Remarks by the Executive Director Ms. Ertharin Cousin on the occasion of the "Rome Rebirth Conference"

Delivered on: 14 October 2013


First of all let me thank you all for coming here, for spending two hours out of your day to hear about resilience and rebirth.  I need to also thank Ludovica Rossi Purini.  Those of you who know Ludovica, know that she’s a force of nature.  She had this idea that we should have this conversation here in Rome about rebirth and resilience.  When Ludovica has an idea, things happen.  And here we are, with an opportunity to make a difference.


We all come here with different stories and contributions.  But we are all united.  All the speakers here today, and all of us here in the room, are united in our commitment to tackle global problems, to make a difference and to build resilience. 


Tonight, I will speak particularly about hunger.  I represent the 14,000 people who work for the World Food Programme (WFP), who are working around the world to make a difference in the lives of hungry people.  One of the ways we do this is by providing the nutritional inputs that are necessary for the first thousand days of a child’s life.  These inputs not only determine the quality of a child’s life but also whether a child will have the mental and physical resilience to outstand and overcome life’s shocks and crisis.  In fact, we know that nutrition deficiency in the first thousand days will create irreparable mental and physical development.  And, we know that to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, hunger and food insecurity we must address the challenges of meeting the nutrition needs of pregnant and breast feeding women.  We must meet the nutrition needs of children from six months to two years of age.  Yet today, we—as a global community—are failing.  Some 165 million children around the world suffer from chronic malnutrition. 


The object that I brought tonight, Super Cereal Plus, helps to prevent this malnutrition.  This simple one and a half kilo bag of Super Cereal Plus could prevent the malnutrition of the 165 million children each year.  Last year, thousands of small bags and special foods just like this one helped to change the lives of more than four million children.  Following many years of research, committed staff from WFP and its partners developed this for fortified blended food.  This cereal is packed full of the vitamins, minerals and fats that can both prevent the chronic malnutrition of a child and stunting.


Yes, I have witnessed, mothers from across the world preparing this cereal into the wonderful nutritious porridge that their beautiful children so urgently need, and deserve, to reach their full potential.  Ladies and gentlemen, this bag full of promise, this bag that builds the resilience of those children, costs just two dollars and provides for the needs of one child for one week.  This one bag will create the new resilience necessary to support a child’s opportunity for a better life.


To achieve a global rebirth we must end global hunger and chronic malnutrition.  To achieve a global rebirth for the world’s poor and most vulnerable, we must also build their resilience, inoculating them from shocks and crisis ensuring their ability to sustainably and durably feed themselves and their children.  Where there is hunger, there is insecurity; and where there is undernutrition there is underdevelopment.  Failing to make a progress on food and nutrition security will undermine all of our development efforts.  And, making this progress is as much—or more—an issue of economics as it is of one of welfare, social protection and human rights.

We need to work in many different ways to tackle this problem.  We must respond with activities that have both immediate and long-term impacts, building resilience from the bottom up.  We must tackle the causes of hunger and the causes of malnutrition not just the consequences.  We must determine if the hunger problems arise from lack of available adequate food or from lack of excess to adequate nutrition’s food.  


Last year, WFP worked in 80 countries helping the most vulnerable people to meet their food needs.  Yes, we provided foods to those in need.  In many places around the world, we also began the difficult but necessary work of helping rural families begin the difficult but not impossible journey to build their capacity to feed their own children.  We did this by using their strengths, by working with smallholder farmers, by engaging local businesses and by partnering with non-governmental organizations and governments.  To eliminate hunger and chronic malnutrition, we must work in new ways that invest in both boys and girls, from their earliest days to the adolescence.  We must help mothers and fathers strengthen their livelihoods, we must work with communities to build their resilience and we must empower governments to deliver nationally-owned solutions.  We must do all this because we know that by feeding the next generation, we can solve hunger, we can boost economic growth, and we can empower everyone to develop to their full potential.


I have witnessed both the human consequences of hunger and the successes that we can achieve.  I have visited many places like Tokolbey in Niger, where malnutrition rates are at emergency levels ranging from almost ten to fourteen percent.  In Tokolbey, almost one out of every six babies suffers from severe malnutrition.  When I visited there, I stood with mothers who didn’t complain, who were strong, and who were hopeful.  They fed their children dried leaves, which they boiled six times, to make them edible and to keep their stomachs full.  But because of generous contributions from governments around the globe, including Italy, WFP was able to provide them with a special food, corn soya blend.  When I spoke to them, these mothers told me that they knew that the special food—combined with the committed efforts of their local health workers—would help their children.  But they also told me that they were worried about long-term problems: the lack of rain; the lack of nutritious foods; and the lack of clean drinking water.  Yes, in this place of crisis, WFP provided lifesaving nutritional support.  Yet, in other places, we are able to do more.  In the next town, with the support of WFP and the government, women were building a dam.  This dam will help provide water for the community, and it will allow the women to irrigate their crops and to change their lives.  This work not only feeds children’s stomachs today but it also builds families resilience for tomorrow.  


I have also just returned from Yemen.  It is a place where the crisis doesn’t make the headlines of major news media.  It is a place of chronic crisis, where more than ten million people, almost half of the country’s population, are either hungry or on the edge of hunger.  In Yemen, child malnutrition rates are the highest in the world.  Close to half of all Yemeni children under the age of five, around two million children, are stunted.  Think about that.  If we, here in this room, represented the children of Yemen, every second one of us would be denied the right to reach our full potential.  While you yourself might be lucky, the child to your right and the child to your left would be denied their potential. Because remember, a chronically malnourished child doesn’t grow to their full physical capacity and a child who is stunted physically and mentally, cannot live at her full potential.  Indeed, it is likely that they would not be in this room with us, because they would not have an opportunity to achieve the outcomes that each one of you have achieved.  


There is so much that we can do to enable people of Yemen, the people of Niger, the people of Afghanistan, or of elsewhere by implementing resilience programs.  We can improve agriculture potential, strengthen lives and livelihoods, and enable people to meet their own needs.


Ladies and gentlemen, rebirth is possible.  The tools exist.  The knowledge exists.  What we need is the global public will that will enable sufficient and sustained investment in projects that not only support the immediate needs of people but also that support people’s long term resilience.  And there is no better place on earth to create and blossom the idea of building global resilience than here in Rome;  a global public will led by the Rome rebirth spirit creating the Roman-led recognition that we live on a small planet, that we must care for neighbors, whether they are a community away or a continent away.


I visited Bangladesh, spending time in a classroom with some of the most beautiful children you will ever see.  The children came, they sang and they gave me a picture that they had made.  When I asked them what they wanted to be, the first child raised a hand and said “I want to be a doctor.”  Then half of the class said “I want be a doctor.”  Another child raised a hand and said “I want be a teacher,” then the other half of the class raised a hand and said “I want to be a teacher.”  Why?  Those two professions are the only professions that the children knew, doctors and teachers.  But then, at the end they all stood up, they walked in the front of the room they sang to me in English “we shall overcome.”  They sang just as the children in the South of the United States said in the sixties “we shall overcome.”  Because they believed that the world would be different.  These children believe the world will be different because we were there.  They believed that tomorrow was going to be better, because of what we will bring.  They believed that their opportunities would be increased, because we would care enough.  


Working together, we have the ability to establish powerful partnerships that can change the global landscape from one of hunger to one of hope, country by country, community by community, family by family, and child by child—until no one goes hungry.


Thank you all.