#Planet5050: 5 QUESTIONS FOR Ertharin Cousin


Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director, UN World Food Programme.

In honor of Women’s Month and International Women’s Day on March 8th, throughout the month of March we’ll be publishing a series of Q&A’s with interesting and influential women working within the Zero Hunger Challenge community.

Ertharin Cousin began her tenure as the twelfth Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme on 5 April 2012. Cousin guides WFP in meeting urgent food needs while championing longer-term solutions to food insecurity and hunger.

  1. As a woman and a leader in the community of actors working to achieve zero hunger, what does “gender equality” mean to you?

Put simply, gender equality means ensuring the opportunity for every woman and girl to reach her full mental, physical, social and professional potential.  It means all women and girls realizing their rights—accessing the education they need, the basic services they require, and the status they deserve.

Gender equality requires fully recognizing and rewarding women’s enormous social, economic and political contributions, such as women’s role in agriculture or undertaking unpaid care work. Achieving Zero Hunger directly links to making substantive and permanent gains in gender equality.

Women farmers represent a critical role in rural agriculture. Effectively improving global food systems requires women’s equal access to resources, education, credit and markets. If the global community continues ignoring women’s specific needs we will not achieve our agreed objective of a world without hunger where everyone accesses healthy, nutritious food all year round.

“We need young women and girls—as well as young men and boys—to join the cause.”

  1. What led you to this area of work – why hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition?

Pursuing social change is in my DNA.  My mother spent her career as a social worker and my father a lifelong small business entrepreneur served our community as a social and political activist and volunteer.

We grew up in Chicago’s inner city Lawndale neighborhood. On weekends, my parents would put us in the car and drive us to other neighborhoods, to see wealth and also abject poverty. These car rides provided us with an opportunity to develop a clear perspective about what was possible as well as what real challenge looked like. They wanted to raise children who didn’t have what I call “a ceiling on dreams.”

Later, as a young mother in Chicago, I saw hunger at the community-level, first-hand.  You don’t forget these lessons.  I knew I wanted to make a difference.  I knew I could make a difference.

I also worked in law, in retail food delivery, and later in political service. Today, I’m a mother and a grandmother—leading a team of 14,000 at the World Food Programme—and I know we are making a difference. That’s what keeps me going.

No matter where I go – and I’ve literally traveled the world in my work – I’m pained beyond belief to see so many suffer from lack of food.   Seeing the agony of a mother unable to relieve her child’s hunger pains represents my most heart wrenching experience.

I speak with so many grandmothers and mothers, who tell me their stories, their challenges, and their success.  Everywhere I go, I meet women who want nothing more than peace and the ability to feed, educate and clothe their children.  Women in many countries work and serve as the backbone of their families and their communities.  The efforts of these women confirm for me why we must achieve Zero Hunger. They deserve nothing less than our collective best effort.

  1. How do you see issues of gender inequality most impacting your work?

I see gender inequality daily, in ways big and small. I see it when families send only their boy children to school, denying their girl children opportunities for a better life. I see it when girls and women risk rape to collect firewood from forests so they can prepare food for their families. I see gender inequality when women at community meetings in some developing countries give up their seats, sit on the floor, and utter no words when men enter. All of these things impact my work. They exemplify the daily reminders of why ensuring a woman’s power — and her ability to safely exercise that power — remains one of the first steps towards achieving a Zero Hunger world.

“I saw hunger at the community-level, first-hand.  You don’t forget these lessons.  I knew I wanted to make a difference.  I knew I could make a difference.”

  1. How does WFP’s work for zero hunger empower women? How do your activities contribute to gender equality?

In the World Food Programme, we must work to develop assessments, targets, programs and implementation plans, as well as monitoring activities, which will not only meet a woman and her family’s food and nutrition needs but also strengthen and expand her ability to feed her own family in the future.

We clearly communicate to all WFP associates and partners that gender is the business of every staff member. No matter his or her role in the organization; whether a truck driver; a program designer; a country director or an IT profession-every WFP colleague shares this responsibility.   We at WFP recognize empowering women as the first step toward a world with Zero Hunger.

In practical terms, this includes ensuring working directly with women when designing and implementing programs, protecting women’s risk-free access to services, as well as ensuring that women have opportunities to participate in training and development programs, particularly in rural areas.

“Today, I’m a mother and a grandmother—leading a team of 14,000 at the World Food Programme—and I know we are making a difference. That’s what keeps me going.”

Our catalytic programs, for example, Purchase for Progress (P4P) help women transform the lives of those we serve. P4P provided training to some 200,000 smallholder women farmers, helping them move beyond simply subsistence farming to more sustainable, durable and economically productive farming opportunities. School meals provides another example. School meals offer vital support to poor vulnerable girls particularly when families don’t value educating girls—helping girls access the education, food and nutrition required to learn and thrive; while giving food assistance to their families as an incentive for sending and keeping girls in school.

The entire global community must collectively accelerate our actions and work to assist the ability of governments and communities to achieve Zero Hunger and the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.    No one agency alone will effectively provide the support governments and communities need. We must continue partnering with others to invest in new ways that will help us realize gender equality and women’s empowerment through our country level programs.

  1. What one thought or piece of advice would you share with young women and girls seeking to work in this field or get involved to make a difference for Zero Hunger?

Vision and Dream big. President Ellen Johnson Sirfleaf once said “if your dreams do not scare you, they aren’t big enough.”

We need young women and girls—as well as young men and boys—to join the cause.  A Zero Hunger World personifies an ambitious (scary) goal…yet an achievable goal.

We need dreamers, we need doers, and we need action.  We need teachers, lawyers, business owners, researchers, journalists, and humanitarians to devote their energy, time and dreams to improve our world.  Promote change.  Promote fair trade.  Promote a living wage.  Promote human rights.  Promote the valuing of people, whoever they are, wherever they live and whatever they do.  If we invest the adequate financial resources, scale up the multi-year context driven appropriate programs, and leverage our collective efforts then Gender Equality exemplifies an achievable goal; Zero Hunger symbolizes an achievable goal; and as a result ultimately peace and prosperity for all represents an achievable outcome.