our humanitarian actions were done in a way that gave people not just a life-saving hand-out but a hand-up. We also had launched a top-to-bottom overhaul of the inner workings of this institution, literally amending dozens of reforms on purchasing, accounting, technology, controls, monitoring, oversight, assessments, policy, transparency, media, programming and logistics, to ensure that we were fit for purpose for the demands of our time, battle ready for what may come ahead. 
 
We also sought to ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of “value for money”, certifying that we were getting the most out of your investment in us to build confidence in institutions like the SRAC (the Strategic Resource Allocation Committee), the Executive Management Committee, the first Policy Committee, Investment Committee, and others that champion a collaborative transparent approach to these issues. We also changed the way we do business and gave this great team the tools to take the best practices and learning and elevate them. We drew on the best knowledge of the private sector from TNT, BCG, DSM, Unilever, and MasterCard on how to build those systems, and we determined to simply use the right tool at the right time at the right place to properly defeat hunger. Just lastly, we overhauled our food basket understanding becausethe research coming in showed that it is not just about calories but it is about the nutritious value of the food, so we made  sure WFP was up to the best practice. All of this boiled down to a few simple things: one, ensuring we can move at scale deploying best practices to respond to whatever the emergencies are, from the Haiti earthquake to the Pakistan floods, to the Horn of Africa drought, to the Japan tsunami. We overhauled those emergency protocols and put in new tools like the forward purchase. 
 
Asking if we can deploy the right tool at the right time, whether you bring in food or you bring in a voucher, required really upgrading our ability to do assessments such asVAM. My hat is off to our programming team that really has deepened these capacities and ensures that we are ready for these challenges. I want to thank many of you who have contributed to building out the Copenhagen risk framework, the transparency of assessments, in a way that partnered with governments, villages and people to build their own resiliency capacity and independence and to get ahead of the disaster curve. I want to thank you because I think this institution today is much stronger than it was five years ago. You have generously supported this. You have backed us through hard times and a doubling of commodity prices. The private sector has come on board but none of this could have happened without the staff that we so admire: the great deputies here, the teams that are listening on the frontlines and of course the team in this very room, because in the end we never asked for even a dollar increase in budget to enact these reforms. The team just did it and make no mistake, it represented tens of thousands of hours of extra work. That is dedication, that is excellence and that is public service. I am so proud and honoured to have served with them.
 
But you, too, were bold. This Board had to decide to focus on what united us rather than what divided us. We had to decide that whether from the north or the south, the east or the west, the rich or the poor, when it came to the desperate end - to the hungry, to the one billion people on earth - that it was all hands to the wheel. This was our duty, this was our service to humanity.
 
I want to offer ten quick observations of some of the things that I think are important, especially given my work on the High-Level Committee on Management. First, all who are in this service need to focus on what unites us. I think that was a critical element here. Secondly, we must hold ourselves and our institutions to the highest standards of public institutions, whether it is in transparency, accountability or rigour. We need to learn from them and I really urge Member States to work with the United Nations to set those standards so that is not a guessing game of what institutions are aiming for, whether it is COSO principles or IPSAS. This is what we need to really put that roadmap together.
 
Three, real transformation is only possible if we empower people to solve their own problems. The age of dependency is over and we have to change the dependency mindset. The aid community is at its best when it is a force multiplier for good by providing catalytic platforms to transform the face of age-old problems. Some of the new tools that we have deployed here help rebuild fragile local markets such as P4P, local and regional purchases, grain banks, are such catalytic tools and turn a problem into a hunger solution, as Sheila Susulu likes to say.
 
Fourth, institutions can only change if they honour and unlock the brilliance inside by powering up the best ideas, people and successes. I knew this was my task here. There is nothing that WFP has done that was not born at WFP or born in the field that has not proven to be a success. That is what formed the Strategic Plan.
Fifth, we must remind ourselves and each other why we are in public service.This is why I carry my red cup, to remind myself every day that this is what it is about. It is not about position. It is not about power. It is not about any of that but it is the task that we have been given by people in the public trust.
 
Sixth, if we entrust people to reform and get them on board, you can reverse a negative spiral. Bill Gates says in one of his books that the hardest thing to do is reverse a negative spiral within an institution to a positive one but it can be done. It requires bringing people on board and it is what has enabled us to enact over fifty structural and strategic reforms.
 
Seventh, in order to transform we must unleash the power of collaboration. If you look, our private sector giving was at US$50 million five years ago; I think it is now over US$480 million in the past combined few years. But what is even more important is learning tapping into the knowledge that these institutions have; knowledge that we would never be able to afford as a public sector institution. What we really need to ask in that collaboration is what is our comparative advantage, what can we offer as the United Nations? This is why we still do sixty percent of our work in partnership with the NGOs and others.
 
Eighth, we must incorporate the best practices and learnings of the public and private sector - again whether that be IPSAS, COSO or governance structures.
Ninth, we must leverage transformational partnerships. Our Brazil Centre of Excellence is really an example of this. Through our work with South Korea to take Seamaul Undong, their experience on transforming hunger in South Korea, and also our partnership the Orissa province of India, we really have been able to help change the face of the hunger dynamics in partnership together.  We took those learnings shared them as we have done in work with the African Union, CAADP, NEPAD and others.
 
And tenth is to use the power of new technology to our advantage, so looking at things such as smart media. I think WFP still has the smallest media budget in the United Nations but we effectively use the platforms of YouTube, Twitter, and other free platforms to really get the message out and leverage that.
Lastly, I will just say that the key is keeping the humanitarian flame alive. We are in an era where there are growing forces that would block the ability to reach those most in need but when it comes to saving lives, there must be no walls: we must insist on safe access and unified global action to overcome hostilities, delays, blocks and any threat to our work together.
 
