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Catherine Bertini of WFP on Hunger 16 Nov 1996


NOVEMBER 16-30, 1996


‘Not just giving away food, but using it to help people help themselves’


Catherine Bertini, 46, is Executive Director of the World Food Programme( WFP), the largest international food aid organization in the world.  Before joining WFP in 1992, she worked for various government agencies in the US dealing with welfare and human rights and served as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture.

What are the WFP’s priorities?

The Food Program is committed to eradicating hunger and we work in three different ways.  We provide food for life, which means food to keep people alive when they’re living in the midst of wars or natural disasters or refugee movements.  Two, we provide food for growth, which means providing food to people at critical times in their lives when food is the most important—children under five, for instance, pregnant women, breast-feeding women.  And then we provide food for work, which is food for economic development where we pay people in food in order to build something productive in their communities for the future.

Since you can’t predict disasters, how do you determine how much of your annual budget of $1.2 billion goes for disaster relief?

Well, it’s very difficult to budget for them.  We can budget in advance for long-term refugee populations, but for emergencies themselves, we don’t.  I could not tell you right now what our budget will be for 1997 because it’s going to be very much dependent on emergencies.  And since WFP is totally voluntarily funded, funds come from almost all donor governments.  So we ask for contributions for particular problems.  Now, of the $1.2 billion, about $100 million is essentially for overhead staff costs.  And then about $350 million or so is for program development, and the rest is for emergencies.

How do you handle situations in countries where women and children are most affected?

Our job is to work in humanitarian projects wherever there is a need.  So we’re very committed to trying to get enough food to be able to reach the women and children and women who are very much at risk and vulnerable.

What is WFP’s involvement with the World Food Summit?

The World food Summit is managed by FAO.  It’s created by FAO.  And FAO has invited the heads of all the agencies to speak.  I will be speaking at the Summit.  FAO asked us to develop a paper and we wrote a paper about food aid that we’ve presented to the Summit.  And we’ve also participated in the working group sessions to help propose language relating to current concerns.  And also one of the issues that we have talked a lot about in the preparatory meetings has been the role of women.

What do you hope will come out of the Summit?

What I would hope would come out of it is a renewed commitment to providing food aid to people, not only in emergencies, but in times of peace so that we can help them build their self-sufficiency. And I would hope that there is a renewed commitment to place women in a very central position in terms of food. Because, food is a women’s issue.

In every society in the world, women gather the food, they prepare the food, they serve the food, and so if they’re talking about food, that means we’re talking about nutrition, we’re talking about people  consuming food. And so therefore, by definition, we’re talking about women and the role of women, and so we should be supporting their role by making sure they are involved in the distribution of the food, in the management of the process, in the decision-making about how the food will be distributed and what food is needed. And ultimately, in receiving the food themselves so that they can ensure that all of the family has access to that food.

Could you explain the difference between the World Food Program (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural  Development (lFAD)?

All three are based in Rome. The FAOwas created first, I think 50 years ago. And it provides technical expertise and statistical information about agriculture worldwide. And the World Food Program was created in 1963 as an offshoot of both the UN and FAOand it was created specifically to provide food assistance and so World Food Program is the UN’s front-line agency for providing food directly to people. And then IFAD was created in 1974 and they provide small loans to individuals or groups to be able to get into agricultural development, So each of the three is different. But we all work very closely together. And IFAD and WFP have many joint projects. And then WFP often purchases the services at FAOfor technical services in agricultural production, in forestry, fisheries, whatever. And also we use some of the same administrative programs. And we work together on assessments of needs for natural disasters, for instance. We go together to assess the need. And then make a decision about what is necessary to help the people.

So basically the agencies coordinate the effort as much as possible and you don’t think there’s an overlap as such?

No, because each agency does totally different things. World Food Program is the only one that hands out food. Nobody else does that. IFAD is the only agency that gives loans. Nobody else does that. And FAOis the only one that provides technical advice and has all the professionals to provide assistance in forestry, fisheries, whatever, so there’s no overlap. We work together.

 What is your personal philosophy concerning food security, poverty alleviation and sustainable development in developing  countries?

There are a couple of key issues. One, relative to food and food security, is the issue of access to food. There are so many people who are so poor in this world that they cannot acquire the food they need. Whether it’s growing it or purchasing it or trading for it, it’s extremely difficult. And so what we must do in order to solve this problem is to help work on the issue of access to food, which really means working on issues of eliminating poverty, decreasing poverty. And that’s critical. And then another absolutely critical point is the role of women in the process.

What do you see as major challenges for the 21st Century, in the area of food security and disaster relief?

In the area of food security, I think the issue will be to provide for all.  To provide the support necessary for poverty alleviation and therefore hunger alleviation Secondly, we’ve got to be sure we’re doing it in a way that the people actually have control over those resources and that they can make the decisions on how they can use resources in order to better themselves and their communities. And then on disaster mitigation, there’s a lot we can do in order to support the communities. There is also a certain amount of work we can do, especially for natural disasters, to avoid some of the effects of future disasters. For instance, in Bangladesh, through our Food for Work projects, there are a lot of trees that are being planted that are less susceptible to being washed away.

Do you think a free market system can ensure food for the poorest?

Ultimately, over the long term, I think it can do a very good job at reaching the poorest.  However, we see, even in rich countries like the United States, that it is  necessary to have a safety net. It’s necessary for the American government to spend money. And they spend $40 billion a year to .provide food assistance to poor Americans. So really in a very small way, this is what we’re doing. But at the same time, we’re not just giving away food, but we’re helping to use that food to help people help themselves – work to become self-reliant. But even in countries where we don’t work, or countries that are graduating from the need of international aid, there will still be a need for the countries themselves to provide some basic support for the very poorest people and hungry people in their countries. And I think that will probably be true in any case. But certainly the free market system can, I believe, provide a much stronger opportunity for more people to become self-sufficient on their own.