A new resiliency lens in ending hunger

The World Food Program not only deserves this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts against a pandemic-driven surge in hunger, it also deserves a nod for its new view of individuals in distress. 

Porters offload sacks of a maize from the World Food Program in the seaport of Mogadishu, Somalia.

In June as the pandemic was hitting more countries, the leading humanitarian organization – the World Food Program (WFP) – announced it would undertake the biggest response in its history. It planned to meet head-on an upsurge in the number of victims of hunger – from 97 million worldwide before the pandemic to an estimated 138 million.

For this “impressive ability to intensify its efforts,” the Nobel committee awarded this year’s peace prize to the WFP on Friday. The committee also cited the agency’s work in preventing “the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”

While the WFP described the prize as both “humbling” and a “proud moment,” spokesman Tomson Phiri also wanted the world to know about its ongoing shift in approach. “One of the beauties of WFP activities is that not only do we provide food for today and tomorrow, but we also are equipping people with the knowledge, the means to sustain themselves for the next day and the days after,” he said.

Like many aid organizations, the WFP is seeing poor people less as victims or beneficiaries of other people’s largesse and more as people capable to deal with a disaster with strength and intelligence. Its programs are now designed to let local people identify community priorities and drive the agenda for both emergency relief and for building up their water and land resources as well as self-governance to ensure food security.

“It’s not just about humanitarian dollars. How do we use every humanitarian dollar for a developmental opportunity?” WFP Executive Director David Beasley recently told Congress.

Or as the former head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, José Graziano da Silva, put it, “To save lives, we also have to save livelihoods.”

This emphasis on individual resiliency and community-led development took off in 2015 when the United Nations set a goal to end persistent hunger by 2030. The U.N. called for participatory decision-making “at all levels,” not just a top-down approach driven by governments and international groups.

For its part, the WFP has invested in early warning systems to detect famine as well as the rehabilitation of forests, water ponds, irrigation systems, and feeder roads. The agency has become better at probing how people in poverty perceive themselves. This “growing body of experience ... allows us to put resilience-building at the heart of our programs,” according to the agency’s website.

Efforts at peacemaking have long relied on changing the perception of each individual’s worth – whether in ending wars or famines. Now with the WFP rewarded for its fight against hunger, it can also be honored for how it honors those it helps.

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