You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 49: Can We End World Hunger?

Can We End World Hunger?

Food insecurity is a serious problem that affects many, with people going hungry in all regions of the world. According to the US Department of Agriculture, approximately 1.2 billion people globally lack consistent access to enough calories. In this episode of Big World, SIS alumna Valerie Guarnieri, assistant executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), joins us to discuss world hunger as well as her career combating food insecurity.

Guarnieri first explains how the global experiences in her childhood and adolescence influenced what she wanted to do with her career (2:03) and why she chose to come to SIS (2:52). She also describes the roles she held in the US government as well as how combating hunger became a part of her work (4:16). Guarnieri then shares the WFP initiatives of which she’s most proud (6:33). 

Digging into the complex causes of hunger, she explains how hunger challenges are intertwined with other global issues, such as climate change and refugee crises (9:39). Guarnieri explains how the war in Ukraine has impacted WFP’s overall strategy (13:06) and how the programme is working to counteract the impacts of the war (15:42). She also breaks down the specific challenges that WFP has faced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (18:59). Lastly, Guarnieri shares her advice for SIS students who want to dedicate their careers to combating hunger (21:58) and states why she believes it’s possible to end world hunger, as well as why we haven’t yet done so (23:55).

During our “Take Five” segment, Guarnieri shares five things that she would want governments to do to end world hunger (11:04).

0:07      KS: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. Hunger. I had breakfast this morning, I'm starting to think about lunch, and later I'll try to figure out dinner. And the one thing that won't cross my mind is the possibility that I or my family will go hungry. According to the US Department of Agriculture, this separates me from approximately 1.2 billion people worldwide, who lack consistent access to enough calories.

0:37      Kay Summers: The percentage of food-insecure people is highest in Asia, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa, but no place is immune. 13.8 million US households were food insecure at some point during 2020. Today, we're talking about world hunger. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Valerie Guarnieri. Valerie is the assistant executive director of the UN's World Food Programme, where she spearheads World Food Programme efforts to ensure protection and inclusion, expand school meals and nutrition programs, empower women, and build resilient food systems. She's been with the World Food Programme for many years, and we're going to talk about some of her other roles and earlier career a little later. In March of 2021, the World Food Programme was named the 135th Laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize. And this past March, Valerie, who graduated from SIS with a master's degree in 1996, was honored with the Global Alumni Leader Award for her substantial impacts on society that exemplify the university's tradition of service and leadership in the global community. Valerie Guarnieri, thank you so much for joining Big World.

1:43      Valerie Guarnieri: Thanks so much for having me.

1:45      KS: So Valerie, growing up you lived abroad in different parts of Asia, including the Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia and India. First, how old were you when you were moving around, and do you think the global perspectives you gained early in your life influenced what you wanted to do with your career?

2:03      VG: I lived abroad my whole life, only living in the US for a couple of years in second and third grade, and then again in Northern Virginia when I came back for university. And so, yeah, we moved around a lot and it really just gets in your blood. I always knew that I wanted a career that kept me moving. But particularly in my older childhood years, living in Indonesia and India, I really became painfully aware of the poverty that was all around me and the privilege that I had. I went to a boarding school and graduated from a boarding school, Kodaikanal in Southern India. And there, we even had a chance to work on social justice programs. It was really through that experience that I knew that this was the kind of work that I would want to focus on.

2:52      KS: And after you earned a bachelor's in communications from George Mason University, you pursued a master's degree at SIS. And why did you choose to come to SIS and how did this move affect your career path?

3:05      VG: Well, out of college, I'd been working at Meridian House in DC and I was doing intercultural training for scholars and visiting professionals coming to the US to get either a degree or some sort of a certification. I initially went to AU to do international communication. I wanted to make intercultural training videos to really help with that program. But just as I started there, I got a new job at the US Agency for International Development, USAID. And I ended up attending grad school while deploying to Somalia as part of the famine response and to Rwanda after the genocide. And my interest really shifted more to foreign policy and African and humanitarian affairs.

3:51      KS: And before you joined World Food Programme in 2000, as you mentioned, you worked at the US Agency for International Development and then later at the US National Security Council. During your time in the US government, you worked on teams to save lives and help create conditions for sustainable peace in different African countries. What did these jobs entail? And then how did combating hunger become part of that work?