My first trip to Darfur I saw the amazing power of WFP logistics, the amazing people from the truck drivers to the warehouse operators who were running a lifeline through a totally hostile area without roads and ensuring access and when that broke down, using every means: helicopters, planes, to reach them. I saw that power that you have created, the world has created in WFP.
 
I saw the power of the world’s hungry and the faces of the women in Darfur who sat with me for an hour in thoughtful discussion about how to overcome their plight as they dreamed of a better day. I met WFP staff in Juba, hundreds of them living in pup tents, many of them with malaria and yet showing dedication on a level that I had not seen before in my life. I remember flying from there to Chad and not seeing a blade of grass for hours - and then going over Lake Chad, a once mighty source of water, that was disappearingand thinking that the world really needed to collaborate and to take on these challenges. I remember heading to Mali and going to Timbuktu and seeing the 40,000 trees WFP had helped the village plant in 1994, protecting the rice fields so effectively from the encroaching desert that all they wanted was a packing machine to export the extra rice. I remember going to the commodity exchange in Ethiopia, the first place where buyers and sellers could meet and say “We have too much food“ or “We have do not have enough food”, and create a market that could overcome these lapses that caused great hunger, that had four people at the time and was only in its beginning stages.
 
I remember meeting someone with HIV/AIDS who had been transformed by the nutritious food provided by WFP. Theironly request was could we help them find a job because their life was so back to normal. I remember the food crisis hitting and Japan changing its G-8 to include it on the agenda, skyrocketing it to the top of leaders’ thinking. I remember when the President of the World Bank, Bob Zoellick, gave the first speech on hunger that had ever happened at the World Bank and thinking now the world is coming together. I remember the Secretary-General telling the United Nations team he was going to create the first High-Level Task Force to bring together the whole United Nations on this issue and recounting with tears his memory of having to forage in the forest for food in the aftermath of the Korean War. 
 
I remember the cheques that came in from all of you and from new contributors to WFP at that time as we lost half of the food in our food basket. I remember hearing that our ships were being attacked by pirates and wondering where to call and seeing Europe, Canada, Australia and others swing into action to protect us. I remember going to Kenya and seeing our erratic funding affect a school where I was told the young girls now were prostituting themselves to be able to afford a cup of food during the day.
 
I remember being on the frontlines in Gaza and partners such as DSM and others swinging into action as if they were humanitarian workers, making sure the right nutritional content reached those children who were cut off from food. I remember being in the Kivus and eastern Congo where the women and children told me of living in terror at night and food being their only lifeline to stay alive. I remember just this past April travelling throughout Somalia and hearing from people that a great, great drought was falling upon them. I travelled there with two other United Nations leaders and no press came to the press conference at that time. I remember travelling to Pakistan on 5 October 2009, the day after a deadly attack on our headquarters. I remember being in the hospital with our staff and thinking this is not the price humanitarian workers and champions should have to pay and I remember being interviewed by the press there and one of them crying and saying, “No not WFP, you are the ones that help us. Why would this be done?”
 
I remember about two years ago, during at the United Nations General Assembly, when foreign ministers gathered to talk about ending child stunting and the power of nutritious food led by the United States and Ireland. I remember in France this year, when Bruno Le Maire, backed by President Sarkozy, said he would rather not have a G-8 agreement than one that does not offer practical solutions to the food crisis plaguing the world.
 
And I just remember the images of hope in Gulu, Uganda, of farmers who were dependent on food aid now being part of P4P and helping feed people in the Kivus. In Rwanda, seeing mountains terraced through food for work and no longer needing food aid. In Dolo, Somalia, of course, Sadak whose picture you have seen, virtually helped in a war zone through the power of nutritious food.In Niger, meeting a government in a drought that was totally focussed now on defeating hunger. In Mozambique, seeing how prescription food cards were helping people get access to their medicines. And I remember the big hope for projects in Orissa, India or Brazil’s Fome Zero programme, as well as China’s transformation from once being our biggest project to now helping lead and contribute to WFP and of course Russia being a key partner in all of this and to the transformation all of you have supported to ensure that our food is the right food at the right time.
 
This experience at WFP has given me great hope. As I told our team at our last global meeting, so wonderfully hosted by Switzerland, this is your institution - you are the leaders, these are your reforms. From the hundreds of e-mails I have received from them, I can see that these changes are now infused in the DNA of this institution down to the deepest field level. Churchill once said that we make a living by what we get and we make a life by what we give. And I assure you I will do all I can to ensure that I never forget this cause in WFP. I will do all I can to ensure a smooth transition to welcome Ambassador Cousins’ leadership. Her success is important to all of us and the cause is great. As I go to the World Economic Forum, I assure you that the red cup will continue to have a stage as we make the case for the most vulnerable.
 
Just on a personal note of closing, my dad passed away shortly before I came to Rome. He wanted nothing more than for me to take this position. He was a World War II hero who considered public service and protecting freedom and the vulnerable as the highest calling. After I came here, I was going through a box of his things and I found the first newspaper clipping on his public service - he was sending food aid back to Europe that he had personally raised. For as an escaped prisoner of war, three months behind the lines, there are many villages that harboured him and that helped make sure he was safe and had food; the first person to protect him was named Josette, which is where I got my name. And he told us at the time that Europe was facing great hunger and starvation and that there was no more important thing than to make sure people could live until the next day. So I realized then that this is in my blood and my DNA and I promise you that it will stay there. It is my pledge to all of you and to the entire staff of the World Food Programme to support this cause and the leadership here to my best ability. 
 
Thank you.