My guest this episode is Richard Ragan, the Country Director of the World Food Programme in Bangladesh. Richard says a sense of adventure drew him to working for the UN, and his career has taken him all over the globe - including to North Korea, and to Liberia to coordinate the emergency response to Ebola. A keen outdoor sportsman, Richard never misses the chance to surf or climb wherever he is, and he has even snowboarded through the streets of Pyongyang. Nonetheless, he says it is his responsibility to feed the hungry that keeps him awake at night.
“I don't want one person that I'm responsible for to be hungry. And you know, that, that keeps me up at night, for sure. But the thing that scares me, probably more than anything, and, you know, there's no vaccination for it is, is climate change. You know, I think COVID is a wake-up call for all of us, it does not discriminate. It's like the waves or the mountains, it doesn't care.”
Melissa Fleming 00:05
From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming. This is Awake At Night.
Today, my guest is Richard Ragan, the country director of the World Food Programme in Bangladesh. Richard, what exactly do you do?
Richard Ragan 00:30
Well, we're the frontline food agency for the United Nations. And the name says what we do -- we feed people. And we use food as sort of an entry point to do all sorts of things. It includes just sort of the basic provision of food aid and emergencies and natural disasters, man-made crises. We also use it to do development work, we might be in schools, feeding children's schools, meals, doing nutrition programmes in urban slums. So, it's a big wide range of things that we do.
In Bangladesh we manage all of the feeding programmes for the Rohingya refugees. It's about almost a million refugees that live in the largest refugee camp in the world here in Bangladesh. In 2017, around 750,000 of them were pushed out of the country, and they joined another quarter million that had already been pushed into Bangladesh in the mid-‘90s.
Melissa Fleming 01:39
I've been in those camps. I've seen the needs and just describe, what the scope of the World Food Programme’s work?
Richard Ragan 01:49
Well, I'm from the Seattle area, I live on an island called Bainbridge Island, which is just off the coast of Seattle. And if you think about the urban population of Seattle, it's roughly a million people. So, it's a city, it has all of this sort of same needs that a city has to have to function, but it's a refugee camp.
Melissa Fleming 02:12
I know you've been in all kinds of situations with vulnerable people. But what about this specific situation? What's different?
Richard Ragan 02:19
Well, one of the things that we've really worked hard as an organization to do is provide assistance with dignity. This is a group of people who have lost everything. They've been pushed out of their home; they've suffered horrific violence; pretty much to a person, they've experienced some sort of trauma. So, we've tried to create a system that gives them choice, gives them better nutritional food.
And that, in a sense, is sort of a big shift from the way that we did this work two decades ago. You saw large-scale movements of people. They would stand in lines for hours, and they would get a 50-kilo sack of rice or wheat, and they'd get some pulses, some beans and some oil. And that would be it. So very little diversity of diet, very little choice, forced to kind of to lose their dignity again, just to receive what they need to survive.
And we've tried to create an environment which is really similar to how someone would shop in a store. So, we've built 22 outlets around the camps. We have Bangladeshi commercial suppliers come in and provide the food. And this is also good for Bangladesh, too. I mean, we're spending around 10 to 11 million US dollars per month just on food. So that money is money that's invested directly into the Bangladeshi economy. So, a lot of times, it's difficult to host refugees. But there are also a lot of economic benefits that can come out of it as well.
The area where the refugees are, it's in a place called Cox's Bazar, which is on the coast, was always one of the poorest and most under-invested in districts in Bangladesh. So now there's a host of investments that are coming from not just the World Food Programme, but from also the other UN agencies that are working there as well.
Melissa Fleming 04:41
You spend day in and day out with a population that had really went through hell. When you meet some of these refugees, and how does that make you feel when you see what they had to go through?
Richard Ragan 04:55
Those of us who work in this type of profession – people who join the UN, I mean -- I think we're driven by this desire to make the world a better place. So, you can't help but kind of, feel the suffering that someone has gone through. And it's particularly with children who -- you know, I'm a dad, I have three children, and I would do anything to protect them. And I happen to have been lucky enough to be born in the United States and have a relatively stable upbringing. But there's so many people around the world who aren't. And when you look in the face of a mother, who has no hope, or who can't feed their children, it's really the kind of thing that drives me to do this work.
