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Executive Director Ertharin Cousin Remarks at the Australia/United Nations Parliamentary Group Roundtable on “Food Security: Challenges and Opportunities” May 30, 2012, Canberra, Australia

Thank you, Ms. Parke, for that kind introduction and for convening this important roundtable on the challenges and opportunities in food security. 

Very few can claim such a deep understanding of the importance of the United Nations.  From working for the UN in Kosovo, UNRWA in Gaza, the Office of the Under-Secretary-General for Management in New York, and as the Deputy Chief of Staff for the UN International Independent Investigation Commission in Lebanon – Ms. Parke has given years of her career towards a stronger UN and a better world.  On behalf of the UN family, thank you for your service.

Dear Honourable Senator and Members, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I want to begin by commending the government, civil society and people of Australia for your exemplary commitment to humanitarian work and your generosity in supporting food security in some of the most fragile and conflict-affected environments around the world.

The five year Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between WFP and AusAID has become a model framework for collaboration and relationship-building that WFP cites as a best practice in multilateralism and which other donors have begun to emulate.  The multi-year commitment totalling $180 million [Australian Dollars] to support WFP operations ensures that we have the flexibility and predictability to respond to the ever-complex and rapidly changing environment in which we operate.

Before I open it up to questions, I want to cover three important points to frame the discussion around this aptly named “Food Security: Challenges and Opportunities” roundtable.

First, I want to briefly outline the challenges WFP and other humanitarian organizations are facing today in a world that is continuing to change faster than ever – politically, climatically, socially and economically.

Second, I want to give some tangible examples of how Australia is helping WFP provide the most vulnerable, hungry poor access to adequate nutritious and affordable food not only in emergencies but through broader hunger solution tools.

And finally, I want to respond to, or rather, reinforce what Peter Baxter noted in the recent Australian Multilateral Assessment regarding WFP’s approach to efficiency and effectiveness.

First, on the challenges.  Ensuring access to nutritious food for the most vulnerable has been compounded and become ever more complicated by a convergence of global trends: an increase in the number and intensity of weather-related disasters; continued food price volatility; and an escalation of protracted crises as a result of on-going conflicts.  The statistics are staggering:
 
• 2011 was one of the costliest years in history in terms of damage caused by natural disasters.  The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction recorded 302 human-impact disasters in 2011 affecting 206 million people and resulting in 29,500 deaths and $366 billion of damage. 

• Food prices also reached their highest level in twelve years during 2011.  FAO’s food price index (FFPI) – a food basket composed of cereals, oilseeds, dairy, meat and sugar – peaked at 240 in February 2011.  In spite of some reduction during the second half of 2011, the FFPI averaged 228 points last year, exceeding the previous peak of 200 points in 2008.

• At the same time, unprecedented socio-political developments stemming from the Arab Spring, in addition to the escalation of other armed conflicts, has left the most vulnerable even further exposed.  The World Bank recently estimated that one-and-a-half billion people now live in areas affected by fragility, conflict, or large-scale, organized criminal violence.

The convergence of these factors is perhaps no more visible than what we are seeing today in the Sahel.  The hasty recurrence of droughts in the region has left people with little time to recover, food prices are abnormally high, savings are exhausted, and tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing from conflict. 

It would be easy with all these statistics to be pessimistic.  Indeed, the task before us in a daunting one.  But I want you to leave here today knowing that because of WFP’s partnership with countries like Australia and our NGO partners, together we are transforming to meet the challenge before us.

Let me give you just a couple of examples of how Australia’s support is helping WFP leverage new tools and partnerships to reach the most vulnerable, hungry poor.

Australia’s dedicated funding helps strengthen WFP’s preparedness and response capacity.  This dedicated funding improves our ability to rapidly and effectively deliver life-saving assistance during humanitarian emergencies. 

Through our Preparedness and Response Enhancement Program (PREP) we have – and are continuing to – directly apply the lessons learned and recommendations from previous emergencies. 

