Women against hunger

January 11 2003 | by

Catherine Bertini is the executive director of the World Food Programme, one of the United Nations Organisation’s most important international agencies

By Claude Zerbetto

In the front line in the battle against world hunger, we can find Catherine Bertini who, at 46 years of age, has been the executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Programme since 1992. She is the first woman to be nominated as head of this organisation and, at the request of the Secretary General of the United Nations, she is also a member of the High Commission on development in Africa.

From her headquarters in Rome, she guides the organisation in its twofold aim: to prevent famine and to help various populations become self-sufficient by giving them the means to break free from the vicious circle of poverty.

Hunger afflicts one in seven of the world’s population. With a budget of 1.2 billion dollars, and four thousand staff, the World Food Programme promotes and organises emergency and development operations to the benefit of 50 million people in more than 90 countries.

Ms. Bertini graduated from New York University in Albany and became a researcher with the Institute of Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. She had official governmental functions in various states of the USA from 1979 to 1987, and as Commissioner of the Committee for Human Rights in Illinois, she spoke out against racial discrimination on various occasions. She has also been personal adviser to the Governor of New York (Nelson Rockefeller at the time) and New York State’s legislative adviser to the Senate.

From 1987 to 1989, she worked as under-secretary in the Family Section of the Ministry of Health. During her time in this position, she effected social security reforms in favour of professional training for mothers who receive subsidies, with the aim of helping them to become self-sufficient. Such reforms reinforced those already existing laws which order fathers who are separated from their wives to help financially with child maintenance.

From 1989 to 1992, Ms. Bertini was under-secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture. In this role, she directed thirteen of the Federal Government’s food aid programmes which are needed by one American in six.

Ms. Bertini was the first official from the United States Administration to receive the prize for the management of humanitarian services in the American Public Welfare Association, an honour which is usually reserved for state governors or members of Congress. The Association expressed the opinion that Ms. Bertini’s work represents the most laudable side of public service. In 1994, she also received the ‘Quality of Life’ prize from the Human Sciences faculty at Auburn University. She was also given an award for her work on programmes in defence of women and children. Furthermore, she has worked as a volunteer in many youth organisations, and in a centre for homeless women.

We met her at the Food and Agriculture Organisation headquarters in Rome, and she was happy to answer our questions.

Zerbetto: You work for one of the United Nations Organisations’ biggest agencies. Your budget is one billion two hundred million dollars a year. Is this enough to avert the crisis and cure the problem of world hunger?

No. We manage to reach fifty million people a year, which is a lot, but there are over eight hundred million poor and undernourished people in the world today. We can manage to help most refugees forced to move by war or natural disasters, but only a small proportion of those who live in extreme poverty without enough food.

You are one of several women who work in the highest echelons of an international organisation. What can women do towards the achievement of international cooperation?

International organisations should use all the talent available to them, women as well as men. It is important for these organisations to take on more women, since women have much to offer. Five United Nations agencies are run by women, those for food, population, children, refugees and the environment. Women are very important in these fields, not only those at the head of the organisations, but also those who, every day, strive to improve conditions for their families and their communities.

What is the situation of women in Africa

They probably work harder there than anywhere else in the world. In some African countries, they produce 80 percent of the total food output.

Where is the most worrying situation at the moment?

In West Zaire. There are a million displaced people trying to hide from the violence, and people are dying of hunger every day. There is no food or water, and sanitary conditions are precarious.

Unfortunately, malnutrition exists throughout the region of sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, we don’t know enough about what is happening in Afghanistan. Flooding in North Korea has provoked a food crisis. There are too many crises, and too many people at risk.

What is the future of food aid?

Emergency aid will continue, but with respect to development aid, we still need to reach an agreement that giving food aid to the world’s poor will eventually help them to become self-sufficient.

Will rich countries continue to contribute?

The UN food programme continues to give a large amount of aid, especially in emergencies. Our biggest challenge is to convince donor nations of the merits of development aid.

What is the situation like in rich countries?

Even in those countries, poverty and malnutrition exist. However, we don’t see people dying of hunger, and this is a fundamental difference between the developed and the developing world.

The pope has suggested that democracy in itself isn’t enough to guarantee justice. What do you think?

Democracy must be the basis for any initiative which is to succeed. There is much less malnutrition in democratic countries than undemocratic ones. However, we are a United Nations body, and have to respect the sovereignty of states, although the Secretary General can ask us to work in a country even if its government has not requested this. This happened in Somalia, where there was no government as such, and it could also happen in Zaire.

The World Food programme has recently begun some information projects in various schools. What promoted you to do this, and what do you hope to achieve?

It is very important to teach children about world hunger and alimentary needs. When they are adults, they will be well aware of the existing problems, and also be in a better position to do something about them.

Women and poverty

World poverty and hunger afflict women in a particular way, above all in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where a tragic paradox continues to repeat itself: women produce and procure the majority of the food, but they are the most under-nourished, the hungriest and those who receive least health care. The Food and Agricultural Organisation points out that, if they receive a wage, women spend a greater proportion of this on feeding the family than men do. But in spite of this, in many developing countries women are not permitted any part in the decision-making process with respect to the sale of the harvest or the amount of food needed to nourish the family.

The huge number of wars, and of refugees as a result, has led to a situation in which, in some African regions, a woman is the head of 60 percent of households, because her husband has either been forced to flee or been killed.

In spite of their fundamental contribution to food production, women are often denied the right to own land, to have an education or training, or to take out a loan. In developing countries, only 58 percent of women can read and write - in some countries, the figure is as low as 34 percent - compared to 79 percent of men.

And yet, from the World Bank Summit, one irrefutable fact emerged - that investment in education for women gave the highest return of all such investments, leading to increased productivity, and to a major decrease in infant mortality.

One bright spot on the horizon came recently with the development of the concept of microcredit - a campaign to make small loans available to the world’s poorest families. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, suggests that when a woman’s income increases, the immediate beneficiaries are the children. His bank’s policy is to lend money to the poor and self employed, especially in Bangladesh at the present time. Since women borrowers have performed exceptionally in bringing positive changes to the family, Grameen Bank is currently giving priority to women, who today constitute 94 % of the bank’s borrowers.

Updated on October 06 2016