I mean, I feel, I feel fortunate, I have one of the -- I think I have one of the greatest jobs in the world, because every day I get to wake up, and the impact of what I do can potentially save somebody's life. That's a real blessing. That's what I tell my staff every day that, yeah, it's work. And people always criticize the UN and say, it's really bureaucratic. But it isn’t. There are thousands and thousands of people who are working around the world for the United Nations system, that are literally saving people every day.
Melissa Fleming 06:23
Well, the Nobel Peace Prize committee recognized this when they awarded the World Food Programme, your organization, the Nobel Peace Prize this year. How did that make you feel when you heard that announcement?
Richard Ragan 06:37
I was incredibly humbled, super excited, really shocked, because the World Food Programme had been mentioned as a possible recipient a couple of years previous, and we never got it. And this year, when we won, I was completely over the moon. And it was for me also, kind of validation for my family, because doing this kind of work, your family is as much part of the process as you are. And my wife and my children have travelled around the world with me to all these different places. I think my 18-year-old daughter has lived in eight different countries at this point. And so they live through your work as much as I do.
Melissa Fleming 07:27
Well, that maybe helped you a bit, because I know that you're at a huge distance from your family. And that must be tough. I mean, what is it like and describe your family situation right now.
Richard Ragan 07:38
I've been with my wife, Marcella, for almost 27, 28 years. We've been married for a little over 20 years. And we have three children -- twins, Carter and Emma; they're 15; and then Zoe is 18. And we have lived like the rest of the world is living now under COVID. For the past three years, I mean, this is the first time that my family hasn't been to one of my duty stations with me. So, we've been living off of WhatsApp and FaceTime and Zoom. What seemed kind of weird to me three years ago is now pretty common for everybody else in the world. So, I guess we're normal.
Melissa Fleming 08:25
You were hit by the virus yourself? What was that like? And what did you go through?
Richard Ragan 08:32
I had a really mild case with almost no symptoms. I felt when this whole crisis started pretty well prepared to cope with it. I had, in a previous post, been the head of the UN mission for the Ebola emergency response in Liberia. And for that operation, I was petrified. It was probably the most frightened I've been at any time in my career. I mean, I landed in Monrovia at the height of the crisis with a mandate from the Secretary-General to set up this health emergency response operation. And there were people literally dying on the streets and I'm not -- I don't have a medical background -- and I was brought there mainly because I function well in emergencies and crises. But I felt like I didn't really have the capacities to deal with it. And I called my wife I think the second night I was there, and I said: ‘You know, I just I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this. This is kind of over my head. I'm, ‘there's nothing here, I don't have any ability to take care of people if they get sick. What if I get sick? I don't really understand this virus so well.’
And she kind of reached through the phone and grabbed me by the collar and shook me and said, ‘You can do it. You've been in tougher situations than this and you just need to take it day by day’.
And that's what we did. And Liberia was the first of the three countries -- Sierra Leone and Guinea were the other two -- to become Ebola-free. And it really wasn't because of anything I personally did. I think it was largely because of the really heroic Liberians that were in the hospitals every day. MSF, the non-governmental organization, was incredibly heroic. The World Health Organization. The Centres for Disease Control. I mean, there were some really fantastic epidemiologists and medical professionals who led the response and President Sirleaf Johnson, the Liberian President, was every day actively dealing with managing the response. And that was the kind of leadership I think that you needed to have for that kind of crisis.
So, it prepared me for COVID. And I had several colleagues with me here in Bangladesh who had also worked on that response and other UN agencies. And collectively, we got together and put together a framework for us to respond to the crisis here. And I think we did a pretty good job.
Our work we couldn't stop during the crisis. Because the refugees depended on us -- they didn't have any other means of support. And it was really the Bangladeshi staff that worked for me who were putting their lives on the line, each and every time they went into the camps. They're really, they were incredibly heroic, and they were scared. They felt the same thing that I felt during the Ebola crisis. You could see the fear. They would come back from working in the camps, and their neighbors knew they were in the camps and their neighbors wouldn't let them return to their homes. So, we had to rent out hotels and keep the staff that we were moving into the camps and hotels. So, we had to do all sorts of things, just to keep the assistance going. Yeah, we managed to do it. We've managed to also sort of keep the virus infection rates to a pretty low level in the camps. And yeah, so far, it's been pretty successful. Hopefully, the second wave won't be so bad.
Melissa Fleming 12:45
When you yourself were sick, what did you go through? And I imagine that your family being so far away, they must have been quite worried about you.
