Tales from the war on hunger: Ambassador Ertharin Cousin shares hope and hard truths

Feb. 28, 2018, 1:23 a.m.

Each year, Stanford’s Payne Distinguished Lecturer is chosen for his or her “international reputation as a leader, with an emphasis on visionary thinking; a broad, practical grasp of a given field; and the capacity to clearly articulate an important perspective on the global community and its challenges.” This year the position is honored by Ertharin Cousin, former U.S. Ambassador and Director of the UN World Food Programme. She is the first appointee from the Center on Food Security and the Environment, and the Stanford community had a chance to hear from her last Wednesday.

“I’ll start off saying ‘Ambassador Cousin’ and then quickly devolve to ‘Ertharin’” — Professor Roz Naylor said in her introduction on Wednesday, “because she’s become such a close friend and colleague.” Naylor spoke to Cousin’s extensive experience in humanitarian work, addressing hunger at home and abroad. She also emphasized Cousin’s gifts as an impassioned and persuasive communicator, and called it “no wonder [that] Forbes listed her as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world.”

When Ambassador Cousin took the podium, she thanked Professor Naylor for the introduction, and took a moment to wish aloud that her mother could have been in the audience — because “you don’t get introductions like that, but for your mother.”

Cousin’s grandfather was a “field laborer.” Opening her talk, she recalled stopping for gas once on a family road trip; her grandfather, who was then retired, took her for a walk through a nearby corn field. He told his granddaughter how good it felt, even though he was no longer farming, to know that the country was being fed. Cousin said: “Working to ensure that every child has access to nutritious food — it runs in my blood.”

Ambassador Cousin shared many stories from her work abroad and stressed what she holds to be the five necessary pillars of effective humanitarian aid: presence, access, adequate and timely funding, operational capacity and protection for humanitarian actors. She pointed to the 2011 famine in Somalia, brought on by drought. The World Food Programme (WFP) had previously ceased operating in Somalia, because they had been receiving death threats. Extreme drought conditions spread over the Horn of Africa that year, and claimed the lives of 260,000 Somalis, over half of whom were children. Many were inclined to blame this loss of life on insufficient humanitarian aid. However, when famine was officially declared, Ambassador Cousin described humanitarian organizations pouring back into the country. “I could spend all afternoon giving you reasons why humanitarians were trying to do their best in the circumstance,” she said. Their best was enough for the famine to be declared over in early 2012, the WFP having reestablished aid efforts in Somalia. In 2014, drought affected Somalia again, but this time there was no famine. Hunger, yes — but no famine. Still, Cousin tempered this story with a warning that the future of food security in Somalia is uncertain, as the country now faces drought for a fourth year.

2014 was also the year the WFP ran out of funding for their efforts in Syria. Ambassador Cousin explained to the audience that in “protracted crises” — often linked to conflicts or recurrent natural disasters — the policy is to scale down assistance over time. In 2014, operations in Syria were costing the WFP $32 million per week. That money ran out in December. The need, however was still present, and Cousin said: “We went to the world and begged.” What they did was run a 72-hour social media campaign asking for people to contribute a single dollar, with the tagline: “For 64 Million People, It’s A Dollar, For 1.7 Million Syrian Refugees It’s A Lifeline.” Cousin showed a video from the campaign to Wednesday’s audience, and it wasn’t hard to see why it turned out to be highly effective. The United States, predictably, was number one in terms of individual contributions. Number three, amazingly, was Syria. “Those who had little, and some who had nothing,” Cousin said — those were the people who found it in themselves to make a difference.

Climate change made an appearance towards the end of Cousin’s lecture. She reminded the audience that with every passing day, more climate refugees are joining conflict refugees, and this presents a seriously wicked problem for humanitarian aid workers. In a question, one audience member referred to climate change as “the elephant in the room.” Cousin called it the “not-so-secret fact” that we need to address. Estimates tell us that the risk of hunger could increase by up to 20 percent by 2050 due to the impacts of climate change. “The question is not where will droughts and floods become more frequent and severe,” Cousin warned, “but where will the impact of droughts and floods have the greatest effect on livelihoods?” Put simply, where are people most vulnerable?

Cousin believes science will be part of the answer moving forward: innovation, coupled with better ways to fund humanitarian response. “Everything I’m saying to you, there was at least one panel, probably three or four panels, at the Paris Climate Accords,” Cousin said. The international community is largely on the same page about what needs to be done — now is the time for investments to be made.

Now is also the time to get involved in our own communities. When asked what individuals might do, Cousin pointed to the fact that Stanford currently has no chapter of Universities Fighting World Hunger (UFWH). Cousin will be attending the Annual UFWH Summit this March, at the University of Illinois. She hinted that Stanford faculty have an interest in sponsoring such a group on campus, but the initiative will have to come from students.

In concluding her talk, Ambassador Cousin was largely hopeful, but made no mistakes about what remains to be done. She told the audience: “My journey as a hunger warrior has seen more lives saved than lives lost.” Still, she added “we save the same lives every year. If we don’t move from saving lives to changing lives, it’s going to continue to cost us.” Especially as climate change raises the heat on global food systems and disproportionately threatens some of the world’s poorest, we as a global community have our work cut out for us in preserving food security. That doesn’t mean we should shy away from the work that needs to be done. As Cousin said, “What we can’t achieve shouldn’t limit our efforts to achieve what we can.”


Contact Claire Thompson at clairet ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Claire Thompson is a coterm M.A. student in Environmental Communication. In her undergrad, she studied Earth Systems and Creative Writing. She loves food, mopeds, and mountains especially. Reach out to Claire via email at clairet 'at' stanford.edu.

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