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Q+A: The Hunger Project's John Coonrod in conversation

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 8 Mar 2012 05:39 GMT
Author: carole-vaporean
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Carole Vaporean has been a Reuters journalist since 1987. Currently a commodities correspondent in the New York newsroom, she has also covered nearly every financial market there is, including equities, bonds, Federal Reserve policy, economics, and international economics. The opinions expressed are her own.

“Empower a woman, empower a community,” Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the U.N

The Hunger Project  is an organization committed to ending world hunger. Its grassroots work is focused on empowering rural women in Africa, South Asia and Latin America as key change agents in their communities and in the world.

Women bear almost all of the responsibility for meeting the basic needs of their families, yet they are systematically denied the resources, information and freedom of action they need to fulfill this responsibility. The Hunger Project advocates for them and for its own strategies for empowering women to be adopted throughout the world.

The New York-based non-profit group was founded in 1977 amid a rising debate on world hunger triggered by the first Rome World Food Conference. In 1999, it took on empowering rural women as the primary means to carry out its mission.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am proud to say I’ve been a monthly donor to the Hunger Project for many years.

The work they do is transformational. Joan Holmes, the Hunger Project’s founder and retired president,  was appointed to serve on the United Nations (U.N) Millennium Project Hunger Task Force in 2004.

This year, for the first time, the Hunger Project was invited by the U.S. State Department to be part of its delegation at the 56th Session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at U.N. headquarters.

Hunger Project Executive Vice President John Coonrod was appointed by Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and Representative of the United States to the U.N. CSW to join this year’s U.S. delegation. What follows is my telephone interview with him this week while he shuttled from one meeting to another.   

Q: What does it mean to be a delegate?

A: Each year, every country participates in the meetings for the U.N. Commission’s status on women. Some countries are members of that commission, like the U.S. And others are not, but they attend those meetings anyway, that are the heartbeat of gender equality and the empowerment of women on a global scale.

The U.S. and other countries have not only their own diplomats who attend those meetings, but they also appoint other experts to be public delegates. So, I’m honored to be one of those and I’m the first guy ever to be a public U.S. delegate.

Q: What’s your assignment as a public U.S. delegate?

A.   Every morning, we look at the agenda and determine  who will attend which meetings. I have been lucky to be able to attend the main meeting. But there are lots of other smaller meetings on various topics held in different places. Then, we debrief and launch our plans for the next day.

Q: Do you get to participate in the discussions or do you just watch from the sidelines?

A.   We are free to contribute to the discussion in any way that we can. In the case of the meetings on Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s Every Woman, Every Child maternal health campaign launched in 2010, there was a discussion on community empowerment and village health committees and strengthening the capacity of village level governments where I had an opportunity to contribute to the discussion. I had some points that I really wanted to emphasize about the importance of that.  (More than 78,600 women who have been elected to their village councils have participated in The Hunger Project-India’s Women’s Leadership Workshops. They are now effective change agents for ending hunger in their villages. They form district- and state-wide federations to ensure that their voices are heard at top levels of government.)

Every year the commission produces a set of conclusions from the annual meeting that represents the next steps for moving forward on the Beijing platform for Action.

(NOTE: The Fourth World Conference on Women was convened by the U.N. in 1995 in Beijing. The aim of the conference was to assess progress since the Nairobi World Conference on Women in 1985 and to adopt a platform for action, concentrating on key issues identified as obstacles to the advancement of women in the world.)

So, these agreed-to conclusions get negotiated and countries need to come back the next year to report on what they’ve done towards their fulfillment. For example, there is a big push for actions to reduce maternal mortality. If that passes, and I think it will, then, next year when those countries come together  they’ll need to report on what they’ve done to fill those gaps.

Q: This year’s focus is on rural women, how does the Hunger Project’s work figure into the mix?

A.   All of our work is in the rural areas. And in every place that we work, we make empowering women to be the key change agents in the process of development  our highest priority. So, we have a lot of experience  on an issue that is very critical. In fact, it’s been very satisfying to see the transformation of language from, “Oh, those poor women, we have to help them. They are the victims in all of this,” to really seeing women as agents of change and as leaders and actors in the process, instead of victims. I’ve noticed that the language has really shifted in the  reporting of the countries this year. I don’t think I’ve heard a single country speaking about women the way they ALL used to talk about women. The countries were all talking about women as change agents, instead of poor, sad, underserved, vulnerable populations. It’s validating about how this global, slow-moving process works.

I’m always propped up by Martin Luther King’s quote about the arc of the moral universe being long, but it does bend towards justice.

Q: Is this the first time the Hunger Project has been invited to be a U.S. delegate?

A.      Yes. We have gone before as an NGO (non-governmental organisation), but we were just observers and you don’t get to go into all the really good State Department strategy meetings. This invitation is a real tribute of the work of the women leaders in the villages to be more high profile. (On the Hunger Project website, Coonrod elaborates, “It was Sharmi-bai, an elected woman leader from Southern Rajasthan who traveled from her village on Diwali to brief President Obama on the work of The Hunger Project to overcome poverty, hunger and severe gender discrimination (read the story)… Now I will work to carry the torch Sharmi-Bai has passed to me.”)

Ambassador Melanne Verveer traveled with U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to India and she took a side trip to Rajasthan to meet with the women. At the Hunger Project’s invitation, she went to the villages where the women were trained by us. That’s a big part of why Hunger Project got invited to be a delegate, because those women are doing such terrific work. And, it really points the way to what’s possible for rural women in some of the harshest places on earth. So, I feel like this one can be directly attributed to their inspiring work and the opportunity to make it known to people, like Ambassador Verveer, who are deeply committed to this issue.

(The Hunger Project’s Women’s Empowerment Program empowers women to become strong leaders in their households and communities. In Africa, every Epicenter Committee – a council that is elected to be responsible for all epicenter activities – must include an equal number of women and men. Epicenters are clusters of rural villages where women and men are mobilized to create and run their own programs to meet basic needs like healthcare, education, sanitation and better farming techniques.)

Q: What is the key message you want to convey about the Hunger Project’s goals and work?  

A.   When rural women are empowered and they have access to decision making, their voice, and to education and access to healthcare, they can really improve the lives of their communities and villages and ultimately the world. Far from being this problem that needs to be solved, they really can be the solution.

This is a huge global communication event. People all over the world have their shoulders to the rock and are pushing it up the hill. Secretary General Ban-ki-Moon has taken on maternal health and the Hunger Project has taken that on as part of its mission.

(About 78,000 elected women representatives trained by The Hunger Project-India work to improve primary health centers and ensure that all women receive pre- and postnatal care.)

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