Ambassador Ertharin Cousin to Keynote Commencement

The outgoing head of the UN World Food Programme plans to put good health and food justice on the menu for Class of 2017 graduates

April 4, 2017

Ertharin Cousin, the outgoing Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), will deliver the keynote address at Mailman School commencement on May 16, 2017.

“I’m thrilled that Ambassador Cousin has accepted our invitation to speak at this year’s commencement,” says Dean Linda P. Fried. “Access to healthy food is an essential ingredient to good health, and a key area of teaching, research, and great interest within our community. As the leader of the world’s largest humanitarian organization, Ambassador Cousin, with her unwavering devotion to ending hunger, is an inspiration and an exemplary model of public health leadership and service.”

In her five-year tenure at the WFP, Cousin has led a staff of more than 14,000 in meeting urgent food needs in 80 countries while championing longer-term solutions to food insecurity and hunger.

In recent weeks, she has been working to raise more than $5 billion needed to head off famine in conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East where the emergency threatens millions. In February, the UN declared a famine in parts of South Sudan wracked by civil war and drought exacerbated by climate change; Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen face a similar plight. Fighting has restricted access, making humanitarian response difficult and costly. “Food insecurity is a significant factor in creating instability,” says Cousin. “At the same time, conflict creates food insecurity by reducing the availability of food.”

Each year, the WFP feeds 80 million people. At the same time, the organization serves as the logistical and procurement arm for the humanitarian community, playing a key role in managing the response to complex emergencies like the conflicts in Syrian and Yemen, as well as natural disasters like the earthquakes in Nepal and Ecuador, often deploying its fleet of aircraft and ships. The organization also helps respond to pandemics like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where it worked with the World Health Organization, NGOs, and local governments to get medicines and other supplies to health workers.

While emergencies grab headlines, Cousin has pushed the WFP to put a new emphasis on everyday nutrition, as part of the UN’s goal to end hunger by 2030. Providing healthy calories to pregnant and nursing mothers, and to young children, particularly during the critical first 1,000 days of life, is a crucial factor in promoting brain and physical development and helping children reach their full life potential. The WFP also works with the populations it serves to diversify their diets, and with farmers to diversify from commodity crops to beans and vegetables—traditionally a female domain. The result is a virtuous cycle that puts more money into the hands of women, which, in turn, increases their ability to buy nutritious food.

“Feeding people to fill their stomachs is not enough,” says Cousin. “What we feed them is just as important.”

In March, the UN named Cousin’s successor, David Beasley, the former Republican governor of South Carolina, a friend of UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and President Trump. These connections could help sustain WFP’s $6 billion budget, 40 percent of which comes from the United States in voluntary contributions. Her conversations with Beasley lead Cousin to believe “he is very qualified to lead this organization.”

Starting in September, Cousin will take a position as lecturer and visiting fellow at Stanford University, where she will continue to be active in issues related to food security.

“I’m excited to be speaking at the Mailman School commencement,” she says. “I want to commend this School and graduating class for providing the evidence and energy to make a difference on issues that affect our shared future on this planet.”