President's Address: Mary Ellen McNish, President & CEO

October 5, 2013
The Power of One, The Strength of Many - Mary Ellen McNish, President & CEO

2013 Annual Fall Gala

Watch video of these remarks.

Good evening, it is so wonderful to welcome you to tonight’s Gala!

Your Excellency, members of the special delegation from Malawi, esteemed Ambassadors, Dionne, Valerie, Judith and our beloved guests – we are so very blessed by your presence here tonight.  

In 1977 The Hunger Project established itself with one single audacious goal of ending hunger – by the year 2000. A lot of people reacted to that by saying “You can’t end hunger simply by saying, 'You’re going to end hunger.'”

You see, at that time, it was accepted as an immutable fact, that the death, every single day, of 30,000 children, was an inevitability. Nothing could be done. But, what those people didn’t know was that The Hunger Project “had an idea!” We had an idea to crack open the horrific complacency that had gripped us like a vise.

We needed to change the mindset of our own society and demonstrate how, if we put our minds to it, we – the gigantic collective “we” – could finally put an end to hunger once and for all. Just like we would begin to change the mindset of the rural poor in the developing world from one of passively accepting handouts, from being “taken care of,” to one of self empowerment and self reliance.

Alas – it was not to be by 2000 – but did we give up? We did not! We absolutely did not!

And here, now, in 2013, we realize we are at an historic moment. The end of hunger is no longer just an idea. Finally , through a lot of hard work, through strategic thinking and strategic investments into what actually does work, the momentum has shifted. It’s shifted and it’s accelerated. We now know – and we join with others who declare – that by the year 2030 hunger can and will be ended. And as we declare this tonight, just think back to 1977, and realize what a prophetic moment that was.

Now, you might ask, 2030?   “How do we know? What’s different this time? What is it that could possibly make me go out on such a long limb to say this?” Well, to begin with, since 1977, we have had some truly significant achievements:

  • The number of people suffering from hunger has declined by 132 million.
  • Over the past 20 years, malnutrition as the cause of death has fallen from number one to number eight.
  • Remember I said 30,000 young children died each day from hunger? Now, its 8,500 – more than a 70% drop. Still horrifying but a 70% drop is miraculous.
  • Also, the thinking among the UN, and other multi-lateral organizations, national governments, NGOs and others who’ve been working on this seemingly intractable problem has experienced a seismic shift.
  • Women farmers who comprise 80% of the food producers in Africa are finally being targeted for investment.
  • Did you know that while 80% of the food produced in Africa is by women farmers, they only own 1% of the land? That is now being questioned, and that is beginning to change.
  • It is now recognized that solutions must come from and be owned by the people and governments directly affected by hunger and poverty.
  • Developing countries are reducing corruption, raising their own resources and ensuring that citizens have a voice in setting policy.
  • Donor governments have committed to focusing their funds, to aligning themselves with countries who have already taken on this new level of responsibility.
  • The Millennium Development Goals, embraced by the world to cut hunger and poverty in half by 2015,  have finally gained momentum. We know they won’t all be achieved but they won’t miss by much.

The new Post-2015 agenda, the next set of global goals, look like they will be more comprehensive, more powerful. Powerful enough to take us across the finish line by 2030. And, this view is shared throughout the world – including by the Board of Governors of the World Bank, the President of the United States, His Holiness the Pope, and of course, here, at your Hunger Project.

And so the end of world hunger — an accomplishment once considered impossible - is now absolutely attainable. Of course it’s not going to happen just by saying so. It’s not going to happen with business as usual.I can guarantee you that. But it will happen, through the use of strategic and integrated solutions, it will become a reality. It is almost like when you’re in a race and you finally see the finish line ahead of you, you dig down deep inside to summon up that last burst of energy that carries you through to the ribbon.

It is time for The Hunger Project to do just that. It’s time to take the lead. Take the lead and breakthrough to the end of hunger.

During our over 26 years of implementing programs in the developing world we have learned that hunger cannot be ended unless we address the deeply entrenched social conditions that give rise to its persistence. Many of you know we have identified three critical elements. Three elements, that, when combined with a holistic coordinated approach, empower people to overcome their own hunger and poverty:

  • They are mobilizing communities at the grassroots level to build self-reliance;
  • They are empowering women as key change agents and as leaders;
  • And they are forging effective partnerships with local government.

