Remarks by Ertharin Cousin at the 2013 Global Child Nutrition Foundation Gala in Washington, DC

Delivered on: 04 March 2013


Good evening and thank you very much.

Let me start off by thanking President White and the Board Members for having me here this evening. I also need to thank Marshall Matz for yet another great introduction.

Let me tell you, Catherine Bertini is here tonight. One cannot talk about WFP without acknowledging Catherine Bertini because much of what we benefit from today is the work that Catherine began during her ten years of leadership with WFP. I don’t even have one year yet, and so I want to thank Catherine for everything she has done for WFP and for everything she continues to do.

I would also like to take the opportunity to thank Gene White, an amazing woman. I aspire to be like Gene White because of what she has accomplished in her life, and how many children around the world have benefited from what she has worked to accomplish. Thank you, Gene, for everything that you have done.

We have had a couple of tributes tonight to Senator George McGovern, and it is always a great moment to see him on screen. In 2011, I had the opportunity to get to know Senator McGovern when he traveled to Rome following a visit to Kenya. He spent a full week with me.  It was much like the boxer who does his last rounds, and everyone applauds him when he walks around the ring. Senator McGovern walked around the world and everyone applauded him because of the contribution he made to so many children and so many lives.

My fun story with George McGovern was when I was appointed as Ambassador to the UN food and agriculture organizations. One of the people who supported me – David Lambert – said I had to phone Senator McGovern.  So, I phoned Senator McGovern and he told me, “I think you’re going to do O.K.”  When a legend like George McGovern says that you’re going to do O.K., you better. And last year, at his 90th birthday, he said to me “Kiddo, you’re doing O.K.”

Each year, we pause to celebrate our heroes; people like Senator McGovern who have contributed greatly to so many throughout their lifetimes, and role models like Sherri Knutson and Barbara Jirka who inspire us through their daily dedication and hard work.

The lifetime achievement award that we have gathered here tonight to present to Arlene Mitchell is a celebration of learning and partnership, and this year, especially for WFP, it is a celebration of family; because Arlene has been and always will be a member of the WFP family. We just started an alumni association, that Catherine is already a member of, and already I have asked Arlene to make sure that she signs up.

In 2000, when Arlene joined WFP as the head of school feeding, we were supporting school meals for 12 million children; when she left WFP in 2005, that number had doubled.  Today, WFP reaches 26 million children, and Arlene’s influence is still strongly felt through her visionary leadership as the Deputy Director of Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Ten years ago, Arlene caught on to a revolutionary idea. She asked a question within WFP: “What if we could link school feeding programmes to local agricultural production?”

If we could do that, she and others reasoned, we could benefit not only children, but also farmers, providing them with more stable incomes, helping lift them out of poverty.  And we could ensure that children receive a more balanced, culturally-appropriate diet, with food sourced from within their own communities.

Soon after, under Arlene’s leadership, WFP teamed up with the Millennium Development Project and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) to launch the Home Grown School Feeding (HGSF) initiative.

Each partner has its role and none of us can do it alone.  Together, we have come a long way since 2003 when Arlene first launched what was then seen as a revolutionary idea, and what is now seen as common practice and a necessity. 

The question is: How can we work together to ensure that the most vulnerable children, in the poorest countries, get the support they need to learn, to thrive in school and secure a better future for themselves and their families?

This dream is not easily achieved, but we know from hard-won experience that it is possible.  Chile, Brazil, and Mexico – where large numbers of children once struggled with hunger and undernutrition – these countries now run school feeding programmes ranking among the biggest and best in the world. I was pleased to hear that the Gambia has an exit strategy for WFP and that they plan to run their own school feeding programme in the foreseeable future.

It is possible.

Learning from these successful experiences, what steps can we take to help children in countries like Malawi, Haiti and Pakistan enjoy the same opportunities? How do we, as the theme of the dinner asks, make this dream a possibility?

I say there are three priorities necessary for achieving this dream. Achieving this dream requires a clear plan.

First, we need education, nutrition and agriculture advocates to join together, to better collaborate, in support of school feeding.  On the education side, it is not enough to simply feed children in school. We have seen it: we provide great school feeding programmes, we provide the access to school that is necessary for children, but too often we go from 45 children in a classroom to 90, from one book for every four children to one book for every ten children. We know we need to partner to provide essential infrastructure, including textbooks and materials, in a safe physical environment that is conducive to learning.

In fact, we have taken it a step further. At the World Economic Forum held in Davos earlier this year, WFP renewed our commitment to work together with UNICEF and UNESCO; ensuring children arrive at school ready to learn and can stay in school to complete their education.  We committed not just to better collaboration, but to measure where we are today, and where will be in two years and in five years. We are collaborating to develop more than anecdotal evidence of the success of school feeding in order to produce measurable evidence that is necessary to scale up towards our dream of school feeding for all children. 

