Dr. John Coonrod is the Executive Vice President of The Hunger Project.
What makes agriculture an important global issue? And how will climate change affect food production?
Many reasons – we all eat! In addition, agriculture is the primary source of income in developing nations and no nation has made it out of poverty without a breakthrough in agriculture. Agriculture is also a major factor in greenhouse gas emission. Climate change already has affected food production, particularly for the poorest. Growing seasons are shorter and – in many areas – dryer. Climate change adaptation to these new conditions is a huge challenge to small-scale farmers.
Many smallholder farmers experience a hunger season every year. What is needed to help smallholder farmers survive their hunger season and break out of this cycle of poverty?
At Hunger Project epicenters across Africa, we’ve found that this kind of resilience is best addressed through a holistic strategy that puts communities directly in charge of a comprehensive package of services including a grain bank (with drying procedures), a microfinance facility run by women (who are the primary food farmers), improved skills and inputs, development of small-scale irrigation, and food processing equipment.
What is the role of women in poverty alleviation?
As we published in 1982, women are the key to ending hunger and poverty. They are the majority of the poorest; they carry the primary burden for meeting family survival needs – working twice the number of hours as men – yet they are often systematically denied access to the resources, services, freedom of action and voice in decision making they need to succeed. Gender discrimination remains the biggest root cause of hunger and poverty, and empowered women are the key change agents to solve the problem.
How is gender incorporated into the Hunger Project’s programs in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa?
Empowering women is our top priority everywhere, and we intervene strongest where we see there is the highest leverage opportunity to reach a transformative tipping point in gender relations. In Africa, that opportunity begins with economic empowerment – putting women in charge of the banks. In India, it is political, through the empowering women elected to local councils. In Bangladesh, it has been through campaigning for the rights of girls, and developing a nation-wide cadre of women leaders. In all regions, giving women opportunities to develop and exert their own leadership is key.
Since the Copenhagen Consensus, the international community has invested heavily to combat child malnutrition. What do you think the progress has been and what more needs to be done to bring an end to child malnutrition?
I do not think the international community has invested heavily – it has merely begun to reduce the long, downward spiral in investment. The most important change so far has been the understanding and awareness that undernutrition begins with mothers – that the only way to have health children is to improve maternal nutrition. This requires huge normative changes to halt child marriage, to improve women’s literacy and access to health care, including reproductive health care. The other big recognition is that progress in nutrition does not come from single interventions but by improving the whole system, from the food supply and pricing structures, to safe water and sanitation, and public education.
What motivated you to get involved in international development and poverty alleviation work?
When I was 13 at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, I first heard the idea that hunger could not merely be reduced, but ended – and I wanted to be part of that. While I was in graduate school, I heard about The Hunger Project and began volunteering – which was great. But then in 1984, at the height of the Africa famine, I knew that I needed to go “all in” so I quit my job as a research physicist and joined the staff of The Hunger Project.