Ella Brown started an internship at the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) office in Washington, DC during January. Just as soon as her new job got started the massive earthquake struck in Haiti.
The most complex operation WFP has ever undertaken started to deliver life-saving food to millions of Haitians. Recently, Ella took time to answer some questions about her work as an intern at WFP. She talks about Haiti, the importance of media coverage of global hunger issues, and how you can get involved.
Your internship started at the time of the tragedy in Haiti. Tell us about when you first heard the news of the earthquake. What were some of the tasks you had to undertake, as a new member of WFP, once the earthquake struck?
The 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on the second day of my internship with the UN World Food Programme (WFP). So as you can imagine, these unfortunate circumstances are providing me a valuable opportunity to learn about humanitarian relief, which is the major part of WFP operations.
On February 1, makeshift kitchens like this one in Jacmel, Haiti helped WFP provide hot meals for 24,000 people. (World Food Programme photo)
As public affairs intern, I participated in a number of behind-the-scenes efforts around Haiti – ranging from assisting at a series of successful Haiti benefit concerts featuring WFP celebrity musical partner, Thievery Corporation, in Washington, DC – to monitoring news outlets for updates from Haiti.
As the largest and leading agency in humanitarian response with operations in over 70 countries, it is guaranteed that several articles each day mention WFP, its programs, and hunger-related issues. After the Haiti quake, news coverage of the earthquake totaled nearly two dozen stories per day. A month later, however, coverage of Haiti dropped way off, despite the fact that the needs of the homeless and their government are still enormous.
This is problematic because media coverage is critical to a disaster like Haiti’s for two reasons: First, WFP is not funded like other UN agencies. WFP relies on voluntary (as opposed to assessed) contributions to provide food assistance to victims of natural and man-made disasters. Second, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and its government will rely on external funding to re-create its structures and systems (even the U.S. accepted voluntary contributions from other nations following Hurricane Katrina).
The first media blast of the Haiti quake raised awareness and led to a generous outpouring from governments, businesses and individuals, but as WFP begins its second or recovery phase, more help is needed.
What has impressed you the most about how WFP responded to the food crisis in Haiti after the earthquake?
The entire WFP response to Haiti has been impressive. For one, the scale of the WFP immediate response to earthquake victims was noteworthy. I knew WFP was referred to as the “lead agency” in humanitarian relief, but I was unaware that, in addition to life-saving food assistance, WFP would open ports and roads and set up communication channels so that the entire humanitarian community could begin necessary relief efforts.
Also, I am impressed by the expertise and flexibility of WFP in mobilizing food assistance. During the first surge of food assistance, emergency rations like high energy biscuits were distributed because victims did not have access to kitchens. But when kitchens became available, WFP began general rice distributions. Now, WFP is launching its third phase of food assistance – with a focus on school meal programs and food-for-work programs to help restore normalcy and re-construct livelihoods.
It is especially worth mentioning that WFP staff members in Haiti were heroic. Despite the fact that most staff lost their homes and loved ones, they worked around-the-clock to reach victims and distribute emergency food rations. To show solidarity for WFP Haiti staff, our D.C. office raised $2,000, mostly through a bake sale. By the end of February, WFP staff globally had pooled $55,000 for WFP staff in Haiti. WFP is a large organization, but one with a strong sense of camaraderie—perhaps developed from having worked so close to disasters.
To show solidarity for WFP Haiti staff, the Washington, D.C. WFP office raised $2,000 – mostly through a February 3rd bake sale. (World Food Programme photo)
When talking about foreign aid, George Marshall used to talk about finding a cure for the problems facing other countries, rather than mere palliatives. What are some programs WFP offers that you feel can offer a cure to the terrible problem of hunger?
One way WFP programs are eradicating hunger from populations is by preventing the onset of malnutrition. The years from 0-2 are a critical window of opportunity during a child’s mental and physical development. WFP mother and child health initiatives are interventions that beat malnutrition before it starts, so children can enjoy a healthier, more productive life to break out of their family’s cycle of poverty.
Another approach to eradicating hunger is highlighted by WFP’s program, Purchase for Progress (P4P). P4P works like this: WFP guarantees to buy crops from smallholder farmers. When a farmer has a secure buyer, she (the vast majority of farmers in the developing world are women) will grow more and she will gain more. In this way, P4P gives smallholder farmers the incentive to plan for future harvests, so that they can accumulate the resources (seeds, fertilizer, storage facilities, etc.) to compete in agricultural markets and nourish their fellow citizens.
The media often moves on from covering events like Haiti or Sudan. What are some ways WFP can keep the public engaged in the food crisis in not only Haiti and Sudan, but all the other countries that are suffering from hunger?
Oh, there are so many great ways to stay informed about global hunger issues.
In addition to our updates on Facebook, Twitter and You Tube, WFP keeps readers engaged about new hunger “hotspots” via RSS news feed. The media spotlight misses many places where hunger complicates economic development (Guatemala) and exacerbates conflict (Yemen); stay in-the-know by clicking get involved on the wfp.org website.
What would you tell a student at a university, or someone at home, about how they can get involved to help end the hunger crisis impacting over one billion people?
The concept of helping to end global hunger may seem abstract or distant, but the impact of word of mouth is real. Citizens in industrialized countries can be part of the solution by raising awareness about the billion people for whom hunger is a daily struggle.
Try it: Pick a photo, video or statistic from the WFP website that you find particularly compelling and share it with your family and friends. Start a dialogue and explain that the problem of one billion people going hungry every day is solvable. Spread the word – or engage a local school or your own classroom – about freerice.com or the educational video game www.food-force.com!