These efforts to ensure better nutrition and educational outcomes for school children complement the work of the Scaling Up Nutrition or SUN movement.  We need to ensure vital investments in children’s first 1,000 days are not lost in their school years. 

Gene White challenged me, during an earlier conversation today, when she said, “We have the first 1,000 days programme now and, yes, we’re beginning to do the right thing with nutritional school feeding programmes. What about the gap in between the 1,000 days programme and when children start school – the age that the United States responds to through the Head Start Programme?” What can we do during that period of time to ensure that we have programmes that provide the opportunities for a seamless transition for these children for a better future?

We need to continue the work Arlene started in 2003 to link school feeding with local agricultural production.  This work can be leveraged with support from United Nations partners, especially FAO and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Business also has an important role to play in helping to make school feeding programmes more effective.  For example, DSM – a leading company in the development of nutrition solutions – supports school feeding by working with WFP on the improvement of fortified blended foods.  This collaboration enables us to provide better, more nutritious foods to children.

So, to achieve our dream of supporting global education and school feeding for every child – to make it possible, we must first link school feeding to agriculture, education, as well as maternal and early childhood health.

Second, to achieve our dream we must maximize South-South collaboration and work effectively with governments to develop local capacity.  Local capacity building is the key to supporting sustainable, durable, national ownership and expansion of school feeding programmes.

We’ve learned that countries working to improve school feeding gain more from talking and working directly with one another than talking and working, sometimes, through us.

The WFP Centre of Excellence against Hunger in Brasilia is becoming a global reference and source of expertise on all aspects of school feeding.  Daniel Balaban, who is on the board of GCNF, is here tonight and leads this operation for WFP in Brazil. In two years, the Centre has facilitated study visits from more than 16 countries, connecting countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to the Brazilian experience.  The Centre follows up with consultants and technical support to further strengthen national capacity.

We have started to discuss other potential Centres of Excellence partnerships that can be developed with countries including China, the Russian Federation and South Africa as well as India. Today Gene, who will always challenge us, asked about using GCNF as a partner to ensure we provide the technical capacity, using trilateral partnerships to build local capacity to move forward.

But we can’t stop there.

Third and finally, to achieve this dream of global education and school feeding for every child, all these efforts need to be underpinned by a strong evidence base. 

I spoke a bit about Nourishing Bodies and Nourishing Minds – how we will measure success as a part of this collaboration, and we must begin to measure our results – not our outputs but our outcomes of what we are achieving through school feeding. We must not just fill stomachs but we must develop sustainable programmes. We must not only demonstrate the value of these investments, but also document the progress that we’re making.  To provide the most effective policy advice to governments, we must provide evidence based on standardized, quantifiable data, and not just anecdotes.

We need the specialized skills of organizations like the World Bank, PCD, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and universities, to identify knowledge gaps, and to design and manage better evaluations that provide evidence of value and outcomes that will give us more than anecdotal evidence to support increased donor investment that will help us multiply the impact of school feeding.

Because no matter how good we are, unless we have the resources to scale up the programmes, to ensure that we have the ability to reach more children, we cannot make this dream possible. We will not in 2013, when all of our traditional donors are financially challenged, have the ability to access funds unless we can build more than anecdotal evidence of success.

If we do these three things, we are on a path to making that dream possible; to making that dream of school feeding for more children a reality; for ensuring that we do end hunger on our watch by providing a different future to the children that we serve, for their reality.

One of the speakers tonight said when you have a good story, tell it often. When I was at the World Food Prize in Iowa I told this story but, on a night like tonight when we talk about making dreams possible, I feel it is important that we tell the story of the children in Bangladesh.

I visited a WFP school feeding programme in Bangladesh with some of the most beautiful children that I have ever seen in my life. And these children were proud. If you have ever been to one of these schools where we offer school feeding, the schools are proud that you are coming to their school. They presented me with a drawing that one classroom had made. Two other classrooms got up and they sang and danced for me. Then, the entire school – all the children – stood up and they sang, in English, “We Shall Overcome.”

And I cried.

I had reporters who were travelling with me and they said, “We have been travelling with you and we have seen babies suffering from severe acute malnutrition and you don’t cry. We have seen women who cannot feed their children and you don’t cry. Why are you crying?”

I replied that when I am in those situations, what that says to me is that we have much more work to do and there is no room for tears, we must just work to get it done. But when these babies stand up and sing “We Shall Overcome” to me, what they are saying is that they believe we are going to make their world different. They believe that the dream is possible. That the Momodou Sannehs of the world will not be one man, but an entire generation of children who will have a different tomorrow because we get it right.

Shame on us if we don’t.

Thanks to you all for all the work that you do.