Interview with Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme

Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP). UN Photo/Violaine Martin

1 May 2013 – In April 2012, Ertharin Cousin began her tenure as Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian organization with approximately 15,000 staff feeding some 100 million people in 78 countries across the world. WFP also works increasingly with development and humanitarian partners to make the hungry poor self-sufficient and more resilient to crises.

Ms. Cousin has served in the non-profit and corporate sectors as well as in the US government on domestic agriculture and hunger issues. In 2009, she was appointed US Ambassador to the UN agencies for food and agriculture in Rome by President Obama. We interviewed her recently after she had returned from Mali, where hundreds of thousands have been displaced by fighting one year after a failed harvest posed another hunger threat.

UN News Centre: You’ve recently returned from Mali and other parts of the Sahel, the arid swathe cutting across northern Africa.  Could you describe what you saw?

Ertharin Cousin: This wasn’t my first visit to the Sahel.  I was in Niger last year in my first visit to the field as Executive Director. At that point, we, as a global community, were beginning our response to an anticipated crisis in the upcoming lean season, which begins in about June across the Sahel, and we were already beginning to see the impact of the failed 2011 harvest.  I saw women who were feeding their children dried leaves that they were boiling.

But theWorking together, we can not only meet the crisis needs of those we serve, but we can build the resilience that is necessary to move the entire global community out of hunger in our lifetime. global community came together, including all of the UN organizations – UNICEF, WFP, FAO, UNHCR – to meet the needs of those who were impacted by the failed harvest as well as those whose lives were doubly complicated by the then-evolving situation in northern Mali, where we saw the beginnings of the refugee crisis.  Now one year later, we can see that we averted a crisis.  What I saw in Mali was a population that had benefited from our action.  I saw babies who were not malnourished.  I saw fat babies.  You want to see fat babies when you go into refugee camps.  It was wonderful. 

But what I also saw were resilience programmes that had been effective, where the population that we had provided cash for work, who had built catchment basins for water, were now benefitting from that, because they were able to grow vegetable gardens now and they were able to sell those products and receive resources that would ensure that they weren’t depleting their assets. 

But I also saw people who were suffering because, in Mali, the camp for refugees was a camp for internally displaced people who couldn’t go home.  They’d lost everything.  Many of them left with the clothes on their backs when they fled Gao and Timbuktu.  It’s an imperative that we as a global community not lose sight of this ongoing crisis for so many families and so many children, who can’t go home, who have nothing and who are depending upon us to continue to meet their food assistance needs.

UN News Centre: As the crisis in Mali intensified during the early months that you were in office, what kind of logistical gearing-up was WFP engaged in?

A woman in Bambara Maoude, Mali prepares a meal for her family with a food ration supplied by WFP. Photo: Islamic – Relief/Oumar Barry

Ertharin Cousin: Well, whether it’s in the Sahel or elsewhere, we pre-position food so that we have it when we need it where we need it.  So if we’re talking about meeting the needs of the children who require supplemental nutritional support, we have the products in place in the warehouse so that we can move them quickly to meet those needs.  If it’s meeting the food security needs of a family, we have the corn/soy blend, the rice products, the lentil products and the oil in place.

It’s also developing the relationships between the financial institutions and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work with us as well as other UN partners to ensure that we have cash or vouchers available, so that we could meet the monetary needs of those who can’t buy food even though food is available in the market.  It’s also working with partners to identify and develop the right kinds of asset development programmes, work programmes, school-feeding programmes necessary for a particular population. 

So it’s the assessment of the needs of the population, the pre-positioning of the tools – whether those tools are food, vouchers or cash – and the planning for the implementation of those programmes with partners, so that when we launch a programme, we have all the pieces that are necessary.

UN News Centre: Thank you.  Can we turn to Syria now?  The kind of operations that you described, are they very different in the middle of an active conflict?

Ertharin Cousin: I would suggest that the challenges operating in Syria are similar to those we see in northern Mali now, in Timbuktu and Gao, where there’s no humanitarian space because of conflict. We have challenges in reaching those who are trapped by that conflict and suffering from hunger and unfortunately, malnutrition.  That is what we’re seeing in Syria right now.  Donors have been generous to ensure that we have the support to meet the needs to date, though we don’t have the funding that is necessary beyond May. 

Ertharin Cousin visiting Syrian refugees who receive food assistance from WFP in a border area of Turkey Photo: WFP/Abeer Etefa

Unfortunately, there are places inside Syria today where, because of ongoing fighting, that we can’t get to; we can’t drive trucks into areas where there’s shelling.  We can’t distribute food in places where bombs are exploding. But there are families in those places, children who are trapped, who are hungry, many of them malnourished.  What we ask of all of our partners, when they are in bilateral political conversations, is to demand humanitarian access space.  To ensure that operators like WFP and all of the partners that we work with can reach those who need our assistance.

