Imagine the herculean task of feeding nearly 100,000,000 people in 88 countries, as the World Food Programme has done this past year! That’s active lifesaving public diplomacy at its best.
The U.N. organization was clearly thrilled at unexpectedly receiving the coveted Nobel Peace Prize, announced in Oslo on October 8 by the chair of Norway’s Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Anderson. In the face of the global coronavirus, Ms. Reiss-Anderson noted: “The combination of violent conflict around the world and the deadly disease has led to a dramatic rise in the number of people living on the brink of starvation.”
According to New York Times correspondents Megan Specia and Martina Stevis-Gridneff, the World Food Programme, which celebrates its 60th anniversary next year, “has been a major behind-the-scenes player helping people affected by some of the world’s most devastating humanitarian disasters, including famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.”
THE RISKS WFP WORKERS FACE
A frontline worker for the World Food Programme helps distribute lifesaving commodities, in some cases at great risk personally. Caitlin Fowler was among five WFP colleagues injured in Lebanon on August 4 when a high-powered explosion occurred in Beirut, its principal port city. The blast razed much of the Lebanese capital and killed more than 200 people.
Caitlin later described what happened early that morning. She recalled that the louder of two blasts “was heard across the city, tearing into buildings, including the house where I lived.” The windows and door frame were ripped off and fell on top of her, “with the ceilings, walls and everything around me also collapsing.”
A closet in the house fell and broke her foot. “I was very scared. I thought it was a bombing, so I feared it was going to be war immediately,” Caitlin recalled a few days later from her hospital bed near Beirut. “I had massive gashes on my wrists and I was just losing blood very quickly.” She got up from the floor, raced outside and tried to wrap my shirt around the wounds to stop the bleeding.”
She rambled over the wreckage in the neighborhood. “I thought I wasn’t going to make it, so I sent a message to my parents, saying: “I love you”. She was picked up by witnesses, as she stumbled over neighborhood wreckage. After a few days at a nearby hospital and some others at a hotel assisted by a nurse, Caitlin flew to her hometown in the U.S. She plans soon to return to duty at the WFP.
Reflecting on her Beirut experience, Caitlin says the World Food Programme is like family to her. She, according to an account on the WFP website, “is grateful for my amazing colleagues who kept calling me in the aftermath, checking to see if she had everything she needed. “I’m sure everyone is really struggling internally, even if they don’t have physical injuries. It’s very impressive that you guys are able to work so hard and give so much despite everything. Thank you!”
THE IMPACT ON LEBANON
According to the World Food Programme, “Lebanon has been hit hard by the triple shock of the blast, COVID 19, and an economic crisis, with severe consequences for lives and livelihoods. It imports nearly 85 percent of its food, with the bulk of trade passing through the port of Beirut.
Within 48 hours of the port explosion, WFP allocated food parcels for 5,000 highly vulnerable households and scaled up its Lebanon operations as quickly as possible. Severe damage to the port, the epicenter of the explosion, put further pressure on Lebanon’s food prices. These had already skyrocketed since 2019 due to the economic crisis there, shortages of foreign currency, and the devaluation of the Lebanese pound.
The cherished Nobel Peace Prize was a complete surprise to the World Food Prize executive director, David Beasley. “It’s the first time in my life,” he said, “that I was speechless” upon receiving news of the award from Norway. He said it was both wonderful and bad news to receive because it highlighted not only the work being done but also the need for it.
Mr. Beasley, according to the New York Times, termed the fact that anyone in the 21st century could be starving “in a time when there is so much wealth in the world. The prize is a call to action,” he added.
“The world is suffering more than in any time period, and we literally will be facing famines of biblical proportions if we don’t act.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More