We’ve seen this approach work in more than 24,000 villages across 12 countries in Africa, South Asia and Latin America. We’ve seen courageous and transformative community leaders create what are nothing short of miracles. With our small budget, we’ve reached millions of people and we’ve been a pioneer in empowerment-based programs. Yet, as good and effective as all this is, it’s not enough. Not if we’re going to end hunger by 2030.

And so, today, across The Hunger Project, we are galvanizing ourselves to ensure that we are equipped to play our most strategic role. And here’s why we do this. Here’s why it is so important.

  • When I was in Malawi recently, the newspapers were filled with reports on an impending food crisis.  But, everywhere we went to visit our epicenters, we found our own food banks overflowing with grain. So, they didn’t have to worry about the food shortage.
  • In rural as well as urban India and Bangladesh, we are standing with women who, after generations of violence and abuse, are standing together to say “No! No more!” to violence. Enough is enough!
  • And, in every country where we work, mothers and infants are finally receiving healthcare and better nutrition. They are not just surviving, they are thriving.

When we successfully galvanize our Hunger Project, we will have built an organization with the resources, capacity, documented knowledge, leverage and clout to ensure that countries around the world are implementing the sustainable, grassroots, women-centered strategies -- the strategies that we know work. Thus, this evening’s theme: The Power of One, The Strength of Many.

When we learn the stories of our village partners, or when we listen to the words of H.E. President Joyce Banda, we hear just how powerful one leader can be. And when they use their leadership to bring others to action, they are truly transformational.

None of this will be possible without you, every single one of you, our investors, supporters, activists and friends. And, in a little while, we’ll hear just how very true that is. As we work together. As we work as one global organization, we will play our most strategic role. We will cast our experience to a much higher level. Of the 23 Hunger Project countries around the world, 22 are here, present, in this room with us tonight.  And ladies and gentlemen, we are about to leverage that global reach.

The Hunger Project has a replicable and sustainable approach. An approach that, over the years, has empowered millions of people to take control of their own lives and wellbeing. An approach which will now serve as the model for others. We are leveraging the power of the Hunger Project leadership staff in national commissions and policy advisory councils, in civil society alliances and government, where they present our approach as a model for replication. We’re expanding our capacity to “document” and “communicate” our work. This is going to ensure that the success of our approach is known everywhere and so will be increasingly adopted by others.  We are not going to be the world’s best kept secret anymore!

We are now in the final stages of an independent external evaluation study by Yale University and Innovations for Poverty Action. In this study, villagers in Ghana are being surveyed about how local epicenters are impacting them and their families. We are engaging in more widespread dissemination of our strategies and impact through websites, newsletters, white papers, social media and press. We are building partnerships and participating as a leader in policy dialogues in order to influence strategies at the national, regional and international levels. For example, Lorena Vazques Ordaz, our country director in Mexico, has been appointed to the high profile National Council of the Crusade Against Hunger by the President of Mexico.  She was invited by the government of Mexico to represent civil society at the recent G20 Summit in Russia. We are partnering with the UN Democracy Fund to support an essential element of our approach: effective partnership between the people and local government. And we are engaging with national governments to work toward the adoption of either our entire approach, or specific elements of it. For example, we’ve entered into a partnership with Ghana around the health sector of our epicenters.

By 2016, we aim to have established relationships with top officials in national government agencies in our Program Countries, and we are well on our way to that. We have partnered with the government of the Netherlands to expand our reach in Benin. We are in some very fruitful talks with the leadership of several countries to adopt specific Hunger Project strategies in their national development plans.

We have to step up to all these opportunities. We have to to play the most strategic and powerful role we possibly can. That is, to be a leader at the end of hunger, in the year 2030.

Yes, I’ve said it again, 2030. Over the last three decades the world has made enormous progress toward this end.  Yet, we know that the final part  is also our greatest challenge. It pits us against the most entrenched, toughest to change forces and attitudes. The forces of inertia are like a giant rubber band, constantly pulling us back. It’s hard – it’s very hard. This is about reaching people who are the most marginalized. It’s about transforming the most deeply rooted mindsets and deeply entrenched social conditions. It is looking at how we apply our resources in whole new ways.

And to truly bring about the widespread social change we must seek, we must take our Hunger Project to a whole new level. But, that’s why we’re here, to ask what’s missing? We know what we have to do. And ladies and gentlemen, I’m looking out across this room, and I’m seeing the reason that no matter what, we will do it!

We thank you so very much. We look forward to partnering with you as we together leverage the Power of One, The Strength of Many. And by the year 2030, bring hunger to an end. Once and for all.

Read highlights and watch videos from the rest of the evening.