In Haiti, for example, we learned that preparing (including understanding the constraints) to operate in austere conditions is paramount – especially as our teams grow in size and complexity.  In response, and thanks to AusAID’s approximately $8 million [Australian Dollars] contribution for PREP, WFP is augmenting our operational support stocks positioned around the world, including light vehicles, boats, pre-fabricated office and accommodation units, as well as supporting tools and systems.  In doing so we are ensuring that our staff has the ability to ‘hit the ground running’ – reinforcing WFP’s ability to immediately establish effective emergency operations anywhere around the world, at any time.

We have also improved forward purchasing arrangements.  As a result we are reducing lead times for food deliveries, including specialized nutrition products for young children. 

In Niger, where United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres and I travelled earlier this month, WFP is working to provide special food assistance to 3.5 million of the children and women most in need as they cope with the impact of drought. 

Thanks in large part to the nearly $11 million [Australian Dollars] in directed and multilateral contribution from Australia, WFP is mobilizing 35,000 metric tons of products such as Plumpy’sup and Plumpy’doz to prevent and treat malnutrition.  This, I am proud to note, represents nearly twice the amount of specialized nutritious products WFP mobilized for the Horn of Africa response.

At the same time, and in line with AusAID’s focus on value for money as set out in the Transparency Charter, WFP is working to get the biggest bang for the food buck.  In addition to getting the right food to the right people at the right time, we are also ensuring that every one of our food interventions has the maximum nutritional impact.  At WFP, we are asking, not only how can we feed mothers and children, but how best to feed them nutritious food. 

We are also engaging our private sector partners and others, including academia, to create specialised nutritious food products that are predominantly geared to meet the needs of pregnant and lactating women and children under two. 

Simply put, we are stepping beyond kilo-calories, working with food technologists to deploy nutritious food products like WawaMum that prevent malnutrition.  WawaMum, which was developed in Pakistan, is a highly fortified chickpea paste that requires no water or cooking.  Each package cost only 17 cents yet it contains essential vitamins and minerals to protect the brains and bodies of children under two.

Thanks to the $10 million [Australian Dollars] per year for school feeding under the SPA, WFP is not only reaching the hungry, poor during emergencies, but also building their resilience as well as improving food and nutrition security for the most vulnerable.
 
School feeding programmes promote equal access to education and learning by boosting enrolment, attention and completion rates.  By reducing hunger in the classroom, feeding programmes increase the child’s ability to concentrate and learn, enhancing the child’s educational achievement.  School feeding programmes also contribute to gender equality by providing special incentives for sending girls to school.  And school feeding programmes, where appropriate,  level disparities in access to education by targeting especially vulnerable youth groups such as ex-child combatants and orphans.

In Bangladesh for example, thanks to AusAID contributions, over
75,000 pre-primary and primary school children in 532 schools – over half of whom are girls – are receiving nutritious meals.  In the last two years alone, average enrolment has increased by 35 percent in Bangladesh.  The school meals are complemented with a learning package for children on health, nutrition and hygiene – ensuring a holistic approach to help them overcome chronic hunger and malnutrition and realize their full potential.
These are just a few examples of how Australia’s support and partnership with WFP is making an impact on the lives of millions around the world. 

I want to end by saying that we view this partnership as one of mutual respect and responsibility.  We do not take lightly the financial commitment that the Government of Australia has made.

It is a testament to the dedication and tireless work of our staff on the frontlines, working to reach the most vulnerable with life-saving assistance, that over the past 5 years Australian contributions have substantially increased – doubling from roughly $72 million in 2007 to record high contributions of $140 million last year [Australian Dollars].  And let me say that we are immensely proud that WFP is the biggest UN recipient of Australian government funding today. 

Before I assumed the position of Executive Director I spoke with Peter Baxter about the multilateral assessment and WFP’s posting in the highest category.  Peter was quick to point out that Australians pride themselves on being hard to please and tougher to impress.  He said WFP’s position in their report was earned by WFP’s hard work and great performance.

And so, in closing, let me take this opportunity to reaffirm WFP’s commitment to place efficiency and effectiveness at the heart of all our operations.  WFP will not rest on its laurels.  We will continue to build upon lessons learned to ensure that every program we launch, every dollar we spend, creates quantifiable impact on the people we serve.

Thank you for being such a valued partner in our work.

Now let me open the floor to question.