4:16      VG: Well, about a year into my time at USAID, I had the great chance to be part of a disaster assistance response team. This was an emergency deployment to Somalia. It was 1992, a famine was unfolding, and I was part of a very small civilian team managing a US military airlift into Somalia. And we were working with UN organizations and non-governmental organizations who were based on the ground in Somalia. We were flying in and out of Mombasa, Kenya, delivering food and other supplies for them. And in that experience, I saw firsthand the devastating impact of hunger and malnutrition. People were literally dying by the dozens in some of the towns in Southern Somalia that we were flying in and out of. But as we were able to get—and the organizations working on the ground were able to get access to the people and reach them with food, with water, with medicine that they desperately needed, then the situation just turned around overnight.

5:24      VG: I really felt that this was really an area where you could make a difference. Get people the food that they need, and you can change their lives. So that was my first experience, and it was super formative, but I spent years after that traipsing around South Sudan, Sudan, Rwanda after the genocide. And the thing about food crises is that they're ultimately about politics and the need to stop wars. So when I went to the National Security Council at the end of my time with USAID, I was seconded there, then I had the chance to be part of interagency efforts that really brought the diplomatic or the political together with the humanitarian and the development, and even the military parts of US action together. And that's when you can really make a difference.

6:11      KS: Valerie, after working in World Food Programme offices in Zimbabwe and the Philippines and leading the regional office in east and central Africa based out of Nairobi, Kenya, you became the assistant executive director of the UN's World Food Programme in 2018. What accomplishments are you most proud of and why do you think you've stayed with the World Food Programme for 22 years?

6:33      VG: One of the things I love about the World Food Programme is that we're a very field focused organization and we have a mobility policy that keeps all of the international staff in the organization moving around every three or four years. And because of that, you're always open and subjected to new challenges, new problems that need to be solved, new teams that you have to build relationships with. So it's fun. You get to make a difference, but you have a lot of fun doing it. Many of my operations, and probably what I've been most proud of, have been kind of like startups in Zimbabwe, which was my first field operation with WFP. We had a really small office in place that was there basically to buy food in what had been the bread basket of Southern Africa. And then with the land reform, it became a basket case almost overnight.

7:26      VG: So we had to close down the procurement office and convert into a massive operation, scaling up to feed half the population, so nearly five million people at that time. And so just—what you have to do to do that: recruit staff, form new partnerships, figure out a way with government where they'll accept what you're doing and give you the access and support that you need, mobilize the resources for the operation. These are the kind of challenges that our people face all over the world.

7:58      VG: I was in the Philippines, and we had left that country more than 10 years before I came and government asked us to come back specifically to help them with a peace building operation in the troubled region of Mindanao, basically using food as a peace dividend for people who were hungry but were also oppressed from years of conflict from armed groups.

8:22      VG: And so there too, I had the chance to really build something up from scratch. And then with the program division, which I headed 10 years ago, and now the department on program and policy development that I lead there too WFP had been really mostly known for its delivery for logistics. We started as a program to move the surpluses of the wealthy nations to food deficit countries around the world. But over time, we became a lot more program-oriented, and I've had the chance to really craft a program discipline in the organization and ensure that what we do and how we go about meeting the needs of hungry people is as important as getting the food to them.

9:09      KS: And as you've said in some of your examples, it's clear that you start trying to work on hunger and it becomes complex really quickly. You've led efforts to tackle some of the world's most complex hunger challenges. How intertwined are hunger issues with other global issues, such as climate change and refugee crises, which may be caused by climate change or by conflict in the countries of origin?

9:39      VG: Well, if you just look at the rising hunger right now, we're basically facing four main drivers of that. Conflict, which drives people away from their homes and livelihoods and takes farmers and uproots them from their fields and separates them from their crops, children separated from their parents. We've got climate, which is bringing unpredictable weather and more severe droughts and storms. And that also affects farming and food production. With COVID, it led to lockdowns and shut-ins and job losses and economic pressures on governments who were trying to reach the most vulnerable people in their countries. And now with costs, we're already seeing food prices go up and with the war in Ukraine, it's now driving wheat and fuel prices up further around the world. So these elements—conflict, climate, COVID, costs—how they have intersected to drive displacement to separate people from their livelihoods, it all comes together to make the world hungrier.

10:47      KS: Valerie Guarnieri, it's time to Take Five. This is where you suggest five policies or practices that you would implement if you ran the world. What are five things that you would want governments to do to end world hunger?

