Jill Lester, Fall Event 2009

October 24, 2009

It's Time: Scaling Up The Hunger Project to Achieve a Hunger-Free Future

Remarks delivered by
Jill Lester, President and CEO, The Hunger Project

New York, NY


"We are each other's harvest. We are each other's business. We are each other's magnitude and bond." Those are the words of American poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

For those engaged in the fight against hunger and poverty, this is both a critical and promising moment. And it is particularly so for The Hunger Project family.

This family includes thousands of investors from dozens of countries; this family that includes every single one of us gathered here, in this room, tonight.

This is a family that includes elected women representatives like Rami Devi Nai in India, who uses her position in local government to improve her community's access to education and health. And there is Fazilatun and Zahurul from Bangladesh, husband and wife, who together work to stop child marriage and keep girls in school.

It is a family that includes the HIV positive women, men and children I met recently at Malawi's Champiti Epicenter. These are people who no longer dwell in shame's shadow, but, like all members of our Hunger Project family, are treated with grace, compassion and respect. It was heart-warming, moving and inspiring to see the vibrancy and vitality with which this group of women, men, and children were invited to dance before 2,000 of their fellow community members. They were proud, confident and valued as they held high in their hands, for all to see, their containers of anti-retroviral medicine-life-saving drugs now given, not at a hospital tens of miles away, but now given at the epicenter clinic.

Friends, all these people, and thousands more just like them-just like you-are all part of our Hunger Project family. We are all united in our mission to create a world where all can live a life of dignity, opportunity, and choice.

And now, right now, together, we are bearing witness to an historic moment-a unique confluence of circumstances, an alignment of the stars, which calls on us-indeed, obliges us- to step up and out with confidence and with pride.

Today's global crises are pulling more and more people into hunger's stranglehold. But, at long last, global leaders are responding to these crises by making unprecedented commitments to end hunger in a sustainable way.

And The Hunger Project has never been in a better, nor a stronger place to respond. Our internal readiness is extraordinary.

So, on all counts, the necessary ingredients are in place: a growing global awareness and commitment; The Hunger Project's unique and proven approach; and the wisdom, dreams and hopes of our village partners.

We must not waste another moment-it is time! It is now time for The Hunger Project to scale-up and to grow from "the world's best kept secret" to the forefront and the mainstream of development thinking.

Why is it time? We are on the homestretch to 2015

Now, I should explain-why is it time?

Right now, the world is on the homestretch to 2015, the year when the global community is to have met its promise to achieve the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These goals seek to address poverty in its many dimensions. Too often poverty is defined as lack of income. But it is also lack of education, lack of health, lack of control over one's destiny, lack of agency for women, powerlessness.

And as the MDG finishing line looms ever closer, we should be clear-sighted about the challenges ahead, such as the global recession, which has slowed previous progress towards achieving the MDGs and is causing appalling set backs.

It is estimated that this, together with last year's food price crisis, has pushed the number of the world's undernourished people to over one billion. One in every six people on this planet wake up every morning, and go to bed every evening, hungry.

Here is how The Hunger Project is clearly making a difference:

MDG one-to end poverty and hunger-aspires to reduce the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by half. Right now, this is the most threatened Millennium Development Goal. But, did you know that in Africa, The Hunger Project's Epicenter communities are well on the road to being food secure? Did you know that our food banks at Epicenters across Africa are stocked? Indeed, some are literally overflowing, as I saw myself just a month ago in that desperately poor country of Malawi.

The fourth MDG seeks to reduce, by two-thirds, the child mortality rate. Yet, every single day, 25,000 children under the age of five die from preventable causes. That is one child every three seconds. But, did you know that in the past six months alone, The Hunger Project provided access to vaccinations to nearly 40,000 girls and boys?

Improving maternal health is the fifth goal. Every year, more than a half-million women die from complications during pregnancy or childbirth. But were you aware that just since April, through The Hunger Project, thousands and thousands of pregnant women received pre-natal care and got the opportunity to have medical care close at hand for a safe delivery?

If the world is to come close to achieving its promises, then it is now time for The Hunger Project to urgently scale up and shine its light on more and more people.

There is no time to waste.

Why is it time? World leaders are making unprecedented commitments

The Hunger Project is a beacon of light in the darkness. And at forums, such as the G20, world leaders are beginning to take action to end hunger. Just this year, they have pledged 20 billion dollars to support local farmers-as we know, mostly women-to empower their growth and build their self-reliance. Sound like The Hunger Project's approach, doesn't it?

That's what's so exciting-these commitments are at last consistent with what we have known and practiced over many years: that to end hunger and poverty, people at the grassroots, particularly women, need to be supported and empowered.

On this, I am sure we can all agree it's about time!

Why is it time? The Hunger Project is ready to scale-up

The Hunger Project is a shining beacon, showing that when communities are mobilized, when women are empowered, and when effective partnerships with government are built people can and do build lives of self-reliance in a sustainable and lasting way.

We have broadened our reach, deepened our influence and increased our impact, as we drive towards the achievement of our mission-the end of hunger and poverty!

I've often been asked: "How is it The Hunger Project can achieve so much of what others can not?" I'd like to offer two key reasons. The first reason is plainly obvious-it's you, our committed investors, who number in the thousands. We could never have the impact we have on so many lives throughout the world, without you, without your partnership.

