In her first week at the helm of the world's largest humanitarian aid agency, WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin fielded questions from staff about herself and her plans for the fight against hunger. Here are some of her answers.
What are your perceptions of WFP coming into the role of executive director?
We are the best hope hungry people have in this world. WFP has built the finest reputation of any agency in the UN system. I’ve travelled the world visiting WFP operations, in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I’ve seen at firsthand what it does. We stand out because we are doers not describers . WFP is great, but even the great can get better.
What do you bring to this job?
I come here after having spent three years as the head of a donor country’s mission to the UN agencies in Rome. I bring the perspective of the donor community, whose resources we really do need to do our job. I have spent three years on the executive board of WFP, understanding what we do well and what we could do better. But now, I want to see the world through the eyes of a WFP beneficiary. Every programme we launch, every dollar we spend must be judged by how it impacts the people who depend upon us.
Tell us what are you going to do in your first few months?
Stage one is listening. As a first step, I’m going to organize a rapid organizational assessment, over 60 days. That will allow me to learn what the issues are. My goal is that by the June Executive Board meeting, we should know where we’re going. By the November meeting, we should know how we’re going to get there. And in five years we’ll be able to say we have made a significant difference for our beneficiaries.
Do you support WFP’s transition from food aid to food assistance?
I think that debate is over. That WFP is a food assistance organization, with the right tools and those tools include food aid. But also cash and vouchers and all the other things we have on the table. And the new tools that we will identify in the future.
Looking inside the organization, any particular areas of interest?
We need to look closely at the needs of our field staff. Because they are the backbone of WFP. We need to enhance their skills and their capacities. Our ability to implement projects effectively will only come through greater empowerment of our field staff.
What about gender equality? Is affirmative action an option?
We’ve been stuck at 40% [proportion of workforce which is female – ed] for quite some time. This gives us an opportunity as well as a challenge. I’m not about putting people in jobs to meet numbers. When we do that we don’t help the person you put in the job or the organization we serve. But I also do not buy ‘I can’t find qualified (women). We may have to look a little harder. And we will look harder to aim to break that barrier.
And finally, what’s the origin of your name?
Well, my mother is from Washington, Georgia. My dad is from Lacombe, Louisiana. My mother grew up with the idea that she would raise strong, distinctive women, and she would give them strong, distinctive names. And she just made up this name, Ertharin. And, until the day he died, my father couldn’t spell my name!