11:04      VG: The first thing would be to end wars. Conflict is driving up hunger around the world and governments have it in their hands to end those wars, and where they can't end those wars to at least ensure access to the people and civilians who are affected. So one, end wars. Secondly, governments need to fully fund humanitarian assistance. WFP estimates alone that $18 billion is needed this year to meet critical humanitarian food needs around the world. And it's not only food that people in crisis require. So we need to ensure that governments step up and fully fund humanitarian assistance for the most vulnerable.

11:50      VG: The third is to keep trade flowing. That means governments need to avoid hoarding. They need to stop export bans. We're all connected and it's really important that trade keeps flowing, including now through the Black Sea. The fourth thing is to support inclusive and effective social programs like ensuring all children have access to nutritious school meals and supporting health and nutrition programs for infants and mothers during that critical first thousand days of life. And the fifth is to empower women with financial services. Women are absolutely key to ending hunger. We will not end hunger without them. And women need to be empowered and supported to play the role that they need to play in their families, in their communities, and in their nations.

12:44      KS: Thank you. Ukraine is sometimes called the bread basket of Europe for its role as an exporter of wheat, as you mentioned, and corn and soybeans and other commodity crops. How has the war in Ukraine impacted World Food Programme's overall strategy?

13:06      VG: Well, part of it is our own programs have become a lot more expensive. We tend to buy 50 percent of our grains that we use for hungry people around the world in Ukraine. Eighty percent of the sunflower oil that we use as a key fat source in most of our food programs around the world also comes from Ukraine. And now we're unable to get that food out of the country and to the countries where they need it so much. And so that affects the cost of our operations. We've seen costs go up $71 million as a result of pre-COVID or pre-Ukraine price increases and now because of the spike that has come because of the war in Ukraine. So our costs are going up a lot. At the same time, food import dependent countries around the world are struggling to buy the food that they need. Countries that depend on low priced wheat, countries that depend on fertilizer from Ukraine, or even from Russia, can't get their hands on that anymore.

14:16      VG: So that's impacting food production, that is impacting food prices. Fuel prices as well are going up around the world that adds costs to shipping costs. So basically prices are becoming out of the reach of so many people around the world. And we know that when food prices go up, there's also a huge risk to instability in the countries where we work. So at the very time where hunger's on the rise and the world needs support more than ever, we're finding it even more difficult to ensure that all hungry people have access to the food that they need.

14:56      KS: It's amazing how complex it gets immediately because you say wheat and people immediately understand that, but you don't think about sunflowers as being an important component, but of course, people have to have fat in their diets for it to be balanced and for it to be sustainable. And knowing that sunflower oil is now in a shortage because of this is just something that I think I know I had never thought of until this moment, but it strikes me that it's incredibly important. As a part of the United Nations, which obviously has a peacekeeping function, what initiatives is the World Food Programme focusing on because of the Russian invasion, either for Ukrainians or for those, as we just said, who depend on their exports for critical food supplies to try and counteract some of those impacts you were talking about?

15:42      VG: Well, some things the WFP is doing is inside of Ukraine, we're scaling up both food assistance and cash assistance to war-affected Ukrainians and getting that food or that cash so that they can access food in the markets is something that we are scaling up. We're reaching two million people already and looking to reach six million people by the summertime.

16:09      VG: In addition, the neighboring countries to Ukraine have been so generous in their support, but some of them are struggling. And particularly in Moldova, the government has asked for assistance and working with other UN partners like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to ensure that households that are hosting refugees and refugees while they're in transit get the support that they need. But as important as the situation inside Ukraine and for Ukrainians is, so too are the needs in countries that are dependent on wheat and food from Ukraine.

16:47      VG: We're particularly concerned because some of our biggest relief operations around the world, Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan are all wheat dependent countries. And the humanitarian food supply for those countries is primarily wheat and oil from Ukraine. And so we're also making sure that our donor governments, the private sector that supports us understand that the prices have gone up and that they'll need to step up their support in order to make sure that we don't rob Peter to pay Paul in order to support the needs inside of Ukraine.

17:30      VG: At the same time, and under the leadership of the UN Secretary General, there's really an effort to look very carefully at how the food, fuel, and finance crisis is affecting these food-import-dependent countries around the world. And WFP is bringing real-time analysis to the table in terms of the price monitoring systems that we have in 80 countries around the world to really be able to track how prices at the markets where vulnerable people shop are going up as a result of the war in Ukraine but then looking at ways in which that can be mitigated, like food and fuel import facilities or financing that really helps address these issues.