And, I thank you for that partnership and for your boldness. I thank you for your humanity.
And the second key reason for The Hunger Project's success?

Our global staff! Would all Hunger Project staff members from throughout our global organization, please stand and let us recognize you!

And, I would like to introduce our Country Directors-men and women, who work, day in and day out, directly, with our grassroots partners.

They are: from Bangladesh, Dr. Badiul Majumdar; from Benin, Pascal Djohossou; from Burkina Faso, Dr. Idrissa Ousmane Dicko; from Ethiopia, Dr. W.A. Gubaie; from Ghana, Dr. Naana Agyemang-Mensah; from India, Rita Sarin; from Malawi, Rowlands Kaotcha; from Mexico, Lorena Vázquez; from Mozambique, Ofélia Santos Simão; from Senegal, Madeleine Cisse ; and from Uganda, Irene Wasike Muwanguzi.

Please carry with you-home to your countries and our grassroots partners-the love, admiration and respect of everyone in this room.

I also want to take this opportunity to recognize a man who has a deep love and unflagging devotion to the African people; a leader as comfortable advising villagers on what trees to plant, as he is conversing in easy but persuasive terms with heads of state.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Fitigu Tadesse, the architect of our Epicenter Strategy, has just celebrated his twentieth anniversary with us and has indicated his intention to retire. Fitigu, congratulations and thank you from us all!

The Hunger Project can take pride in the many creative innovations consistently being introduced, and I would like to treat you to a tiny sample. This is not to pat ourselves on the back, but rather to actively push back on the pessimisms that we sometimes encounter-the attitudes that tell us that the problems of hunger and poverty are too big to be solved.

Take for example, Meliya Mwambucha, one of our partners in Malawi.

She has invented a portable food warmer, using a cane basket, a cloth and some straw. With this invention she transports cooked rice from her home to the market. The rice stays hot, and her customers love it! In effect, she has a Malawian fast food stand!

Even more remarkable is that Meliay has created and expanded her business through a special microfinance loan from The Hunger Project for people living with HIV/AIDS. This itself is a unique Hunger Project innovation. Other microfinance organizations say: "Why provide people living with HIV/AIDS loans when they may pass away before paying back them back?"

The Hunger Project is different. We believe all people have the right to dignity and independence. With that in mind, our Malawi team created a microfinance program specifically for HIV positive people, so that women like Meliya have the opportunity to innovate, create and contribute.

With increased incomes, they have more money to buy nutritious food and life-saving drugs. In Meliya's words: "I have now put on weight. I used to weigh 38 kilograms..."

That's a gaunt 84 pounds.

"Now," she says "I am 70 kilograms."

That's a robust 154 pounds!

Thousands of miles away, in Bangladesh, an entirely different sort of innovative success is underway. Through a partnership with the British Council, The Hunger Project is seeking to inspire thousands of young people in that country to empower them to create and implement social action projects-innovative solutions to address their country's most pressing issues.

And, in Uganda, we have achieved a phenomenal breakthrough-one that may result in the greatest impact in achieving our mission on a wide scale. The government of Uganda is so impressed by our results, by what we have achieved with so little money, so convinced that we have the most effective strategy to end hunger and poverty on a sustainable basis, that the President has personally suggested our Epicenter Strategy be used in his country's new five year plan.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is relationships like this that will bring us ever closer to achieving our mission.

I hope that all this extraordinary evidence has enabled you to share my view, that it really is time. With every passing moment, more of our fellow human beings unnecessarily succumb to hunger's deadly grip. World leaders, at last, are making commitments consistent with The Hunger Project's proven approach. And we, The Hunger Project, we know how to truly make this a hunger-free world.

Call to Action

There is a Chinese proverb: "If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want a hundred years of prosperity, grow people."

As did their mothers and grandmothers before them, our partners in villages around the world, are doing the hard work of ending their own hunger. They are planting seeds. Some will yield vegetables and grains to provide much needed nourishment. But with The Hunger Project's partnership they are planting other seeds-a different kind of seed-that will bear fruit of a more lasting nature. Seeds that will yield not just 100 years of prosperity-I would venture to say centuries.

Our partners are indeed "growing people." They are growing themselves. They are growing self-sufficient futures for their children.

What greater harvest could there be than communities achieving self-reliance?!

With The Hunger Project's partnership, there's increasing equality between women and men; lasting and effective relationships with local governments; food security and nutrition; women in leadership positions; more children in school; access to healthcare, particularly for women and children; safe drinking water; and so very much more.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time!

The factors are aligned, here and now. World attention is at last on solving hunger. There is an urgent and imperative need that this be done in a sustainable way, and The Hunger Project knows how to do this.
This synergy has never happened before. We cannot let this moment pass. Seize it. We owe it to the hungry. They are counting on us.

This is my call to action to you, tonight.

Let us recognize that wherever we are in the world, we are, indeed, one another's harvest. Recognize that, together, we can yield a more plentiful and abundant harvest for the future. Recognize, in the words of Gandhi, that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. If we do that-if we live that commitment-we will have our lasting legacy, lasting for centuries.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time!