Executive Director Ertharin Cousin Remarks at Café Humanitaire, At Humanity House - The Hague, Netherlands

Delivered on: 13 September 2012


Thank you, Peter, for that kind introduction, and thanks also to the members of PSO for their invitation to join your quarterly Café Humanitaire at Humanity House—this unique museum dedicated to helping visitors imagine the unimaginable.

In the six months since my appointment as Executive Director to the UN World Food Programme, I’ve traveled to Africa -- to Niger, Sudan and South Sudan. Before we move to the topic of food assistance, I’ll start by sharing with you some of my impressions from these visits, as illustrations of both the challenges and possibilities we face for improving food security in Africa and worldwide, our focus for today’s discussion.

One month after my appointment I traveled to Niger with UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres. There we witnessed the severe impact that a succession of droughts has had on people’s livelihoods, compounded by abnormally high food prices, crop failure, and the influx of refugees from Mali. Through strong leadership from governments and with generous support from donors, NGOs and UN partner agencies, early action has led to scaled up operations reaching up to 6 million beneficiaries across The Sahel region. We are complementing our short-term operations with long-term programs to build resilience against future shocks. For example, in Niger, we are supporting communities in constructing 500 water ponds and 300 water mobilization works.  

In Mali, where fighting has restricted humanitarian access to parts of the country, we are aiming to assist one million beneficiaries.  To date, over half a million have been reached, including 148,000 in the North who are being served with the support of our NGO partners.  However, the effort remains critically underfunded— of the estimated US$43 million needed for internally displaced people in Mali, only 13 percent has been resourced to date. During planting and harvest periods, we will use targeted food and cash distributions to support communities in their agricultural activities.

Last month, I visited with the South Sudanese community of Aweil.  Amid the profound hardship there, I met with Elizabeth, the leader of a community organization. She proudly told me how in two years her group has grown from 30 to 500 farmers, half of them women, people working to cultivate sorghum, sesame, groundnuts and maize. WFP gives them some food, not a complete ration, but enough of an incentive to encourage them to work on their land.  The project will eventually benefit 3,500 people. One of the greatest challenges for groups like Elizabeth’s is overcoming the sheer isolation of their communities—there are no hospitals, or roads, and no transport, she explained. WFP plans to build 500 km of feeder roads across South Sudan, and we have already seen work on more than 106.8 km of those roads.
While it is impossible to fully know the challenges of isolation, hunger and malnutrition without experiencing them first-hand, WFP depends on people like you, associations such as PSO, and organizations like Humanitarian House, to keep these stories in the public view—especially so in these tough economic times when competition for scarce financial resources is increasingly intense.

At WFP, we understand the significance of speaking with you on this day following your general election, an election in which spending priorities have been a hot topic for debate. And it has not escaped our attention that PSO, the host of this event, is preparing to close its doors at the end of this year primarily due to funding limitations. So we feel a special responsibility to account for how WFP applies the hard-earned resources of the Dutch people in achieving our shared objectives. We call on your support to help demonstrate how this partnership serves not only to relieve and repair the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable people, but also, stated in plain terms, how the continuation and shaping of these efforts are in the best interest of the Dutch people.

Now, I appreciate that in making the case for WFP here today, I am in every sense preaching to the choir. After all, few nations have demonstrated their commitment to the global fight against hunger more than the Netherlands. Your country ranks as WFP’s eleventh largest donor worldwide, and our second largest contributor of unrestricted, multilateral funding. These funds sustain WFP action and vision to solve the problem of global hunger, and they attest to the high level of confidence that the Dutch people have placed in the work of WFP.

We know this exceptional degree of confidence is not an accident.  It is the result of years of partnership—partnership not just with your government ministries, but also, and most importantly, a deep, sustained collaboration with the Dutch private sector and the Dutch people.  More than three dozen of your fellow countrymen and women are today employed with WFP—many performing leading roles in key areas of management, logistics, and nutrition.

Last week marked the 10 year anniversary of WFP’s partnership with TNT, our first-ever private sector partner.  Whether providing the lead in WFP’s Walk the World fundraising event, or loaning expert staff to help overcome complex logistics challenges, TNT employees have set the pace. Their accomplishment has paved the way for partnerships with other Dutch companies, including DSM and Unilever N.V., who are working with WFP to design and deploy cost-effective and sustainable nutritious food solutions for the hungry poor. And during our recent online fundraising for the Horn of Africa crisis, Dutch individuals contributed nearly US$100,000, a level of individual contributions exceeded only by citizens of the United States and Canada. WFP is proud of this strong and durable partnership with the Dutch people; it is a partnership that we consider the model for other countries.

But pride doesn’t pay the bills. To sustain this model partnership, WFP must constantly prove our responsiveness to shifting beneficiary needs and donor priorities. That is the main reason I am here in the Netherlands today.  I want to share with you some insights I’ve gained from this, my first visit to your country in my new role as lead voice for the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger.

One thing that has struck me most powerfully is the emphasis your government, private sector and civil society give to people as the ultimate focus for all these efforts. Whether identifying beneficiaries as the top priority or calling for caution in the reorganization of WFP’s internal human resources, you want to know that WFP is putting people first. You want to ensure that increased food security means achieving long-term self-reliance in the countries we serve, by stimulating more efficient markets, promoting income security and improving access to healthy food for the most vulnerable.  You want to be sure that the WFP you know never loses its most attractive asset, the high-energy and can do spark that has distinguished the people of WFP as partners of choice for the Netherlands in meeting the global challenge of food security. And your leaders have shared with me the wonderfully enlightened view of the Dutch people—that we live in an interdependent world where the boundary between domestic and foreign concerns is foggy, a world where global food security is essential for a more secure world, a more secure Europe, and a more secure Netherlands.