18:15      VG: And last but not least is really the importance of dealing with the problem right now of how to get food out of Ukraine and around the world. And there's basically a blockade in the Black Sea, and there are diplomatic efforts going on to see what we can do to keep the food flowing out of Ukraine and around the world.

18:39      KS: Valerie, I'd like to circle back to the pandemic, as you mentioned, one of those crises, what have been some of those specific challenges facing the World Food Programme that have been caused or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic? I'm guessing supply chains is in there somewhere, but what are those specific challenges?

18:59      VG: Well, initially it was a lot about the lockdowns that really stopped people from having access to the food that they need. Poor people, billions of poor people around the world hustle every day in order to feed their families that day. And so when they're unable to leave their neighborhoods, we had whole slum areas that were shut down, that immediately hits them in the stomach. And so we were working with a lot of governments to help put in place social protection programs and safety nets that helped ensure that people had the food that they needed to eat. An important part of that was on the schools' side. The largest safety net in the world is school meals. And during COVID 370 million children lost access to school meals as a result of school shutdowns. And even before COVID, there were 73 million hungry children who were not getting that nutritious meal a day at school that every child deserves.

20:08      VG: A big part of the effort has also been to ensure that as part of school safely reopening, we restore access to a nutritious meal, but also reach those who we were missing even before the pandemic. So really ensuring that all hungry children benefit from a meal in school is a key part of that. And then a third area has really been about making sure that these social protection systems that I think have gained importance, people realize more than ever how important they are that these social protection systems are really working optimally, that they're inclusive of all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable, that they're efficient because every dollar counts and we need to make it work, and that they're effective and they achieve their desired goals.

20:56      VG: So really helping governments to ensure that their social protection systems are working well and functioning optimally has been a key part of our effort in COVID. And these things are necessary to buffer against all shocks, basically with climate, with conflict, and now with COVID and costs as well, people, and particularly those who are most vulnerable, they need that safety net so that they don't fall through the cracks. And that's what we work with governments as part of the broader UN system to make sure that that's in place, knowing who the most vulnerable are and making sure systems are in place to reach them.

21:39      KS: Valerie, we know that a lot of people who listen to this podcast are SIS students. What advice do you have for SIS students who, like you, want to dedicate their careers and become leaders in the effort to combat and eradicate hunger in the world?

21:58      VG: I think the first thing is really to start locally where you are, and even while you're still a student, there's plenty of hunger in the US. There's domestic groups that are fighting hunger, mobilizing resources, advocating for policy change, running food banks, making sure that social assistance programs are more nutritious. And these are all great platforms for university students to bring their energy, their knowledge, their commitment to, so I would say start there.

22:30      VG: After you start locally, I think there are lots of opportunities to bring your talents overseas as well. And that is probably best done with a non-governmental organization, which are often looking to hire, either people with specialized skills or just people with a lot of talent and energy who want to make a difference. And so working with a non-governmental organization is a great way to go about it and a great stepping stone to a future career, either in the foreign service with USAID, the Peace Corps is a great opportunity to also gain great experience, or with the United Nations down the road. I came to the UN after 10 years in the US government and so it was great to have that foundational experience in my own government before coming to the United Nations.

23:21      KS: Valerie, last question and it seems that I always save the hardest for last. On the one hand, you think about the types of technology that have been developed by humans over the past centuries and decades. And then on the other hand, you think of the complex types of issues that you've been talking about. And the question is, from your vantage point, is it possible to end hunger worldwide? And if so, why hasn't humanity been able to do it?

23:55      VG: Well, it's definitely possible. We have all of the technology that we need. The world already produces enough food to reach everybody. It's simply a question of access—access from an income standpoint, access from a political standpoint. And I think we need fundamentally political will to end hunger and there just hasn't been enough of that to make it happen.

24:23      KS: Valerie Guarnieri, thank you so much for joining Big World to discuss your time at SIS and your career, fantastically successful career spent trying to alleviate hunger. It's been a real privilege to speak with you.

24:35      VG: Thank you, Kay.

24:36      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like the wonderful smell of heliotrope, my new favorite plant. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Valerie Guarnieri,
SIS alumna,
assistant executive director, UN World Food Programme (WFP)

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