The International Law Committee of the Black Women Lawyers' Association of Greater Chicago - Breakfast Discussion with Ertharin Cousin Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme

Delivered on: 21 November 2012


Good morning. 

This is the season of Thanksgiving.  I am thankful that 25 years ago a group of young African American lawyers came together and decided we needed our own bar association.  Not because we wanted to separate ourselves from those in the Cook County Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Association or even the Illinois Women’s Bar Association. 

In fact, most of us were active members in some or all of the other bar associations. We came together because we could. We were impatient.  We wanted to lead.  We’d heard enough about waiting our turn.  So, BWLA was born.

I am honored to join you here today.  I thank BWLA President Ngozi C. Okorafor for her commitment to continuing BWLA’s rich history of public service; a tradition that each of you participating today continues simply through your presence and your interest in these issues.

I want to express my personal thanks to the organizers of today’s event, my longtime friend Judge La Quietta Hardy-Campbell and Yinka Owolabi, Co-Chairs of the International Law Committee.  I also want to thank SNR Denton for supporting BWLA by contributing the use of this room for today’s event and for your generous contribution which provided today’s breakfast.

This is the season to talk about food.  Thanksgiving provides us with an opportunity to share a meal with those we love and to reminiscence about the many blessings in our lives.    

I am also using these days to bring as much attention as possible to WFP’s global mission of ending hunger for the world’s most vulnerable – the more than 800 million people who too often go sleep without food, not knowing when or if they will find their next meal.  Through speaking engagements, radio and other media interviews, I am bringing attention to the more than 250 million children who will never reach their full potential because they suffer from chronic malnutrition; irreparably stunted both mentally and physically because of their mother’s lack of access to nutritious food or because in their first two years of life they never had enough to eat.

So let me begin by telling you about WFP.  Who we are, what we do and how we do it. 

I have a short video that will provide a quick overview of our work:

<a href="http://www.wfp.org/videos/fighting-hunger-worldwide"><img src="http://www.wfp.org/sites/default/files/imagecache/100x70//sites/default/files/Corpthumb.jpg"/></a> 

Historically, WFP was the “get large amounts of food to large numbers of people quickly and efficiently organization”.  Logistics is and for the past 50 years has been at the core of WFP operations.  Each year, WFP distributes four million metric tons of food, meeting the challenge of feeding 90 million beneficiaries in the most difficult and often times dangerous places on earth. 

No location is too remote.  In fact, WFP provides passenger and cargo air transport to the entire humanitarian community through the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), which operates regular services to more than 200 locations worldwide, to hot spots like Gulu in Uganda and Juba in South Sudan.

On any given day, WFP operates an average of 60 aircraft, 40 ships and 5,000 trucks.  In the beginning, WFP distributed surplus food from the developed world to those in need in the developing world.  Today, about half of the food distributed by WFP is sourced directly within the country or region where it is needed. 

Through Purchase for Progress (P4P) – an initiative WFP is now piloting in 20 countries – we are helping turn smallholder subsistence farmers into business people.  We receive funding from governments and private sector organizations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Howard G. Buffett Foundation, to work with partners to develop farmers’ cooperatives; providing seeds and tools to increase smallholder yields, supporting post-harvest processing to reduce post-harvest losses, and ultimately serving as the catalyst market buyer for these farmers by buying their grains for distribution through our programmes in their country.

In other words, this programme supports the development or improvement of the entire agricultural value chain.  WFP serves as the catalyst buyer because sustainable agricultural change requires not just the downstream increase in yields, but also the upstream development of the market.  Our goal is always to substitute WFP’s market position with a commercial or government buyer.  That’s when we move beyond running a programme to bringing durable life-changing solutions for the farmers. 

In Guatemala, I met a woman who told me that because of her participation in this program, her children now go to school and her husband, who now works with her on their farm, no longer needs to come to the US every year to find work.

A few months ago, I met with a women’s agricultural cooperative in a remote rural community in Nicaragua.  In 2010 and 2011 we provided financial and technical support to this women’s cooperative. We helped them to open bank accounts and grow vegetable gardens for the very first time.  These gardens gave them an opportunity reaching beyond just feeding their families; the chance to sell their products with money left over to put into the bank.  In 2012, WFP didn’t give them more money, but the programme continued to offer them technical assistance.  These women now had their own bank accounts, they bought their own seeds, they pooled their assets and they continued to grow their vegetable gardens without financial support from any outside organization.  We had changed their lives.

And so, I asked one of the men, “What does it mean to you that your wife is involved in this programme?” And he said sheepishly, “It means I now have to listen to her because she has money.”  So, the program has given the women pride and honor.  And WFP no longer provides financial assistance; they are doing for themselves.

Often when I speak here in the United States one of the first questions asked is:  “Why don’t we focus on the hungry and malnourished here at home?”