Richard Ragan 12:53
I think they were probably more worried than I was. You know, the back of your head, you have this voice saying, ‘Okay, well, it could get worse, it could get worse.’ But for me, it was really little more than kind of a constant headache for four or five days and I was weak. I was down in Cox's Bazar, working in the camps. I quarantined in a hotel and sort of set up a mobile office and was strong enough to work pretty much the whole way through. So, I just kind of continued working.
Melissa Fleming 13:26
Cox's Bazar, which I've also visited, is not only, or should not, only be known for the largest refugee camp in the world. But it also has a gorgeous, very long, sandy beach with beautiful waves. Tell me about how you take advantage of that.
Richard Ragan 13:44
Well, I'm glad you asked, Melissa. Well, I'm a pretty hardcore surfer. I like anything on a board. I grew up skateboarding and snowboarding. And really, for the last 20 years, I've been surfing pretty hard. I've always tried in my jobs to, find something that's outside of my work that keeps me interested. I was the WFP Country Director in Nepal for five years and I'm a mountain climber and I was a heli-ski guide. So on the side, in my time off, I did ski and snowboard trips and down in Cox's, I'm up at sunrise and when there are waves, I'm in the Bay of Bengal surfing, and I've got a crew of Bangladeshi surfers that I'm in the water with. And I've been here about two years now. We've established a programme for the kids down there that’s a surf education programme. So, a lot of the surfers are from really poor families and they were sent to the sea to work and their parents pulled them out of school. So, we set up a programme where we provide them education, basic literacy, numeracy, conservation programmes, environmental science programmes, oceanography programmes, and we feed them and their families. So, the parents see that there's some value in them getting an education and they support what they're doing.
Melissa Fleming 15:20
So, when you go to the beach in the morning at like, 5:30am, when the sun is rising, with your surfboard, they’re about 100 kids out there surfing too?
Richard Ragan 15:28
They don't get up as early as I do, because they don't have to go to work. I surf with about four or five of them that are my loyal group. I don't think they like waking up at five o'clock in the morning, either, but they do it when I'm down there. So that's nice.
Melissa Fleming 15:45
What does that give you -- this experience in the morning? I know, I know, your reputation. You work long, long hours day in and day out. You're with the refugees most days. So, what does this give you?
Richard Ragan 15:59
Anytime you do this kind of work, you need to balance it with something. You need to have an outlet that kind of calms you down. And the elements don't really care who you are. And I've always felt that it was important to feel a little bit of fear every day, to be off balance, and the ocean and the mountains have always kind of given me that. Maybe that's also what attracted me to this kind of work as well, because there isn't a script. No one really tells you when you're in the middle of a crisis, what's right and what's wrong. A lot of it is instinctual. A lot of it is based on sort of your principles as a human being. A lot of it is based on your experience. I get very calm in chaos. It's when I think the clearest. I tend to kind of function a little bit better in these environments where you have to think on your feet.
Melissa Fleming 17:11
Is this gratifying work for you?
Richard Ragan 17:13
I wouldn't, I wouldn't change it for the world. I think I'm one of the luckiest people on the planet to be able to do this. And yeah, I mean, I, I'm a kid from -- I grew up in the Mississippi Delta. And my worldview when I was growing up was very narrow. I would have never thought that I'd be running around the world and doing this. And I've now spent more than 50% of my life outside of the United States. And I couldn't have ever imagined that as a kid.
Melissa Fleming 17:47
But you did you join the Peace Corps early on. And what was that experience like?
Richard Ragan 17:54
I did the Peace Corps not really because I wanted to help people. But I did it more for the adventure. I mean, I was living out in Aspen, Colorado, and just started to really get into mountain climbing. And a couple of friends of mine that were in the Peace Corps said, ‘Well, what are you doing with your life? Yeah, you should leave Aspen and do something useful.’ So, I said, ‘Okay.’ So I tried to go. I applied and I tried to go to Nepal, thinking because I had some climbing experience, they would send me to the mountains. But instead I went to the Philippines, and I ended up in the mountains that are on the island of Northern Luzon and I lived in the Sierra Madre Mountains. So, it was about probably as far away as I could get from an upper middle-class American upbringing. And what I came away with from the whole experience was really a confidence that I could land just about anywhere on Earth and survive.
