Celebrating Women Leaders Luncheon
Josette Sheeran, Executive Director, UN World Food Programme
September 29, 2008
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Washington, DC—A grain trader in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, checks the Chicago Board of Trade prices on the Internet before heading to the market. Families in Gona?ves, Haiti, huddle together on their roofs to escape a mudslide that obliterated their town. Women in Darfur, Somalia, spend their days grinding grain by hand so their children can eat. These are the stories Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), shared at the Women’s Foreign Policy Group’s annual luncheon Sept. 29. “The events of the last year and a half have demonstrated powerfully the impact of global economic developments on the world’s most vulnerable,” Sheeran said. “Many [are] tucked away in small villages but no longer sequestered from global economic storms.”

In September the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported the estimated number of hungry has reached more than 923 million people, largely due to the increase in food prices. That number, Sheeran said, could continue to rise to well over one billion if trends continue. The WFP will provide food aid to 90 million people this year, but even this United Nations organization cannot escape the rising commodity prices. According to Sheeran, trade restrictions and export bans in more than 40 nations have contributed to the shortage of food. The WFP currently has to purchase food for Somalia as far away as Brazil – a vastly expensive enterprise. “We could either cut the kilocalories per person by 40 percent, or cut 40 percent of those receiving emergency help,” Sheeran said. She is calling for the one percent of the world food supply that is used for humanitarian aid to be exempted from bans and excessive taxation.

Quoting Henry Kissinger’s 1974 speech on that era’s hunger crisis, Sheeran said hunger is both a humanitarian and a security issue. “Without food, societies become breeding grounds for instability, civil unrest, terrorism, and demagogues,” she said. Food has been used as a weapon to force submission and throughout history hunger has been both a cause and an effect of violent conflict and mass migration. The resulting instability and humanitarian crises frequently occur in nations that are friends, neighbors, and allies with the United States.

On the flip side, Sheeran said, food assistance builds goodwill between nations. In Africa, Europe, and Asia she has met high ranking officials whose lives were saved by the daily cups of hot porridge they received when they were children through President Eisenhower’s Food for Peace program. Today, the WFP’s school feeding program provides a cup of enriched porridge to 20 million children. “This is the least expensive human rights program I have ever seen,” Sheeran said. In Pakistan where 48 percent of parents originally said they would not send their daughters to school the WFP has seen a 100 percent attendance rate among girls. In Egypt the school feeding program is seen as an anti-child labor program.

Despite the current crisis, Sheeran said overall the number of urgently hungry has decreased 20 percent since 1969. “We are nourishing more people than ever before in human history and we are on track to cut the proportion of poverty in half by 2015,” she said. This year Morocco and Jordan took over the school feeding program for their countries and Yemen has taken 90 percent responsibility. Many countries are seeking a greater role in the future of their aid and are working at efficiency and effectiveness. Ultimately, Sheeran said, solutions that are the most sustainable come from people who know what they need. In Darfur women asked for three hand grinders for their grain. Women in Pakistan women requested buffalo for milk and cheese to replace the ones that had been killed in the earthquake. Providing seeds, fertilizer, and tools to farmers in Haiti will mean new crops to harvest and fresh hope that the season of hunger will soon end.