Eat up

Ertharin Cousin: The woman who feeds the world

The United Nations World Food Programme director discusses the refugee crisis, wrangling world leaders, and becoming a grandmother

Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director, World Food Programme. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Imagine if the entire population of Germany were dispersed across the globe owing to war, poverty, famine or some other natural disaster—and all those people needed to be fed. This, in essence, represents the scale of the daily challenge facing Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). Each year, Cousin is responsible for feeding 80 million people worldwide, overseeing a sophisticated and often dangerous supply chain (20 ships, 70 aircraft, 5,000 trucks and 14,000 employees) that rivals most multilateral military or corporate operations.

Calling her the “Jeff Bezos of the humanitarian world”—her organization is larger than Amazon—CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl sat down with Cousin on the final morning of the Women in the World New York Summit to discuss the current critical state of food and population instability, how Cousin has successfully wrangled world leaders for support, and the benefits of being a grandmother.

Currently, 759 million people globally are “food insecure,” meaning they do not know where their next meal will come from, Cousin said. Sixty million now live as refugees or internally displaced persons—more than at any time since World War II. And 80 percent of the recipients of food assistance from WFP live in vulnerable or marginal places.

While improvements in navigation and delivery technology allow for more targeted food distribution, Cousin said these advances have done little to offset the long-term challenges of protracted regional conflicts and rapid climate change—“challenges,” she said, that “have never been greater in modern times.”

WFP works to help marginal populations in 80 countries around the world. “We cannot as a global community prioritize one hungry child over another,” Cousin said. In Nigeria, the ongoing terror wrought by Boko Haram has left rural communities unable to provide for themselves. Haiti continues to experience social aftershocks of the devastating earthquake in 2010. Central America is in the fourth year of a severe drought caused by the “largest El Nino in history,” the direct impact of climate change. In Guatemala alone, said Cousin, 900,000 people currently suffer from hunger. “This is a population that doesn’t want to stand in line. They ask for help until they can help themselves again.”

Asking for help is a huge part of Cousin’s job. Her ability to secure funding is literally a matter of life or death for her beneficiaries. As the scale of the refugee crisis grows, multilateral aid from governments has been stretched thin, which increases the flow of refugees and compounds the problem. After Cousin met German chancellor Angela Merkel for a photo op during a humanitarian conference in London, Merkel offered Cousin $700 million to cover a shortfall in her operations budget. “She got it, “ said Cousin. “She’s not only opening the doors of Germany; she’s providing the support so people won’t have to move.”

While the stories of those helped by WFP are covered regularly by international news outlets, Cousin took the opportunity to acknowledge her field employees, calling them “fourteen thousand of the bravest, hardest-working people in the world…. [They] don’t flee, because they know if they leave, their neighbors won’t have food. Their country won’t have food.” Cousin acknowledged that “humanitarian workers don’t sign up to risk their lives,” yet WFP employees are often killed, attacked or kidnapped. The “toughest phone call to make,” she said, “is to call a daughter to tell her that we haven’t gotten her father back.”

Cousin’s personal journey has not been without its own set of challenges. A teenage single mother, she went on to earn a law degree and build a successful career in the private sector before heeding the call to humanitarian work. Now a grandmother, she acknowledged the importance of protecting multi-generational bonds: her own mother and sister helped raise her son, giving her crucial support that allowed her to accomplish her goals.

Ending on a call to action, Cousin gave a special shout-out to support from the United States, which—despite recent political rhetoric—remains the largest single funder of the WFP. She also encouraged smartphone users to download WFP’s Share the Meal App, which allows individuals easily to buy school meals for millions of children around the world.

Cousins closed with a passionate reminder of Western history. “The generosity of the international community is strained and because of terrorism we are more reluctant about accepting refugees,” she said. “We forget that refugees helped build America and Europe.” Now is not the time, she cautioned, to let fear trump our humanity.

Additional reporting provided by Tara Bracco. 

Watch the full panel here: 

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