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U.N. World Food Programme Head Speaks on Global Security

April 13, 2016 – Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, told a Georgetown audience yesterday that hunger is a key cause of global instability.

“There is a growing body of evidence linking food insecurity with conflict,” she said in a lecture sponsored by Georgetown’s Global Futures Initiative.

Cousin, who began her tenure as executive director in 2012, used the food price crisis from 2007 to 2008 to address the relationship between hunger and conflict.

Hunger and Conflict

She said high food prices made food inaccessible and led to urban protests worldwide, from Mexico to Sri Lanka to North African countries, and recalled how the crisis caused one fruit and vegetable seller to ignite himself as a last act of desperation.

Cousin explored the vicious cycle of conflict, climate change and hunger – sharing examples from the World Food Programme's work to provide immediate life-saving humanitarian assistance as well as longer-term solutions to hunger and malnutrition.

She also discussed the causal relationship between weather and civil conflict.

Drought-related conflicts account for about 90 percent of active conflicts today, she said, since weather affects food security, which in turn creates conflict.

Millions of Beneficiaries

The World Food Programme, the world’s largest humanitarian organization, serves 90 million beneficiaries in over 80 countries.

“We are the firefighters of the humanitarian system,” said Cousin, referring to the dangerous, front-line work that her staff takes on. “Many don’t think of the humanitarian side, giving their life for the work that they perform, but when you are committed to ensuring no one goes hungry… it means that at times, we may lose people,” she said.

Last year, five World Food Programme staff lost their lives while serving in South Sudan.

Sustainable Development

Zero hunger is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals endorsed by the United Nations in an effort to end poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change by 2030.

“With the right investments and political will, these sustainable development goals are achievable,” Cousin said.

But true success, she said, depends on the global community addressing five “blind spots” – attending to protracted crises; harnessing technology; prioritizing small farmers in marginal lands; scaling up social protection programs; and ending women’s disempowerment.

Georgetown Global Futures Initiative

Mark Giordano, director of Georgetown’s program in science, technology, and international affairs, moderated the conversation with Cousin and the audience at the event, which continued a semester-long conversation about “The Global Future of Security,” convened by Georgetown’s Global Futures Initiative.

Zainab Hawa Bangura, the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, began the series with remarks on human security and violent extremism on Feb 22, and former U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered the next Global Futures lecture on new security challenges, including environmental and cyber security, on March 21.

The Global Futures Initiative has addressed global governance and development in past semesters and will focus on the environment during fall 2016