UN News Centre: Can you describe some of the arrangements you use to get access to the most difficult areas?

Ertharin Cousin: Our people operate in armoured vehicles; they travel in convoys, all of the kinds of precautions that you would take. But if there’s shelling, we can’t go there.  So unless they’re willing to provide access routes and recognize the UN insignia and to allow us to travel into places without being targeted, we can’t go there. 

We need the world to understand that there’s a very big difference between the three different types of areas that we try to work in in Syria.  There are areas that are controlled by the regime, that are working with our partner the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, we’ve been able to work in.  There are areas that are controlled by the opposition, where, working with the Red Crescent at the community level as well as now with local and national NGO partners, we’ve been able to deliver.  It’s only in that third area, where there’s ongoing shelling and fighting that we are challenged in reaching those who need our assistance. 

UN News Centre: Alongside proving emergency aid in crises such as Mali and Syria, we’ve notice that there’s now a lot of emphasis by WFP on fighting chronic hunger. Has that emphasis become stronger?

Ertharin Cousin: Well, when you’re providing emergency aid, you’re fighting hunger; you’re filling stomachs.  If there’s a difference in the work we’ve traditionally performed and what we are hoping to achieve now as we move from food aid to food assistance, is that we are working to not simply filling stomachs, but to build resilience of individuals or communities, of those who are the most vulnerable, particularly hungry people around the world so that they can withstand the shocks and crises that occur, that impact their ability to feed themselves. 

At the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey, Ertharin Cousin visits market where Syrian families buy food with WFP-issued vouchers. Credit: WFP

Too often, as a global community of humanitarians, we meet the needs of the same families, the same individuals, the same communities crisis after crisis, when we are focused on meeting crisis needs but not on building resilience.  Our goals and what we hope to achieve by moving to food assistance is even in supporting the crisis needs of the most vulnerable people, we provide them with the capacity to be more resilient to the next shock.

The outcome that we’re working to achieve is that we’re helping the family or the community fill the stomachs of the hungry poor, during the time of crisis, but we’re also providing them with the tools, or the assistance and the capacity, so that as they move forward they have sustainable and durable food security so that they can feed themselves in the future.

UN News Centre: Is part of this effort also to be able to purchase some of the food for aid in the region in which it will be delivered?

Ertharin Cousin: That’s certainly a tool that we use.  In our Purchase for Progress programme, we work with smallholder farmers through our partners as well as our national NGO partners, our UN partners and our international partners, to increase their harvests and quality of their yields and then we purchase from them for the distribution in our programmes, whether it’s a school-feeding programme or a community feeding programme.  We serve as a catalyst market, because the ultimate goal is that the smallholder will have the ability to sell in the commercial market, or to the government.  When you’ve created an agricultural value chain, it can ensure that the changes you are making in a community or for a family are sustainable and they are more than just a programme. 

UN News Centre: In this kind of activity, do you collaborate closely with agricultural agencies such as FAO?

Ertharin Cousin: We couldn’t do it without the other agencies WFP can provide the food for work, vouchers for work, we can purchase.  But the training that is necessary to support the capacity-building activities of smallholders is work that’s performed by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO} or supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), or NGO partners like World Vision or others who have specific agricultural development activities. 

UN News Centre: Can you describe a situation where this has worked out best?

Staff of UN food agencies - FAO, IFAD and WFP - receive Award of Excellence which recognized their outstanding collaboration in Mozambique. Credit: IFADTV

Ertharin Cousin: We just issued an award to the country team in Mozambique for this type of programme, where together IFAD, WFP and FAO worked with groups of smallholder farmers to perform exactly what I have just described to you.  WFP provided cash for work and we purchased the yield of the smallholder farmers.  IFAD provided financing and training activities and FAO actually performed -- through their farmer field schools and their seeds and tools programmes -- the work that was necessary to increase the smallholder farmers’ yields and the quality of those yields.

UN News Centre: Are you anticipating increased droughts in various parts of the world because of climate change and related factors?

Ertharin Cousin: What you see, and the Sahel is a good example of that, is that it’s not a question of if there’ll be another crop failure because of insufficient rainfall, it’s when.  You have the problem in east Africa.  We see more violent storms in East Asia and the impact that has on hungry poor people in Bangladesh and other areas in that part of the world, in Myanmar and other places that are impacted by the changing storm patterns that are a result of climate change.  We will see more of that as we move forward. 

That’s why resilience is so important, recognizing that the climate patterns have changed and will affect the number of shocks and the severity of those shocks across the entire global community.  Our responsibility is to ensure that we anticipate that by addressing the resilience-building needs of the most vulnerable, the hungry poor who are those who are always the most critically impacted whenever shocks occur.  So that is why we are focussing so much on resilience building in all the areas where we serve because we recognize that in too many places around the world it’s not if, it’s when, will the next shock occur. 