This is one audience where I know that question won’t be raised.  Because of your travels you know that poverty in the U.S. simply does not compare with the abject poverty of the bottom billion living in the developing world; people living on less than two dollars per day.  You recognize that our safety net system here in the U.S. – both government and charitable – provides the access that helps insure our children don’t go hungry.  But safety net systems don’t exist in most of the developing world.  

In the Sahel, Niger, earlier this year in the months leading up to the hungry season, I met a mother who had depleted all her assets; her husband was in Ghana working without any means to send money back home to his family.  So, this mother kept her oldest child, a smallish ten-year old, home from school to help her pick dried leaves and berries.  The berries were poisonous if eaten raw.  The leaves with the berries were boiled six to nine times to eliminate harmful toxins and to make them digestible by her young children.  This food offered no source of nutrition, but it kept her children’s stomachs full.  This is where WFP and our NGO partners fill the safety net gap.  During the crisis period we were able to provide this mother with nutritious food for her children.

In the spirit of the words, “give someone a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, WFP didn’t just give this woman food.  We gave her food as a participant in our food for work program.  This woman, along with other women in her community, built a water catchment basin, a new community asset.  The basin filled with water during this year’s rainy season.  So, after this year’s harvest, and before next year’s rain, this mother and other women in her village can collect water to support their small vegetable gardens.  From this garden she told me she will grow tomatoes that she will sell in the market.  The money will give her the ability to buy nutritious food for her children – breaking the hunger cycle for her family.

At WFP we are expanding use of cash and vouchers, tools that enable hungry people – for example the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – to purchase food themselves, because food in these countries is available in the markets, but refugees lack the resources to buy food.

Recently I had the privilege to visit with a Syrian family in their temporary accommodations in Baalbek, Lebanon.  I spoke with Abeer, a 35-year-old wife and mother of four daughters who shared her story with me.  She told me, “We left our home and fled with only the clothes on our backs.  We left as the shelling and bombing hit our neighborhood in Aleppo nine months ago, our home was totally destroyed.  Our children cried all night.  We left everything behind, my husband has found some work, but we are struggling to make ends meet.  The food vouchers that we receive from WFP are giving us a break because we don’t have to worry about feeding our children.” 

Five years ago, WFP would have responded to Abeer’s needs quite differently, with food distributions – instead of the vouchers she now receives – disrupting the local market in Lebanon and not fully meeting the food needs of this family.  WFP is now working to provide the safety net of support while creating additional opportunities in the communities where we serve.  But this is only one piece of this puzzle.

Like the mother in Niger who kept her oldest daughter home to assist her in the gathering, in far too many countries across the world we find girls who must leave school at an early age to help their families, with the farming, the cooking and caring for younger siblings.  WFP offers an alternative to families by providing rice or other appropriate grains in return for the family regularly sending their daughters to school.  This program has resulted in increased attendance by the girls and in most cases kept the girls in school through middle school –   changing her opportunities – because, this girl then delays marriage and pregnancy.

With UNICEF and UNESCO – who support education programs in the developing world – we are now working to better knit up our services so that we are not only nourishing the girl’s body, but also her mind; again, creating hope for a better future.

Evidence also demonstrates that the child of a mother who stays in school longer will be healthier, because that mother is more likely to provide the nutritious food required in the first 1,000 days of the child’s life.  We know that micronutrient deficiency during the first 1,000 days will result in irreparable physical and mental stunting of a child. 

WFP serves as the United Nations representative in the global movement rightly entitled “Scaling Up Nutrition”, working to build the global public will to end this cycle of chronic malnutrition.  In addition to the UN, this movement includes representatives from donor governments, civil society, the private sector and most importantly, the countries impacted by the challenges of chronic malnutrition.  All are working together to support investment of the requisite resources into game changing programs and processes at the country level. 

What makes this movement different is that the support is provided by the world, but the actions supporting the change are led by the impacted countries, their governments and their people for their own benefit. 

In Niger, the government has instituted a new program called the “Three Ns”.  In English it translates into “Nigeriens helping Nigeriens”.  This programme, now supported by the entire international community, is not only helping increase school feeding by purchasing food from smallholder Nigerien farmers and increasing their income, it is also supporting nutrition education and distribution of food to pregnant and lactating women while helping insure access to nutritious food for children aged 6 to 24 months.  The President of Niger told me this program is essential for his country’s progress because nutrition and food security means security for the people of Niger.

During a recent interview with Forbes magazine, I was asked by the interviewer about “my big job”:  “Is it daunting?  Is it exciting?” “Yes!” is how I answered.  “It’s simply a blessing!” 

I often recall my visit to a school in Bangladesh where after receiving their WFP-provided school lunch the children danced and gave me a painting and then sang “We Shall Overcome” in English... and I cried.  Not because of the song, but because I could see in their faces that they truly believed.  They believed that life was going to be better for them.  With our help, they believed there is hope.

I knew from my experiences in the United States that with opportunity there is hope. 

Shame on us if we fail.  This is my reminiscence for this Thanksgiving.  That every one of us will knit up our best efforts for all the world’s children.