Mary Ellen McNish, Fall Event 2010

October 23, 2010

Breaking New Ground: Women Leaders of South Asia

Keynote Address delivered by Mary Ellen McNish, President & CEO, The Hunger Project

New York, NY

I am so excited to be here with all of you.

Many of you know that I joined The Hunger Project as President and CEO only a few weeks ago and so I'm looking forward to your support in getting myself up to speed. I am very grateful to the Board of Directors for giving me this opportunity to work with some of the most incredible people in the world. And to see up close what I just saw in India and Bangladesh. To see the face of courage.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is an honor and it is a privilege for me to be able to call The Hunger Project "home."

I'd like to tell you a little something about who I am, so that you will get a sense of why I came to The Hunger Project and of what my leadership efforts might bring to this great organization.

I have spent most of my adult life in Philadelphia. I grew up in a working class family in Scranton, Pennsylvania -- a coal mining town. We had our share of problems, but we also had a lot of love. I've often said that if it weren't for my mother's unconditional love and her enormous confidence in my ability, my life might have taken a vastly different path. But here I am! And as I think back to that first phone call about the possibility of joining The Hunger Project, I realize just how lucky I am because it almost didn't happen!

I served ten years as the General Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, which is a Quaker, non-profit working for peace and justice. And, those ten years were inspiring and incredibly satisfying.

But at the same time, they were challenging, complicated and grueling. Especially towards the end of my tenure. That was a devastating time. The US economic downturn had caused a great deal of financial erosion; it was a time of closing programs and of laying people off. Every single non-profit I know faced the same problems, even here at The Hunger Project. It was not a happy time! Not for anyone.

What made it worse for me, what made it almost unbearable, was that just last November, right in the midst of all that chaos, my husband Dave's and my eldest daughter, Nancee, died of breast cancer. So, in April, when the call came to see if I might be interested in The Hunger Project, it was obviously the last thing on my mind.

But, something someone from the search firm said piqued my interest. She said, "We do a lot of searches for non-profits, but there is something about this one, that is different"

Now, I wasn't hooked, but I was interested. And so I began a series of meetings with the search firm. They in turn invited me to meet individual board members which I did, and then I met with several staff members. And something happened.

These conversations which we had in April, May and June, brought me deeper and deeper into an understanding and into a sudden realization. I realized that everything I have ever done in my life: from non-profit leadership, to my faith community, to my volunteer experience, to my personal political activism. All have been leading me to this place -- leading me to The Hunger Project.

You see, this is not a stepping stone in my life's work. This, friends, is the capstone. And I am so deeply grateful for the opportunity to serve in this way.

My most recent professional experience at AFSC greatly prepared me for the challenges that lie ahead for The Hunger Project. There are former colleagues from AFSC with us here tonight, both from the Board and Staff, as are my husband Dave, our daughter Glenna, and some good friends from Scranton. Also several international Quaker leaders have joined us here tonight from London and Geneva. Now, AFSC mostly deals with issues of peacemaking and conflict transformation in places of trouble, both in the US and around the world. But the things I learned there -- such as standing in the breach of conflict, listening deeply to both sides, building bridges to heal the divide, and then, the hardest part of all, helping everyone to cross that bridge together. All of that, I know is going to serve me well for the work we'll do together.

And what will that work be?

As many people know, development theory in which humanitarian aid creates dependency went out in the 1960s. Many NGOs have steadily moved away from that idea. Everyone these days supports sustainability rather than dependence. But, is that enough?

From what I've been hearing over the past couple of weeks -- NO. Sustainability is not enough! It's really about much more than that. And that's what The Hunger Project brings to the conversation. It brings something that isn't quite so well known, and it is this: When a people's mindset is changed, when they discover their own capacity, they will rise up out of their own resignation, and they will release their own power.

Once this happens, they are unstoppable. It's like a waterfall.

I know there is an extraordinary untapped deep reserve of the human spirit in the people who are suffering in the developing world. Pouring more money and resources at the problem, and doing things for people isn't going to solve anything.

In spite of that, let me be clear, I do believe Western countries should increase their foreign assistance budgets, especially the United States. We would do well to learn from our European and Australian friends, who have a much higher percentage of their Gross National Income going to foreign assistance.

And there's another thing, and this is something which makes me quite angry. Did you know that of the entire U.S. foreign assistance budget, only 10-20 precent goes elsewhere. Now tell me there's not something wrong with that picture.

And something else. For the past 30 years, in the US and globally, the voice of civil society has been weakened. Weakened by design! I think this is a problem. And I know like-minded organizations are working hard to change it. I think we can be a vital part of that effort!