UN News Centre: What are some of the most pressing situations right now for WFP, other than what we’ve mentioned?

Ertharin Cousin: Yemen is an area where we see growing needs, not just food insecurity among the indigenous population but also in the very large refugee population there.  The Central African Republic is today an area where, again, you have a conflict that is evolving and it is becoming more and more difficult for us to meet the food assistance needs of the internally displaced and others.

South Sudan is an area where you have a population that is among the poorest in the entire world.  You have fewer roads than any where else in the world, which means even if I’m a farmer who happens to grow more products, there’s no market for me to sell it.  So you have a population suffering from chronic malnutrition. 

Ertharin Cousin with Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Mayra Arosemena of Panama, which hosts much of WFP’s regional operations. Photo: WFP/Elio Rujano

You have the conflict in the eastern part of the DRC that continues to displace populations, children in particular, many of whom have moved from refugee camps to informal camps to some of the most deplorable conditions that I have seen in my career.  We are working to meet their food needs.  And too often we forget about Haiti.  You can also go to countries in Central America, where we see significant increases in chronic malnutrition.  We must meet the needs of those children or we know that they will be not just physically stunted, but mentally stunted for the balance of their lives. 

Often people ask me what is our greatest priority. I say, we don’t have the luxury, as humanitarian actors, to prioritize one child over another, one hungry person over another.  Our responsibility is that we raise the resources and provide the support that is necessary to meet the food assistance needs of a hungry child, a poor person, wherever they are in the world.

UN News Centre: How has your view of WFP’s work changed since you became WFP’s director, after having been the representative of the largest donor, the United States?

Ertharin Cousin: I often get asked that question.  As a representative of the United States, my responsibilities were to serve as the steward for taxpayer dollars and the investment in this organization and ensuring that donor expectations were met.  As the Executive Director, my responsibility is to ensure that we do meet donor expectations, but we also most importantly meet the need of those that we serve around the world, particularly the hungry poor.  So it’s the difference between talking about and being responsible for performing the work. 

UN News Centre: Is there ever a difference between what you need to do and donor expectations?

Ertharin Cousin: There should never be a difference in what we need to do and donor expectations if we set the donor expectations appropriately, and we communicate with our donors on a regular basis.  When donors invest in those plans, their expectations are that we will achieve the outcomes that we’ve identified.

UN News Centre: How would you best describe the difference between your early work in food aid in the United States and your international efforts?  

Ertharin Cousin: As the Chief Operating Officer of what was then America’s Second Harvest and what is now Feeding America, my responsibility was to support the food assistance needs of a domestic population of food insecure people and as a member of the board for international Food for Development with USAID, my responsibility was to help identify what were the agricultural development programmes that could increase the quantity and quality of small-holder farms to move them from subsistence to business opportunities.  With Albertson’s, as head of our foundation, I was responsible for, on the other side of the table, the investment of corporate dollars in food assistance and ensuring that they were well spent.

Ertharin Cousin helps open the photo exhibit “World Hunger: A Solvable Problem in September 2012. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

The difference in that work and the work that I’m performing now, I would proffer, is very limited.  In fact, what it has done was to provide me with the kind of experience domestically that now supports the implementation of my responsibilities internationally.

UN News Centre: In conclusion, can you describe the toughest challenges you’ve had since taking on your position?  What is the proportion of advocacy and how much are you the logistical master for this massive operation? 

Ertharin Cousin: I like to say I’m a good strategist who’s surrounded by great operators and great programme people. I don’t suggest that I’m a logistical expert; I’ve been credited very generously by those I work with as being a problem solver.  We begin every day here with the senior staff sitting around the table looking at the operational, administrative and strategic challenges that we have what decisions we need to make to help those on the ground who are the backbone of this organization, to ensure that they can perform their work.  I’m a good team builder and I pride myself on being a great coach and having a team that has the right tools – whether it’s the human capacity, the technical capacity or the financial capacity – to perform the work.  Then I have to be smart enough to not get in the way when they’re working. 

UN News Centre: In your advocacy capacity, which we know you by in the News Services here, what, in closing, would you like to send out as the main message on fighting hunger in the world?

The major message that I’d like to send is that we have made progress as a global community. Fifty years ago, when WFP was formed, what countries were we focused on?  China required significant assistance from WFP.  Today, China not only feeds its population, but has excess harvest.  We are making progress in ending hunger but there are not enough countries that are coming along fast enough. Working together, we can not only meet the crisis needs of those we serve, but we can build the resilience that is necessary to move the entire global community out of hunger in our lifetime, not just on a one-day basis, but in a sustainable and durable manner so that we are not feeding the children of the world – their parents are feeding them and ultimately, as they grow, they can feed themselves.

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