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World Food Programme faces ‘highly unusual’ quadruple food emergency

January 7, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
The World Food Programme is fighting major food emergencies in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria and the Philippines. Jeffrey Brown talks to Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the UN organization, about the great challenge of relieving hunger in inaccessible regions that have been plunged into conflict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we turn our attention to hunger.

There are 870 million undernourished people around the world, most of them in developing countries. That’s according to the United Nations. And at least 20 percent of households face extreme food shortages.

Jeff sat down recently with the woman in charge of combating this chronic problem.

JEFFREY BROWN:  The World Food Programme is the U.N.’s front-line agency for fighting global hunger, and right now it has its hand especially full, with four major food emergencies, in Syria, with millions displaced and in refugee camps, in the Central African Republic, another conflict area, where the U.N. has warned of potential famine, in neighboring South Sudan in the news recently with an outbreak of tribal violence, and in the Philippines, still reeling from Typhoon Haiyan.

The World Food Programme is based in Rome. Its executive director is Ertharin Cousin, an American with many years of experience in food issues in the nonprofit, corporate, and government sectors. And she joins us now.

And welcome to you.

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ERTHARIN COUSIN, World Food Programme: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN:  First, the sheer number of emergency situations, how unusual and what kind of challenge is it to deal with them all at once?

ERTHARIN COUSIN: Well, needless to say, it is highly unusual.

When we created this category of level three emergencies, which the U.N. and the nonprofit community work together globally to ensure that we meet the needs of those who are impacted by the most serious emergencies, we all said, what would we do if we had three of them? And now we have four.

JEFFREY BROWN:  It’s notable that three of the four are conflict areas, civil war, a lot of violence.


JEFFREY BROWN:  What kind of challenges does that pose, in particular?

ERTHARIN COUSIN: Well, needless to say, in civil — in conflict areas, the challenge is that you have war, and you have the inability to access those who are in what we call besieged areas or areas where fighting is ongoing, because it’s very difficult for humanitarians to access those — access those areas to assist the victims of the conflict.

JEFFREY BROWN:  So take an example of the Central African Republic, one that doesn’t get that much attention. What are you doing? What are you able to do? What are you not able to do?

ERTHARIN COUSIN: In the Central African Republic, we are — we have said over 300,000 people in — in Bangui itself, as well as in Bossangoa and the areas — and in the rural areas of the Central African Republic.

But the challenge is, there are a lot more people who are in need of assistance that we can’t get access to. And a good example of that is that there are 100,000 people in and around the airport itself in Bangui. When we began a feeding program in that area, our humanitarian workers were attacked. And so we had to stop the feeding program.

JEFFREY BROWN:  So, food is there, but you just can’t get it to…


ERTHARIN COUSIN: You can’t get to it people because of the ongoing violence in the area.

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right.

You know, we talk about these crises, but in the meantime there’s so much more, I know. And I was just reading today about the continuing problem that you are dealing with in Kenya, in refugee camps. And I saw where you wrote, “The world’s gaze has turned elsewhere.”

This must happen constantly for you, right?

ERTHARIN COUSIN: Yes, it does. And it’s tragic, because you feel as if you’re prioritizing one hungry child over another.

JEFFREY BROWN:  You do — you feel that personally?

ERTHARIN COUSIN: I feel that personally, because in Kenya, in Dadaab, where you have Somalia refugees, there are still over 500,000 people in the Dadaab refugee camps.

And we had to cut rations there, first 10 percent in December and another 10 in January. That means that there are children there that are not going to get the nutritious food that they need.

JEFFREY BROWN:  You have been at this in many different ways for a long time.

When does the world pay attention, and when does it not? And when do you get frustrated and when do you not?

ERTHARIN COUSIN: Unfortunately, the world pays attention when the media shines a light on those in need, which is why it’s so important that we maintain the global public will that is necessary to meet the needs of those we serve.

We require investments. The WFP is 100 percent voluntarily funded. And we depend upon the generosity of governments from around the world like the United States, where we receive significant support for our work. But we recognize that there’s only so many dollars to go around.

And what it forces us to do is, when I get frustrated is when I see a situation where we know we can make a difference, but we don’t have the resources to support those in need.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And that happens?


JEFFREY BROWN:  Too often.

Setting aside the immediate crises that we’re talking about, if you can for a moment, when you think about the longer-term issues of food security around the world, because I know this is another area for you, is just how do people feed themselves, how does the world feed itself, crises aside?

What do you think — what do we need to know or what is not happening that you would like to see happen? 

ERTHARIN COUSIN: Well, the solutions are available to us.

We recognize that the majority of people who are food-insecure or hungry in the world live in rural areas. And most of them are small holder subsistence farmers. By increasing the development of the agricultural chain, agricultural marketing chain in countries where we serve, we can provide the economic support necessary to those small holders, so that they can feed their families in a sustainable, endurable manner.

So we know what is required. The challenge is, it’s not a one-year solution. It’s going to require multiyear implementation of the work that is necessary to support the small holder farmers, so that they can ultimately feed themselves and feed their children and their — our support is no longer necessary.

And we know it works, because China is a great example; 50 years ago, when WFP was started, China was our largest country program. We worked to support small holder farmers in China and began to make a difference there. And we know where China is today.

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, Ertharin Cousin is executive director of the World Food Programme.

Thanks so much.

ERTHARIN COUSIN: Thank you for having me.