By Irene Hsu
Ertharin Cousin, the 12th executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), came to campus Nov. 20 as part of the Center on Food Security and the Environment’s Food and Nutrition Policy Symposium Series, giving a talk about “Food and nutrition security in an era of conflict and climate change.”
As the head of WFP, she spearheads the effort to achieve zero hunger, as per the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted Sept. 25. Post-talk, The Stanford Daily sat down with Cousin to continue the conversation.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): You mentioned during the Q&A that you were raised with people talking about changing the world at your dinner table — are there moments from your childhood that you try to keep in mind now?
Ertharin Cousin (EC): When I was a child, my mom worked for the city of Chicago as a social worker and one of the things she would do every summer was that she would bring a box full of balls and bats and gloves home for the entire neighborhood. The kids could sign them out and bring them back. She didn’t monitor it — it was all on the honor system. Even children, if given the opportunity, will do the right thing. If given the ability, they’ll share with each other.
What I try to do every day is build an organization that gives people the tools to do the right thing. No mother I’ve ever met wants to stand in a line to feed her child. She just wants to be given the tools and the opportunities to do the right thing — which is to feed her own child.
TSD: How do you see national and on-campus civil rights movements relating to the communities with which you’re working?
EC: The more people who make positive change necessary, the more opportunity there is for people who otherwise don’t have access to achieve equity. And the more we have equity in any one country, the more people you have who care about ensuring equity in other parts of the world, and the greater the opportunity there is for achieving the public will that is required to support the multi-year investments necessary to make the changes in those marginal communities in other parts of the world.
For example, in the Republic of Korea, as the Korean population had increased economic opportunity in their country, the government is supported by their people in providing investments in agricultural production and in women’s empowerment in Sub-Saharan Africa because there is a recognition of the difference it has made in their country and the possibility of the difference it can make in other countries.
TSD: What is WFP’s strategy to approaching sustained hunger, which has a harder time with funding than hunger caused by conflict or disaster? What role does media have in this?
EC: Acute hunger caused by conflict or disaster attracts media attention and, as a result, the support for immediate emergency response. As crises become more protracted, you don’t have media attention, but you also need different solutions. Those are the cases where the work we’re required to do goes beyond the humanitarian assistance and requires us to begin to build the capacity for populations to feed themselves.
The challenge is, as you note, continuing to have the public will — building media support is one tool we use. To get the media to identify the opportunities for change, because the reason the people stop contributing is because they believe nothing will change.
TSD: And what about the role of students — how can we keep that in sight?
EC: If we can build the desire [for] sustainable and durable food security, then we can make the difference. Student voices have the possibility of driving government policy because they’re voters, advocates, contributors, and they will ultimately be business people who can help by providing new tools as well as additional support.
As an African-American, I sit here today as a direct beneficiary of the student movements of the 1960s when students gave voice to the lack of opportunity for an entire portion of the population. We know that the world has changed in my lifetime and in your lifetime because of activism of students.
TSD: Do you see particular student movements now specifically related to hunger?
EC: Not enough. We have student organizations on campuses around the world, but hunger as an issue has not been one that students have taken up in mass. We’re hoping that will change; as the global community has adapted 2030 as a goal, we’re hoping that students will see this as an ambitious but achievable goal and will work with us and will lead us.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
An earlier version of this article stated that the Freeman Spogli Institute is running the lecture series instead of the Center on Food Security and the Environment. The Daily regrets this error.