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When Will Hunger Finally Be a Thing of the Past?

Ertharin Cousin has an ambitious goal: As Executive Director of the UN's World Food Program, she wants to eradicate hunger. Not sometime in the future, but soon.

She has already appeared twice on Forbes Magazine's list of the world's most powerful women. Last year Time Magazine named her one of the most influential people in the world. Yet most people have never heard her name. Ertharin Cousin, head of the world's largest humanitarian organization, has little interest in media attention directed at her personally.

When she appears before donors, however, she speaks with a strong and clear voice. As she spoke to the Council of Europe last February, for example, she issued an urgent warning not to limit the flexibility of the World Food Program (WFP). While such concerns don't make the headlines, they are central to the success of the World Food Program, which is funded by donations from countries, companies and private individuals. The WFP is charged with soliciting donations, and Cousin is very good at her job. "Fortunately, I can be very convincing," she says. "As soon as I open my mouth, it's clear to people that I know what I'm talking about. And by the time I've finished, most people think that I'm okay." Otherwise, she says, her job would be impossible. "If we can't get the people we work with to support us, how are we supposed to lead people who have no voice at all?"

Money Isn't the Problem

Ertharin Cousin's biggest problem, as head of the WFP, is rarely money. The World Food Program received more support last year than ever before: over 5.5 billion dollars. The problem is the conditions attached to that money; and 95 percent of donations include such conditions. Donors who give money to help hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa suffering the consequences of catastrophic drought rarely want leftover resources to be used to feed refugees from the Syrian civil war. At present, however, the need for the WFP's efforts is particularly urgent in conflict regions like Syria, Yemen and Ukraine. And it is precisely in those regions, where circumstances are so complex, that few countries or companies want to provide financial support. That forces Ertharin Cousin to withdraw food aid, as she did last September in Syria, despite the fact that the coffers were full. Such occasions lead her to despair about a lack of flexibility and a lack of understanding of her organization's mission, which is not to take sides in political conflicts, but to feed hungry people.

It was no accident that Cousin was able to rise so quickly to become the Executive Director of the WFP, the world's largest humanitarian organization with some 13,000 employees. The daughter of a social worker and a community organizer, she grew up in inner city Chicago. She had known the Obamas for decades, as they would run into each other frequently while running their day-to-day errands. But at a time when few had even heard the name Obama, she was already an attorney and a highly regarded expert on national and international food policy.

Campaigning for Bill Clinton

Since completing her law degree in 1982, Cousin, a member of the Democratic Party, had worked for public and private food aid organizations. In 1994, Bill Clinton offered her a position in Washington as a liaison between the State Department and the White House. Two years later she resigned to head the campaign to reelect the Clinton/Al Gore ticket in the state of Illinois. After winning the election, Clinton appointed her to the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD). The Board advises USAID, the largest governmental aid organization, on issues of global poverty and helping to build sustainable democratic societies.

In 2002, Cousin moved to the board of the national food aid organization "America's Second Harvest" (since renamed "Feeding America"), where donations more than doubled during her tenure. Four years later she founded the Polk Street Group, a consulting firm in Chicago. Her career as an entrepreneur was brief. In 2009, Ertharin Cousin left her firm in the hands of her son, Maurice, after being named American ambassador to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the WFP by President Obama. She then moved to Rome, where the FAO and the WFP have their headquarters.

Representing the interests of the United States at those two UN agencies meant having diplomatic status, a villa, an official car and a chauffeur – all of which she found quite enjoyable. "It certainly gives you a kick when people are suddenly calling you 'Your Excellency'," she said, self-deprecatingly, in one of her rare media interviews. "But the downside was that I had to give up fried chicken, since the taste is very different when you make it with olive oil. I lost almost 20 pounds in Rome." Since being promoted to the far more exciting and influential position of Executive Director of the WFP three years ago, she no longer lives the glamorous life of a diplomat. Ertharin Cousin is a civil servant again, living in an apartment building and usually driving her own car. But now, she points out, she's truly living in Rome. Vendors at the market let her know what is fresh, and the butcher saves her a choice cut of meat. "It's a good feeling," says Cousin. Only rarely does she treat herself to French fries at McDonald's – "because sometimes nothing smells so much like home as the air at McDonald's."

