824 million people. 165 million children. These numbers are almost incomprehensible.


world food programme
Etharin Cousin in the field. Image courtesy of the WFP.

There are 842 million people in the world who are undernourished. There are 165 million children in the world who are chronically malnourished.

And then there’s the World Food Programme – the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger, funded entirely by voluntary donations – who are trying to make a difference.

These numbers are almost incomprehensible.

Etharin Cousin is the Executive Director of the World Food Programme, and Mamamia sat down to have chat with her about hunger around the world – and to try and put some of these statistics into perspective.

Ms Cousin guides the World Food Programme in their goal of meeting urgent food needs around the world, while also advocating for long-term solutions to food insecurity.

So, what does it actually mean when you hear that 842 million in the world are undernourished?

“Here’s the reality,” Ms Cousin explains, “When people are poor – when you’re living on less than 2 dollars a day – you may have access to food today, but your children will go without tomorrow. You may have access to food before the rain season starts, and then you have no food at all. These people fall into this global pot of inadequate access to the amount of food that’s necessary to lead a healthy life.”

The consequences of hunger – particularly on children – can be devastating. A malnourished person will have trouble fighting off disease. For women, pregnancy becomes more dangerous, their babies can be affected, and producing nourishing breast milk becomes much more difficult. In children, physical and mental growth are likely to be stunted – even learning abilities can be diminished.


“We who have won the birth lottery, we think we’re either hungry or we’re not,” Ms Cousin says. “When you’re poor, there’s a place in the middle, where there’s just not enough – ever. That can result in a child who is stunted because they’re not getting enough access to the calories that are necessary when [the mother is] trying to breastfeed or pregnant … or when the child is at the most formative stage of life, between 6 months to 2 years of age. When the bodies are developing, when the brains are developing, they’re not getting enough food to eat.”

The work that the World Food Programme does is wide-ranging and far-reaching. They feed over 90 million people every year, in 80 different countries around the world. Their projects range from dealing with emergency response – such as situations where natural disasters and civil conflicts have destroyed local resources – to nutrition and food security analysis.

world food programme
“There is an enormous amount of generosity around the world.”

Today, the WFP isn’t doing it alone – they also have science on their side.

“This is the 2014,” Ms Cousin says, “We can now add vitamins and minerals to foods like rice and wheat and other meals, which gives us the ability to ensure that the food the child receives has the necessary vitamins and minerals for the child’s requirements. We deliver that food to mothers, and teach them how to cook it.”


Ms Cousin continues, “The challenge is having enough money in our programs to ensure we can give that food over a sustained period, to have an impact on that child’s life. Too often what we see, is that because we don’t have enough money, we only have the ability to provide food for the child for six months, whereas what the child needs is assistance 12 months.”

The truth is, getting enough money to provide services to people in need, is the single biggest challenge that organisations like the World Food Programme face. Ms Cousin explains that the World Food Programme knows what the tools are – they know how to deliver food to impoverished peoples, and how to rebuild communities that have been devastated by natural disasters – but they need resources to act. Luckily, Ms Cousin says, “there is an enormous amount of generosity around the world”.

As well as generosity from those who aid the world’s hungriest people, Ms Cousin has seen an enormous amount of spirit in the people the organisation helps.

Ms Cousin visited the Philippines only a week and a half later after Typhoon Haiyan hit, and relays an anecdote about seeing a group of 10-year-old boys clearing a basketball court – while it was still raining – so that they could play. They were doing what they could to return their lives to normalcy.

“What impressed me,” Ms Cousin says, “Was that you’re on the street, and you can see that people are beginning to rebuild their lives. They were going through the rubble to fid whatever personal belongings they could… And now we’re seeing women who are working to reclaim the rice paddies.”

Last year the rice paddies were churned up into muddy fields, which had devastating consequences for the community, who lost their ability to plant for that year.

“But those paddies have now been cleared out, and we’ve given them better seeds than they even had access to before. Women who were devastated three months ago, are now excited.”

Ms Cousin also explains that the effects of climate change will make the likelihood of similar natural disasters in the Philippines much more likely in the future. The World Food Programme is trying to create long-term solutions to difficulties like these.

world food programme
A mother and child in the Philippines, rebuilding their lives.

“So we’re working on ensuring that farmers are planting the right crops, so they’re more durable and sustainable the next time,” Ms Cousin says. “Working on making sure they’re using the right techniques, to increase the durability and viability of their fields. With the generosity of donors, that’s what we’re now focussed on.”

Australia has been a partner of the World Food Programme for 50 years. This year we are the Vice Chair of the Board, and next year Australia will serve as the President of the World Food Programme board.

At the beginning of 2014, our nation confirmed a $100 million dollar cut to the foreign aid budget, but Ms Cousin is optimistic that this will not affect our country’s ability to help those in need.

“We know that many of the governments we have partnered with are experiencing domestic financial challenges,” she says, “and the good news for WFP is that this has not resulted in significant reductions in support for our programs. We’re hopeful that the work of WFP, and the people that we support, will be recognised to be of importance to this government – and we’ll get the support that the global community has come to rely upon.”

The global community needs help from developed nations, and there are literally millions of people – those who have not won the birth lottery – who are relying upon that help. As Ms Cousin says:

“Every person has a voice, and their voice needs to be heard. Every person who wants to donate, no sum is too small. Dollars add up.

“No child should go hungry.”

Find out more about – or donate to – the World Food Programme here, or learn about the Zero Hunger Project here.

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