Mary Ellen McNish, 2011 Africa Prize

October 22, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, before I begin my formal remarks, I would like to request that you join me in a moment of silence to honor the memory of Wangari Maathai, Founder of the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, Nobel Peace Laureate and recipient of our Africa Prize. Thank you.

My dear friends, I am so excited to be with you for this very special evening and the awarding of the Africa Prize.

Many of you know that at this time last year, I had only been with The Hunger Project for just a few short weeks. I can’t believe that it has now been a little over one year. I have learned so much from so many of you, our supporters and investors. I learned how being a part of The Hunger Project family is one of the most important things in your lives, as it has become in mine.

And I have been deeply moved and inspired by the courageous women and men who are working to end their own hunger and poverty in the villages of Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

I remember meeting a woman in Ghana who participated in our Women’s Empowerment Program. She was harassed by local authorities for unloading tomatoes for her roadside stand at the wrong place. You see, there was no wrong place. She knew there was no sign for loading or unloading. But, they made her leave the tomatoes in the street. And they all went bad. She and her family lost their entire income for the week. But, thanks to her participation in our trainings she knew the law. And more importantly, she had a newfound confidence in herself.

The next week she went back and was able to make them pay for every piece of spoiled produce.

Can you imagine? Up until that point, this was unthinkable.

Now, this story is just one of thousands. This woman, and all the women, men and children I have met this year are in my thoughts every day, day-in and day-out. They drive everything I do.

Throughout this, my first, year we have also taken a reflective look at ourselves as an organization. We’ve taken the time to reconnect with our mission and with our vision for the future. And, we’ve done this to deepen our understanding of what The Hunger Project is truly about.

And what is that?

Well, at our heart, we have a set of principles, and I know that each and every one of you will share them. They are:

  • Society-wide gender equality.
  • People are empowered. They are awakened to their own self-reliance and self-confidence.
  • Taking action, actions that will leverage large-scale systemic change.
  • All of us are equal partners and completely interconnected in this fight against hunger and poverty. Those who have resources and those who don’t.
  • Every one of our solutions will be sustained in the long term.
  • Uprooting age-old mindsets like patriarchy to create society-wide social change.
  • To end hunger we will address a nexus of issues like health, environment, decent work and education, so everything will be approached holistically.
  • Another principle of our work is decentralization: ideas and decisions are local so that the local community owns its own solutions.
  • And, leadership at every level: leaders that awaken people to their own power – transformative leaders like Dr. Florence Chenoweth, whom we honor this evening with our Africa Prize.
  • And, underlying all of this, pure and simple: human dignity – every person is unique and every person deserves respect.

So, this year, grounded in these principles, together with the Global Board of Directors and global staff, we’ve examined the state of the world and international development and looked at what was in place and what was missing. And, we are addressing what is missing.

We asked the question: Where could The Hunger Project make the difference for the end of hunger and poverty?

This discernment has caused us to make what I call a “big shift” – a shift from “The Hunger Project ending hunger in communities” to “The Hunger Project contributing our strategies to countries ending hunger.”

In order to make this shift we have developed a new strategic plan. It is really exciting. It involves perfecting our strategies and deepening and strengthening our programs so that they can be used as models for people-led development around the world. And, it involves bringing nutrition into our programs in a much more focused way. This is the result of new research that identifies the first 1,000 days of a child’s life — from pregnancy through age two — as a critical window during which good nutrition has a measurable and lasting impact on a child's growth and development, and if missing, it is virtually impossible to recover from. The new direction also involves ensuring that the impact we are having in our programs, communities and countries is documented, proven and well known. And finally, it involves empowering people to demand from governments what is rightfully theirs, including advocating at national and international levels for the type of approach that The Hunger Project brings to the table.

Now, this last point is one we often get questions about. Why does The Hunger Project want to work with governments? Why do that? Aren’t they too corrupt? Well, here’s my answer to that. Let’s take a moment, and together, imagine what the end of hunger and poverty looks like in a village, any village, anywhere. In this village:

  • Every day, each person has enough of the right kinds of food to be healthy and productive;
  • Babies are born healthy and strong;
  • Girl babies are prized as much as boy babies;
  • Women and girls are independent and they are full partners in society;
  • In this village, women and men have control over their own lives and their own destinies;
  • And as individuals, every one of them has the opportunity to contribute;
  • And so the values of honoring human beings and honoring nature flourish fully.

Now, do you see hundreds of thousands of Hunger Project programs or hundreds of thousands of staff making all that happen? Probably not. I know I don’t. So, what will make that happen? It is governments stepping up and doing their job, providing the resources people need — education, health care, food security, clean water, sanitation services. And, at the same time, those governments are protecting the rights of all.

That’s what the end of hunger and poverty looks like.

And we, in The Hunger Project will play our part to make that happen.

We will strengthen and deepen our programs. We will scale up what we know works. We will document our impact and make it well known, and we will share our methodology with the world. Again, we will empower people to influence their own countries so that governments step up and do their jobs.

This year’s deep reflection revealed something else to us. And, it’s something we’ve always known in our hearts: The Hunger Project is a special and unique organization. But, we are not about making sure that we are going to be around forever, that we will always be needed, that we will get bigger and bigger. Although, we do need to get a bit bigger and a bit more influential. That we know. But see, it’s not about that.

It’s about growing with a purpose: to eventually work ourselves out of business. We take this idea very, very seriously. We spent this year in such reflection, because we knew, to get the job done, we needed to shift our organization’s direction. For those of you who have been with us a long time, please know that we are still the same Hunger Project. We are still deeply grounded in the same principles. But, we’ve recognized something.

What we’ve recognized is that it’s not about The Hunger Project ending world hunger. It’s about The Hunger Project taking actions so that the world achieves the end of hunger and poverty. With governments doing what’s needed, and people at the grassroots leading the way.

It sounds like a minor shift of language, but it’s a major shift in practice. Over the next several years we will grow our capacity in impact assessment and advocacy. We will focus on making our programs outstanding models for others to adopt, including governments of countries in the developing world.

Everything we have learned to this point has put us in this unique position. We can see the pathway ahead and the catalytic role that we are going to play. We can see the end of hunger and poverty. And we know exactly what we need to do to make that happen.

And, most importantly, we want all of you on that journey. We can’t do it without you, our supporters, our investors. And, the truth is, I wouldn’t want to do it without each of you as my partner, standing together with our sisters and brothers in the developing world. Thank you for being part of this special evening. Thank you for sharing in our celebration of leadership for the end of hunger. And thank you for being leaders for the end of hunger yourselves.