Solutions that Work

In her position as head of the WFP, Cousin has set herself a goal that is both simple and audacious, one that she regards as by no means unattainable: "I want to see hunger in the world eradicated in my lifetime. We have the necessary tools, technology and the global commitment of the donor countries." It has been years since the WFP limited itself to distributing food in emergency situations, such as a natural disaster or political conflict, for a few weeks and then leaving.

"We would often arrive at the scene and announce that we had the solution," says Cousin. "And then we would find ourselves in the same places, seeing the same people over and over again, in one crisis after another." In the past, food programs put aid recipients in the position of victims, since "we were doing nothing to make a permanent difference." The big change came when the WFP began to provide materials and training aimed at making recipients self-sufficient as quickly as possible. "Now we let governments and local communities take the lead, while we propose long-term strategies. All of this brings us closer to solutions that will succeed in defeating hunger."

Another change is that UN agencies like the FAO (which specializes in long-term food projects), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN's financial agency IFAD and the WFP no longer view each other with suspicion instead of working together to find solutions. "Today, virtually nothing happens without the input and participation of the other UN agencies," says Cousin. "At the WFP, we are able to purchase goods and distribute food and vouchers. But it is the FAO that provides the necessary training in sustainable fish farming, agriculture and forestry, and the IFAD offers long-term loans to small farmers."

Strategies for Women

A crucial aspect of the WFP's strategy for the future is its focus on women. "We can't solve the problem of hunger without gender-specific programs designed to provide better opportunities for women, whether that means setting up training centers or providing equipment like solar-powered stoves." The new strategy of concentrating on women is rooted not in ideology, but in facts. "A majority of Africa's small farmers are women," says Cousin. "And in the cities, it is for the most part women who run the household."

Another focus is to move from relying on imported food and other humanitarian aid to purchasing regional products, if they are available in sufficient quantities. Not every drought or conflict affects an entire country. The WFP is often accused of making it impossible for local farmers to sell their goods and thereby depriving them of their livelihood when it distributes donations of wheat from the United States. In response to that charge, it has been purchasing more products from local farmers, at local prices, to distribute in food programs for schools and villages. "This makes us a kind of catalyst market," says Ertharin Cousin. "Our goal, after all, is to enable small farmers to sell their products on the market or to their own governments."

Private donors over governments

Approximately 805 million people, or one person in nine worldwide, continue to suffer from chronic malnutrition. Of that number, 98 percent are living in developing countries. The number of hungry people has declined by 100 million over the past ten years, and by 209 million since 1990. In the world's poorest countries, people spend an average of 60 to 80 percent of their disposable income on food. In most industrialized countries the figure ranges between 10 and 20 percent. To achieve the UN's millennium development goal of cutting world hunger in half between 1990 and 2015, the number of people who suffer from hunger would have to drop to below 500 million by the end of this year. The current projection is 791 million.

The FAO continues to believe that this goal can be reached. But critics are fundamentally skeptical about statistics in this area, since hunger is most widespread in countries that lack reliable data on the population. Aid organizations must rely on estimates that may or may not be accurate. The data can also be interpreted in different ways, to suit specific interests. Organizations that rely on donations must show that they are successful if they are to maintain trust. However, even the harshest critics acknowledge that the United Nations program is by far the most successful global program for fighting hunger.

Some people joke that Cousin is the only boss in the world who is doing her best to make her own organization unnecessary. She probably takes this as a compliment. She still believes that the goal is attainable. The successes of sustainable programs can be measured. It is the political crises that she finds to be particularly worrisome, since few countries donate money to help the hungry who are unfortunate enough to live under a reign of terror. "I'm spending more time knocking on the doors of private donors now," Ertharin Cousin said recently. "They're more flexible than governments."