• November 2010

Josette Sheeran's World Food Programme is making progress

By Hope Katz Gibbs
100 Truly Amazing Women Who Are Changing the World

“I think we can, in our lifetime, win the battle against hunger because we now have the science, technology, know-how, and the logistics to be able to meet hunger where it comes,” says Josette Sheeran.

Sheeran’s perspective energizes her in her work as the 11th Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme. She took over the U.N. position in April 2007 after being appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jacques Diouf in November 2006.

Since being founded in 1963, WFP has fed more than 1.6 billion of the world’s poorest people and invested nearly $42 billion in development and emergency relief. From the organization’s headquarters in Rome, Sheeran partners with nearly 3,000 non-government agencies to distribute food.

Sheeran is well suited for the post, having served since 2005 as the U.S. Undersecretary for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs in the State Department.

Rocket science?

“The solution to hunger is not quite rocket science,” Sheeran said on Sept. 29 at the National Press Club. “Many nations have defeated hunger, and it doesn’t require some great new scientific breakthrough like discovering a cure for cancer. It is, on one level, quite simple: People need access to an adequate amount of nutritious food.”

People who don’t have food have only have three options, she insists: They can migrate, revolt, or face starvation and death.

“We must be driven with a common purpose to solve the problem,” says Sheeran, who in an October 1 Huffington Post article offered 10 permanent solutions to ensuring all people throughout the world have enough nutritious food.

1. Humanitarian Action. We have the tools to respond with appropriate action in a humanitarian setting. When people are hit by disasters, we must save lives, providing food and work to get people back on their feet. In a place like Darfur, where there is no food, we bring in the food. In a place like Haiti, where some food markets have been restored, but people have no cash, we bring in vouchers.

2. The power of school meals. When you provide food in schools, attendance skyrockets. If girls stay in school, they marry later and have smaller families. A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister of Cape Verde and I celebrated his government taking over feeding school children. He told me that 35 years ago, people considered Cape Verde virtually hopeless. After investing in its biggest asset — its people — it’s on track to meet every Millennium Development Goal.

3. Safety nets. When disaster strikes or a food crisis hits, 80 percent of the world has no backup plan or safety net. Brazil isn’t one of them. It links small farmers to schools. People get cash transfers if their children get good grades, go to health clinics, and get immunized. Brazil is beating hunger faster than any other nation on earth. And they estimate that this costs them less than 1 percent of their GDP.

4. Connecting farmers to markets. Connecting farmers to markets lifts them out of poverty. I was in Gulu, Uganda, the stronghold of the Lord’s Resistance Army, to see a new warehouse that WFP built. It’s a place that has been dependent on food aid for 20 years. Here, I saw a great business model. Small farmers bring in their corn — moist and dirty — that would normally bring them $100 a ton. It’s cleaned, dried, and stored, and they can sell it for $400 a ton. The farmers pay $40 a ton for the service and the warehouse is sustainable. WFP’s Purchase for Progress program leverages the power of our purchase by helping small farmers improve the quality of produce, connect to markets, and reduce post-harvest waste.

5. First 1,000 days. Science has irrefutably proven that when children under 2 don’t receive proper nutrition, they suffer permanent damage. When children are malnourished, their earning power later in life can decrease by as much as 50 percent and up to 11 percent of a nation’s GDP can be lost. The burden of knowledge compels us to act. WFP is working with private-sector partners and others to create special nutritional products geared to meet the needs of these children.

6. Empowering women. Feed a woman and you feed the world. Women produce 50 percent of the food in the world, yet they get little support. With training, yields can rise up to 22 percent. When food is put in the hands of women, children will eat. In refugee camps and elsewhere, we make sure women get vouchers. We are also working to ensure that women can safely cook, and that they don’t put themselves in harm’s way gathering firewood, by providing safe, efficient stoves and teaching women to create fuel briquettes made out of organic waste.

7. Technology revolution. Technology can revolutionize the battle against hunger. In Syria, refugees from Iraq who were previously seen as a burden to the local community now receive a WFP voucher on their cell phone that they can redeem in local shops. The storekeepers love it. It saves money, preserves beneficiaries’ dignity, and is fast and easy to use.

8. Building resiliency. The number of natural disasters is rising exponentially. WFP is working with communities to ensure food security by building resiliency through reclaiming land, planting trees, and providing irrigation. In Timbuktu in the early 1990s, WFP worked with the community to plant 40,000 trees, blocking the encroaching desert. I went there recently. The rice fields now protected by these trees are the only area not swallowed by the desert. The yield is so great that their only request was for a machine to pack and sell the rice.

9. Power of individuals and partners. I’m often asked, “Isn’t fighting hunger overwhelming?” My answer: “Not really. We just need to fill a cup and feed a hungry child, one cup and one child at a time.” Five days after the earthquake struck in Haiti, we had raised nearly $5 million from individuals and companies. Zynga, the biggest online social gaming company, helped us raise $1.5 million for Haiti and exposed our lifesaving work to millions of people by incorporating one of our nutritional products into their popular game, Farmville.

Free Rice is another online game — it’s raised enough money to feed 4.2 million people for a day. With these tools we are feeding one child, one cup at a time. WFP private-sector partnerships bring in vitally needed funds and critical expertise. TNT, a worldwide leader in shipping and logistics, has helped us get more efficiency in our warehousing and trucking operations. DSM, the great nutrition company, has helped us with fortification in our products. We’ve also linked up with Unilever, Kraft, and Heinz on Project Laser Beam in Bangladesh to provide special nutrition to the youngest and most vulnerable.

10. “Not on my watch.” Not until a nation’s leader says, “No child will starve to death under my watch. I will put the right policies in place to make sure we defeat hunger” will hunger be defeated. Twenty years ago, China was WFP’s biggest project. Today, they contribute to WFP, as does Brazil and other nations. When the Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika was sworn in as head of the African Union this year he reminded us that food security is possible in our lifetime and challenged “Africa to feed Africans.” That type of leadership is mobilizing Africa and changing the face of hunger in the world.

“Hunger numbers are going down,” she concludes. “But it’s still 925 million too many. We are at a critical point where we can harness the power of partnerships, technology, political will, and individual commitment to end hunger.”

For more on the World Food Programme, visit ww.wfp.org.

Learn more about Sheeran’s visit to flood-hit Pakistan in September.

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