I have assured your leaders, and now I assure you, that WFP’s move from food aid to food assistance is all about accomplishing exactly these same goals.  We will work to always apply the right tools at the right time, to ensure our responses are context-specific, and above all, to comply with this prime directive:  that each and every intervention we make shall be designed to break, not reinforce cycles of dependency.

Food assistance means making disaster risk reduction a central priority.  It means focusing on building the resilience and capacity of the most vulnerable people, communities and countries, by working with governments and key partners to ensure food and nutrition security, while reducing disaster risk, protecting and enhancing lives and livelihoods.  It means delivering humanitarian assistance through local capacity and structures to the full extent possible, and investing in human resources and infrastructure where required to nurture local capabilities and enable them to become self-sustaining.

Food assistance means ensuring WFP’s day-by-day organizational design follows our comparative advantage, integrating dynamic partnerships with UN agencies, NGOs, universities, research institutions and think tanks.  It means leveraging the leading know-how of private sector innovators like TNT, DSM and Unilever to help deliver the right foods at the right time.

Collaboration and food assistance means building a WFP that is fully accountable to all our stakeholders, providing improved monitoring and information systems that not only promise value for money, but also guarantee those promises with measurable performance indicators and real-time supply chain status reports.

All worthwhile goals, but I suspect many of you are asking yourselves the central question:  How?

Here’s where we can certainly use your help. But before we open the floor, allow me to share with you just some of the tools we are currently developing, in the hope that our discussion today will stimulate some useful ideas and allow me to return to WFP Rome headquarters with the benefit of your unique experiences and insights.

First, I want to tell you about Cash for Change, one of our newest and most exciting initiatives.  Among of the realities we face in many of the countries where WFP operates is that local food markets are functioning, but the vulnerable people we seek to assist cannot afford to buy that food.  For example, Syrian refugees escaping from protracted conflict at home quickly exhaust their savings and lack incoming generating opportunities, placing undue strain on host families and communities in Lebanon and Jordan.  Market based responses using vouchers—better than in-kind food distributions—offer dignity and freedom of choice for beneficiaries who are accustomed to purchasing food from local shops in their home country.

In the first three quarters of 2012, we completed seven training events, introducing 170 WFP operational programme managers to cash and voucher transfer modalities, integrating in-house cross-functional expertise in finance, logistics, procurement, and information systems. We are learning from our successes and we are scaling up. By 2015, WFP expects to supply 40 percent of food assistance through either cash or vouchers.

Next, there’s Purchase for Progress, a pilot initiative that is ongoing in 20 countries and now in its fifth year. P4P, as we call it, addresses another real world problem that we struggle with at the frontlines of fighting hunger. Often we find that food is available either locally or regionally, but something is still missing that prevents that food from reaching markets. Here WFP can leverage its purchasing power to buy food as close to the area of need as possible, investing in the local economy, encouraging local food markets and playing an active role in jump starting recovery. WFP procurement and logistics specialists are busy finding ways to bridge the gaps that prevent food in the fields from reaching markets due to conflict or missing infrastructure.

In Kenya, Ghana and Mali, P4P, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is now partnering with the SNV Netherlands Development Organization to help 104,000 smallholder farmers sell locally produced food for use in government-led school feeding programs. Together we are supporting farmer organizations, building their capacity to respond to market opportunities, increasing incomes, and contributing to poverty reduction. We are also helping to improve government procurement practices and regulations at the district level, strengthening national school feeding programs by emphasizing locally grown sources of supply.

Finally, I want to tell you about a fight I am especially passionate about. It’s the fight against early childhood stunting—the destructive cycle of mothers and young children living with chronic undernutrition. Scientific studies published in 2008 brought us face-to-face with the horrifying reality that a child who does not receive key micronutrients in the womb and continuing through his or her second birthday suffers irreversible brain damage. Studies confirm that these children have sharply diminished prospects for leading a healthy and productive life. These studies also point to a remarkably effective answer—that good nutrition during these first 1,000 days can increase IQ up to 30 points and boost lifetime earnings by as much as 46 percent.  That’s right—46 percent.
Here we rely heavily on the expertise of our partners in the research and business communities. Partners like DSM and Unilever N.V.—who I met with earlier today—these companies are developing cost-effective and sustainable nutritious food solutions for the hungry poor , helping WFP to update our nutrition strategy. And WFP is sharing knowledge and coordinating responses globally through the Scaling Up Nutrition movement, and country-led REACH process, both initiatives aimed at urgently and permanently uprooting this fundamental source of hunger and poverty.

I’ve shared these stories, approaches and tools with you in some detail because I want to stress the basic theme that I find common to all of them: building resilience.  Building resilience for me is about learning from the past and taking action now to change the rules of the game for tomorrow. Resilience is building markets, building infrastructure and nurturing young minds and bodies, all to better protect vulnerable communities against future shocks. It’s about looking at food security not just as a chronic problem to be addressed with short-term interventions, but also as a long-term plan of action to be achieved in our time. Building resilience is about imagining something that was until recently unimaginable, a world working as one to solve the problem of hunger, forever. With your engagement, we’ll get there.

Thank you.