When it gets tough for me and my work here, I oftentimes think back about that. I was at a breaking point in the Philippines, and I think most Peace Corps volunteers all go through it. It’s a universal experience -- you either make it through your two-and-a-half years, or you don't, and you go home. I went so nuts that I actually tried to think of a way to break my leg, so I could get medically evacuated. But then when I was about to break my leg, I thought, well, oh my God, I've still got to walk several hours to get out of here. So maybe I shouldn’t break my leg. I had a moment of sanity. I didn't break my leg and I went and just kind of calmed down and took a trip to Manila and stayed for a couple of weeks and then came back. But yeah, it was definitely, for me, a life-altering experience. They always say it's the toughest job you'll ever love, and it certainly was that for me.
Melissa Fleming 20:01
This, then, helped you when you progressed in your career and you ended up, for example, in North Korea. Describe what North Korea was like for you?
Richard Ragan 20:14
I worked on North Korea issues when I was on the National Security Council in the Clinton White House. I actually travelled there in 1995 at the height of the famine. And if you asked me then if I ever could have imagined myself living in North Korea, I would have thought you were completely nuts. The most prominent was how much anti-Americanism there was all over the country, because the propaganda is everywhere. And you really felt like you were kind of in a hostile environment.
I moved back there in 2004-5 and was the head of the World Food Programme and the Humanitarian Coordinator. And it was just the opposite when I lived there. I mean, people were extraordinarily kind and gracious. You know, it was rigid, it was difficult from the perspective of mounting an operation because everything was scripted. And, if you wanted to travel outside of Pyongyang, you had to plan it a month in advance, so you didn't have, the kind of random access to sites that you would normally have to do monitoring missions. And that was always an issue. But we had seven offices, field offices at the time. So, I was able to travel very extensively around the country.
One of the things that I discovered was it's an incredibly beautiful country. There's a lot of natural beauty. You know, it's on the sea. I'd even tried to, to surf there, which they wouldn't allow me to do -- they told me there were, there were mines on the beach and in the water. There was one snow storm in Pyongyang where I hooked a tow strap up to the back of our car and I snowboarded through the streets of Pyongyang. So, they knew I was a snowboarder, so they arranged for me to go snowboarding with their national team. I don't know if snowboarding through the streets was a great thing because I'm the last American that they've ever allowed to, to live there officially. So, I think I did such a good job that they won't let it any more Americans lived there.
Melissa Fleming 22:41
Describe why you were there. I believe there was a famine.
Richard Ragan 22:46
The crisis started ‘92, ‘93, ‘94. And then they asked, the first time they asked for outside assistance was in 1994. So, I was there, a decade later. And we were feeding roughly, 7 million people. So, about a third of the population. It was WFP’s biggest programme in the world at the time.
Melissa Fleming 23:12
So, 7 million people you were feeding in North Korea. Did you ever get to meet some of them?
Richard Ragan 23:19
I did in a very controlled environment through government interpreters. I was really reluctant to walk up to anyone on the street and talk to them because it would put them at risk. I mean, immediately after they talked to me, they'd be pulled in and questioned or whatever. So that was a much bigger challenge.
Melissa Fleming 23:42
What is famine? What does it look like when you see it up close and personal?
Richard Ragan 23:49
For me, there's sort of two faces to famine. One is the look of helplessness in the face of a mother or a father who can't feed their children or on the face of an emaciated child in a critical position just because they just haven't been able to eat. The other face of it is a much slower and insidious face. And I think that's really what we're facing with the fallout of COVID. It's the systems have broken down and the ability for millions and millions of day laborers who were already sort of existing on a very, very thin line of poverty. They're not able to feed themselves because they don't have employment. You hear stories about farmers who can't sell their crop or can’t bring in their crop committing suicide. You hear in Bangladesh stories of garment workers who have lost their employment because the market is dried up who are committing acts of violence. You see the rise in sort of domestic violence rates where families are just lashing out at each other. And I think that COVID will probably be our generation’s equivalent of World War III. And hopefully it won't be it won't have the mortality rate of World War II, or World War I. But I think it will have the same kind of impact.
Melissa Fleming 25:32
When you think of all of this, I'm sure that there are times when you do wake up in the middle of the night. What is keeping you awake?
Richard Ragan 25:41
Well, I mean, the first thing is that I won't be able to do enough. There's always concern that you've missed something, or you haven't focused on kind of the right thing. I don't want one person that I'm responsible for to be hungry. And that keeps me up at night, for sure. But the thing that scares me, probably more than anything, and there's no vaccination for it, is climate change.
