Remarks by Ertharin Cousin at the 2012 Women in Diplomacy Conference

Delivered on: 16 July 2012

Feeding the planet: Looking to the Italian Expo 2015
Remarks by Ertharin Cousin
Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme 
2012 Women in Diplomacy Conference
Rome, Italy


I am delighted to join you for this important dialogue on women in diplomacy and particularly pleased to join this conversation on Feeding the Planet, Looking to the Italian Expo 2015.  We meet today in Italy, a country widely noted for its food and wine as well being the acknowledged birthplace of modern diplomacy…so what better combination of topics for our conversation. 

Giancarlo Aragona, Under Secretary Dassu, Under Secretary de Mistura, Director General Belloni, my friend Ambassador Sebastiani, esteemed guests, ladies and gentlemen:

This morning we listened as Hillary Clinton challenged our community of women in international service careers to work together, to lift the world’s expectations for diplomacy, and to champion a greater moral dimension in international politics, a renaissance in the exercise of power, a new beginning for this 21st Century.   As Secretary Clinton rightly stated in her remarks, “we need more women at the table, not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the smart thing to do.’’

Since 2009, journalists have noted the Hillary Effect, an increase in the numbers of women in ambassador-level positions in Washington and other diplomatic centers.  We cannot yet claim gender equality in the traditionally male-dominated corridors of international politics, but we can and we are making our voices heard; we are slowly but surely evening the balance between the rough exercise of hard power and the intricate moral art of gentle persuasion, particularly addressing human rights related issues that we call soft diplomacy power.  Events such as the upcoming 2015 Italian Expo provide us with the opportunity to demonstrate this “soft diplomacy power”.

In July of last year, the UN confirmed its participation in EXPO Milan 2015 following a meeting in NY between UN-Department of Public Information and EXPO 2015.  I am proud to say that in the fall of 2009, I personally participated in a kick-off planning event with the Rome-based Agencies and the Milan Expo 2015 committee. The three Rome-based Agencies have been asked by the Secretary General to lead the UN’s participation in close cooperation with the UN Consultative Group.  As a result the Rome-based Agencies have each assigned a senior staff focal point to participate in a joint working group to assist in the planning of the EXPO.  I look forward to participating.

This discussion of the EXPO is particularly important at this conference on Women in Diplomacy.  Food security and nutrition are inextricably coupled with the issues of gender and women’s empowerment.  As an important aside allow me a moment to thank the Government of Italy for making food and nutrition security a priority initiative in 2009; during your leadership of the G-8 and for particularly noting the important role of investing in women.  Because of your leadership food and nutrition security as well as the role of women have remained a priority issue for each succeeding G-8 and G-20.   We cannot make a sustainable difference on issues of food and nutrition security without the political will.  The leadership of the G-8 and G-20 help us build that political will.   Events like the Expo 2015 will also help us build that political will.  

We can harness that political will through the role of women diplomats as leaders and our embrace of the power of “soft diplomacy”.   The experts tell us that by 2050 we will have a global population of 9.5 billion people that will eat like 17 billion people.   Today, against this backdrop, in an ever more technologically advanced world we find it entirely unacceptable that more than 100 million children under 5 are underweight and therefore unable to realize their full potential, and that childhood malnutrition is a cause of death of more than 2.5 million children per year.  Simultaneously, we are witnessing economic growth fostering societal transformations that have led a growing number of people to adopt lifestyles and diets that are conducive to overweight and related non-communicable diseases.  The negative implications for public health systems are already significant in many countries.  Just to make it interesting, the issues of climate change, shrinking access to water, and the impact of inequitable availability of energy resources create the perfect storm that all of us living together on this one planet must address because failure to address these issues is not an option. We can’t wait until 2050 before…

The good news is that the right conversations are beginning across the globe.  As an example, last week the author of a report commissioned by Save the Children and World Vision told an audience of New York donor representatives, for the first time there is a recognition that traditional development policies are condemning children in the Sahel to a permanent, large scale nutrition crisis, necessitating an urgent, collective paradigm shift in approach by all stakeholders to overcome the region’s resilience deficit. 

The right conversations are also happening here in Rome, in the soon to be released 2012 report on the State of Food Insecurity in the World (the SOFI) while acknowledging the importance of maintaining our focused attention on the issues of  the poorest and most vulnerable population groups; the authors recognize the clear need for our organizations to assist countries in addressing the emerging double burden of malnutrition,  whereby undernutrition  and overnutrition co-exist within the same countries, communities and even families. 

And we have dedicated ourselves to working closely with the governments of aid recipient countries, who, increasingly in this surprising age of popular movements and mobile telephone coordinated flash mob protests, are feeling a new urgency to address the pressing needs of the poorest among them.  These governments are looking to the donor community not only for resources, but also for guidance.  In fact, many countries we now count among the donor community have emerged in the last decades from being former recipients of food aid.  Their example inspires and instructs us on the way forward for countries that aspire to that same path.  We must work together with the countries we seek to help, as equal partners in building strong, internal capabilities.  Capacity building efforts must be finely tuned to local knowledge and experiences, turning around the attitudes of the past and empowering governments to self-manage their own social safety net programs.  And we must do this now because we know it is possible.

There is no aim too high.  Recently, the Secretary General announced, and the Rome-based Agencies embraced, a “Zero Hunger Challenge”.  The challenge recognizes that the world has the knowledge and the means to eliminate all forms of food and nutrition insecurity. 

The 2015 Expo provides the platform to bring the world together in support of this goal.  Public will, countries in the driver’s seat…soft power… with women leading….the ingredients to meet and overcome the complex challenges of our growing world. 
Because it is possible.  Thank you.