Australian Leadership in Feeding World’s Hungry

I am surprised that so many people I talk with – in Australia, in Italy and in Britain – have never heard of the World Food Programme (WFP). I guess that’s because they’ve never been hungry.

Part of my role in Italy is to be Australia’s Permanent Representative to the WFP, the world’s largest and voluntarily funded humanitarian organisation. Its mission is to feed the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet – before, during and after crises strike. WFP’s leader, Ertharin Cousin, heads an agency with an annual budget of more than US$4 billion and a workforce of over 13,000 staff. Only a few work in the head office here in Rome. The majority work in remote and war torn places that the rest of us avoid.

Ertharin is extraordinary. A smart, charismatic woman from Chicago, who has been named by TIME as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Forbes Magazine has also placed her high on the list of the world’s most powerful women.

She has clear priorities – to save lives and to equip the WFP with the skills to provide the right assistance at the right time. She is also committed to delivering value for money so that voluntary contributors from governments and the private sector can have confidence that food is getting through to those in need.

It’s a big job. Last year the WFP fed 80.9 million people in 75 countries. This year it fed 4.17 million Syrians in August alone and nearly one million Iraqis since June. The WFP doesn’t only operate in war zones. It played a major role in responding to Typhoon Haiyan which devastated the Philippines in November 2013. WFP is now feeding Ebola victims while providing vital air transport for health professionals battling this disease on the front line. In so many crises WFP leads the logistics operations for other humanitarian agencies.

Australians can be proud of our involvement in the World Food Programme. We are one of the WFP’s biggest donors, contributing more than $1 billion over the past decade. We play a big role in the Indo-Pacific region, not just providing food but also building the resilience of communities to enable them to better handle future catastrophes like tsunamis, earthquakes and typhoons. We are actively engaging the private sector in development work, and championing the economic empowerment of women and girls, a high priority for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. The WFP also knows they can rely on Australia for management leadership, and to provide it with funding that is consistent yet flexible enough to enable it to deal with changing events.

Next year Australia assumes the Presidency of the Executive Board of the World Food Programme following the election of Sam Beever, a senior diplomat based in our Rome Embassy. This is a clear recognition of Australia’s preeminent role in the WFP over many years under successive governments.

One of Sam’s priorities is to engage the private sector more in WFP operations. He and Ertharin are also committed to lifting the profile of the organisation in order to secure more support from governments, companies and individuals. Sam has a strong practical background for the job; heading Australia’s aid team in Afghanistan, and leading HIV/AIDS, avian influenza and child protection programs in the Mekong.

Ertharin Cousin understands the importance of Australia in WFP’s future. She was the only UN agency head to address the B20 Summit in July in Sydney and while there connected with some of Australia’s leading business people about their joining the WFP’s fight against hunger.

Australia is currently supporting new technologies such as nutrient enriched rice in Cambodia and Bangladesh that can be made available commercially to local growers. Australia is also contributing to the rehabilitation and protection of millions of hectares of agricultural land in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This involves improving irrigation schemes and repairing canals and embankments to protect against floods. Australia has also helped the WFP to plant more than 80 million trees in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and to construct and repair more than 400,000 kilometres of roads in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan.

With so much criticism of multilateral aid agencies it is a privilege to work with the WFP; the UN’s quiet achiever, an agency that is highly rated by Australia and many other countries for action, not talk, and for rapidly and efficiently delivering the goods – literally. Managing such a large organisation operating in the most difficult circumstances imaginable is not easy. But the WFP is about saving lives not expanding bureaucracy.

Ertharin Cousin says the WFP is US$2 billion short at a time when the world is dealing with the highest number of refugees since World War Two and with multiple crises in different locations. Australia’s Presidency of the WFP comes at a time when it is under extraordinary pressure. Ertharin knows she can rely on Australia’s leadership as President in responding to the challenges of feeding the world’s hungry.