But let's step back to what I believe is the core of The Hunger Project. Some call it an approach. I think, it's a lot more than that. I've heard it described as Unleashing the Human Spirit. And here's what I mean. It's about organizing and mobilizing people to understand their rights, to coalesce with others to demand that their rights be honored. And, to proudly lead actions to improve their villages and communities.

And make no mistake; this is about taking on deeply, deeply entrenched social problems. Problems that are often seen as impenetrable, because of laws, customs and cultures that keep these social problems from being questioned, let alone attacked or eliminated. And even when the government passes laws forbidding these things, the laws are not enforced.

How many of you would believe that gender discrimination is the root cause of hunger and poverty? Well, it is!

In Africa, 80 percent of the agricultural work is done by women, yet they get no support, no credit and no respect! That's why 11 years ago, in 1999 The Hunger Project honored African Women Food Farmers with the Africa Prize for Leadership. That's why Badiul Majumdar and the Bangladesh team, and Rita Sarin and the team in India focus on women's empowerment as the centerpiece of their countries' strategies for "transforming" the lives of hundreds of thousands of families.

And believe me, this gender discrimination is not the gender discrimination that we're used to talking about in the West, bad as that is! This isn't about equal pay for equal work, or equal opportunity in education or sports, or breaking the glass ceiling. This is the downright ugly, menacing, outrageous, subjugation of women.

  • Arranged marriages for 7 and 8 year old girls and very early marriage where girls in their teens begin a lifetime - a lifetime - of heavy chores and forced labor.
  • Lack of even the simplest form of health care with virtually no fertility control for child spacing and healthier pregnancies.
  • Girl children always getting less food and eating last - after their brothers and fathers - during family meals.
  • Wives and children abandoned by husbands who just move away and marry someone else because their marriages aren't registered.
  • Widows who, when their husbands die, are left with nothing.
  • Virtually no education for girls and if there is education it's inferior to boys.
  • Dowry violence....where a bride gets beaten, raped or murdered by the husband's family because the dowry offered by her family is not big enough.
  • Acid throwing....when a girl who rebuffs a boy or a woman in a land dispute with a man gets acid thrown in her face to disfigure her.
  • Honor killings....when a girl is killed by her own family, for stepping outside the boundaries set by a strict society.
  • And, what I personally heard on my trip, teenage girls, because they are caught in inter-family disputes, are set on fire.

As I listened to these stories, one of the most difficult things for me to understand and accept was the fact that, personally, there was nothing I could do. As much as I wanted to, I couldn't pack up 10 young women, and take them home with me.

But as I traveled with Rita in India, and as I sat and listened to the village women, I knew then that it didn't matter that there was nothing that "I" could do. Because these women...these women are going to do it themselves! They are standing up. They are working with each other.
And they are proclaiming their rightful voice.

And as I traveled with Badiul in Bangladesh and participated in the National Girl Child Day Celebration, I met with women and visited village councils. I came to know that The Hunger Project had gotten it right.

As I sat there and listened to their village reports, I was overwhelmed. Not only with gratitude, but with profound respect, as they proudly reported that:

  • 100% of their villages had sanitary latrines
  • Most expectant mothers received extra vitamins
  • 1400 children were immunized
  • 47 of their wells had been tested and 39 were without arsenic
  • 50 new fish cultivation projects had been started
  • 46 widows received a stipend
  • 10 workshops were held advising against early marriage
  • Most girls were in primary school and 3 students were in secondary school
  • 17 workshops were held about the benefits of having small families
  • And many of their villages had declared, "no marriage under 18!"

It was thrilling!

And when we asked about their future, they said they were working for a "discrimination-free society and prosperity for all." What could be better? What could be more important?

And when we asked, "how are the men dealing with all this?" There were smiles all around.

They said,"they were getting used to it." In fact, "they think it's better!"

And I know, as sure as I'm standing here, and as sure as I stood there with those women -- eyeball to eyeball with courage itself - that it's just a matter of time. They will be, and in fact already are, a power unleashed!

The Hunger Project has hundreds of thousands of volunteer leaders, both women and men, speaking up and organizing. They are ensuring that women are leading the effort, insisting on good governance and working with local elected officials to prevent corruption, and deliver the needed services that people deserve. You will hear more about this in a little while. You will hear directly from women leaders themselves.

These are women who may never have been on an airplane. Never spoken to such a large audience. Never used a microphone before. And, just as I have learned from them, so will you.

They will lift you up with their courage and inspiration. And then you will know, as has been said, "People can change their own destiny." By organizing, working and making things better.

When we embrace this concept, all of us can say, "The time has come." That in the face of incredible odds, by working together, each of us, as ordinary as we are, can do extraordinary things.

I thank you so much for your very warm welcome. And, I thank you for being open to this great possibility.