I think COVID is a wake-up call for all of us, it's not discriminate. It's like the waves or the mountains, it doesn't care. And everybody is reacting very differently to it. You see there are some who are managing to sort of rise above it, and others who are not. Climate change won't -- once we cross the threshold, we won't be able to turn back the clock, and we still have an opportunity to manage this problem for the next generations. I mean, it's probably not going to have as big an impact on you or I, but it certainly will our children and grandchildren. It really means changing everything we do, changing the way we live, changing the way we move, changing the way we commune with our natural environment, the way we consume food -- all this really behavioral modification that we're going to have to do as humans to manage this. And COVID is good practice. What have we had to do? During this emergency, we've had to completely modify how we live, and you can do it. It's not that it's unachievable, and we have to do better. There's no excuse for not doing more and doing better.
Melissa Fleming 27:41
If you were to look back on your WFP career, where you've dealt with a lot of hungry people around the world, is there one story that sticks with you, that you keep with you, and that keeps you going?
Richard Ragan 27:54
There was a time at the end of the civil war in Nepal, where we'd been walking for several days and we were by the Tibetan border. There's a monastery there called the Rolwaling monastery. And the trip coincided on this festival called Mani Rimdu, which is Buddha's birthday. A holy man, a rinpoche, who is a reincarnated religious figure, was coming back to visit this area. He was going to this this monastery. And so everybody was really excited. So, thousands of people were coming into this valley to see this venerated holy man. And we were camped out on this plateau below the monastery, and a group of people came up and said, ‘Sir, sir, you're the WFP man. They want to see you at the monastery’. So, it was like, okay, so I walked up to the monastery. And as I got there, there were three, four hundred people kind of lined up. And they all had flowers and cut pieces of juniper tree and all that. I was like, ‘Well, why, why are these people here? And what is this all about?’ They said, ‘Well, they're here to see you’. And I was like, ‘Well, why are they here to see me?’ And they said, ‘Well, they want to thank you because WFP kept them alive during the civil war.’ And I was like, ‘Well, but you should be, here for the rinpoche’. And the guy looked at me and he said, ‘No, the rinpoche is for when we die; you're for when we need to stay alive’.
It really wasn't me who had done it. It was my colleagues who had done it. I just happened to be the person who got the credit. But it was really powerful because you oftentimes don't see the work that you do because you're dealing with such a large scale and these are big systems that you're trying to manage. But when you do have people tell you that you were the difference between life and death for them, that's pretty, pretty powerful.
Melissa Fleming 30:17
It is, indeed, hugely powerful. And I'm sure that young people who listen to this podcast might be quite inspired by your life story and your work story. And if you were to advise them, if they wanted to get involved, what would you say?
Richard Ragan 30:34
Be an activist. Be engaged. Be purposeful. You can make a difference. Like I said, I never would have thought I would have ended up doing this kind of work. I mean, I think probably, the thing that really triggered me was, I took a backpacking trip through Europe when I was a sophomore in college. I was doing the traditional riding around on trains in Europe thing, but I ended up in Northern Africa and in Greece and Turkey. I just kind of saw how wide open the world was, like, how exotic these places were that I wasn't familiar with, and it really sort of, kind of drove me to the international space.
And I really fell into the whole kind of role of being someone who could help people. I mean, I was really kind of more interested in the adventure of it all. But I think, if your purposes are good, and your intentions are kind. I had a great mother who brought me up and taught me to be a kind person. We need the next generation to keep the UN system alive, to keep it viable, to make it impactful. I'm so proud to be able to work for the United Nations. I mean, it's the kind of thing that when I tell someone what I do, I'm proud of it. I think both of us are really lucky.
Melissa Fleming 32:12
Yeah, I agree with you there, Richard. And it is enriching to know that you are working for something, a cause that is helping people, especially the work that you do and the work that the World Food Programme does around the world. So, it's been a real, real pleasure to speak to you, Richard, in Bangladesh. Thanks so much for joining us on Awake At Night.
Richard Ragan 32:35
It was my pleasure. It's really nice talking to you.
Melissa Fleming 32:42
Thank you for listening to Awake At Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of this global crisis. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org/awake-at-night. On Twitter, we're @un and I'm @melissafleming. Richard is at @rraganwfp. Subscribe to Awake At Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us. It does make a difference.
Thanks to my colleagues at the UN and my producers Bethany Bell and the team at Chalk and Blade. Laura Sheeter, Fatuma Khaireh and Alex Portfelix. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.