Addressing Food Insecurity Around the World

Monday, December 13, 2021
REUTERS / Mohamed Abd El Ghany

President and CEO, Bread for the World

Payne Distinguished Lecturer and Distinguished Fellow at the Center on Food Security and the Environment and Distinguished Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Eugene Cho, president and CEO at Bread for the World, and Ertharin Cousin, visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, discuss the work of faith communities and multi-lateral organizations to address food insecurity around the world.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. And welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR.

As a reminder, this webinar is on the record. And the audio, video, and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have Reverend Eugene Cho and Ambassador Ertharin Cousin with us to talk about food insecurity around the world. We’ve shared their bios with you, so I will just give you a few highlights.

Reverend Cho is the president and CEO of Bread for the World and Bread Institute, a prominent nonpartisan Christian advocacy organization urging both national and global decision-makers to help end hunger both here in the U.S. and around the world. He’s also the founder and visionary of One Day’s Wages. And he is the founder and former senior pastor of Quest Church, an urban, multicultural, and multigenerational church in Seattle, Washington. Reverend Cho is the author of two acclaimed books, Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk: A Christian’s Guide to Engaging Politics and Overrated: Are We More in Love with the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World?

Ambassador Cousin is visiting scholar at the Center on Food Security and the Environment and a distinguished fellow of global agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She previously served as executive director of the World Food Programme, where she led fourteen thousand staff serving eighty million vulnerable people across seventy-five countries. In 2009, she was nominated by the president as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome, where she helped identify and catalyze U.S. government investment in food security and nutrition activities supported by the USAID Feed the Future program. And prior to her global hunger work, she helped lead the U.S. domestic fight to end hunger while serving as executive vice president and chief operating officer of what is now Feeding America. And she also was appointed by the U.S. president to the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development, where she helped oversee U.S. government agriculture research investments worldwide.

So thank you both. It is an honor to have you both with us today to talk about this really, very intense problem.

Reverend Cho, I thought we could begin with you to talk about the progress that the world has made in addressing hunger in recent years.

CHO: Thank you for having me here, Irina, and it’s an honor to address the Council on Foreign Relations and Ambassador Cousin.

It’s a true pleasure, as well, to be able to partner with you in this conversation. I know that you have a history with Bread for the World and my predecessor, David Beckmann, and I hope that we can continue the fruitful relationship that began many years ago.

One really off-topic note is that, as you mentioned the two books that I’ve written, I’ve since learned that those are horrible titles for books because it’s—the main ways in which people search me on Google is “overrated jerk” is what they search—(laughter)—when they look after my name. Again, a little off topic.

But you asked a very important question, and I think it’s one that we need to be asking constantly during a time when we have so many urgent needs and conversations all around our nation and around the world. It’s really tempting and easy for certain things to get lost in the shuffle. And as we’re mindful of hunger, our neighbors both in our nation and around the world who are experiencing the oppression of hunger, the challenges of hunger, we have to keep highlighting this important injustice and lead.

So maybe to highlight your question once more, what progress has the world made in addressing hunger in recent years? The answer is mixed. If we’re talking about recent years, then the answer is truthfully and unfortunately not much overall. But if we’re to look back further, over the last decades, the answer is a resounding yes. We’ve made tremendous progress against hunger, poverty, and disease around the world, especially in the last thirty years.

And just to give some perspective on these numbers and metrics, compared to 1990, when about one billion people were hungry—the emphasis on the word “billion” with a B—we counted only 795 million people in 2015. Now, it sounds odd to say “only,” but I think it does highlight the tremendous progress that we’ve made despite population growth in those years.

In 2015, seventy-two nations had made the Millennium Development Goals of halving the percentage of people in their populations who were struggling with hunger. This is amazing and something that we should highlight and celebrate.

But, as I shared earlier, there’s kind of a mixed story, a mixed bag. In recent years, that progress has stalled or even regressed. And we’ll get to COVID, but this actually began in the couple years prior to COVID as well. Hunger had been rising since 2014 due to issues like conflict and economic shocks, the effects of climate change, and now of course the reality of COVID-19.

COVID-19 is compounding existing challenges and threatening to reverse years of hard-won progress that the world had made toward a more food-secure world. For example, the World Bank is predicting that the number of people facing acute food insecurity will double as a result of these challenges, including COVID-19. Only one-quarter of countries are on track to end malnutrition by 2030, and around half of all children live in countries that are not on track.

So just for a moment to reflect upon these statistics and numbers, it’s quite sobering. And I think it’s important for a purpose like this to be reminded of the sobering nature of the work that’s before us.

Now, that’s the overall picture, but as I’m sharing some mixed messages, there are pockets of progress even amid the challenging larger picture. Progress against hunger and poverty has always been somewhat uneven as countries have different experiences that impact hunger locally. The most recent data shows that between 2019 and 2020 hunger decreased in countries that were not affected by conflict, climate change, or economic downturn.

There has been clear progress against hunger and malnutrition in places where Feed the Future—the U.S. government’s global food security initiative—works, and that’s good news. Feed the Future invests in addressing the root causes of hunger, poverty, and malnutrition in twelve countries. Over the last ten years of Feed the Future, for example, in areas where the program works, Bangladesh has seen a 68 percent drop in hunger. In Tajikistan, there’s been a 28 percent drop in child stunting, a long-term impact of childhood malnutrition. In Uganda, Feed the Future has seen a nearly 25 percent reduction in child wasting, a life-threatening form of child malnutrition. Across all Feed the Future countries, 5.2 million families are no longer suffering from hunger.

Now, we don’t have numbers for 2021 and COVID’s impact on that progress. That data is forthcoming. But we do know that the Feed the Future model has helped communities to stabilize and set a foundation that should help them cope with some of COVID’s challenges.

I’ll just share maybe a couple more things and pass the mic back to you.

The situation now for people experiencing hunger is truly—it’s dire. It’s sobering and seems poised, sadly, to worsen. But there is hope for us, particularly I think people that are approaching this from a perspective of faith that informs our worldview and our work.

One is that we have seen progress, as I shared earlier, in those Feed the Future countries despite the scale of challenges before us.

Two, we have hope because of what people in communities and communities of faith around the world are doing to address food insecurity. People are helping to sow peace, which leads to greater stability; are raising awareness; are taking action; and the list goes on.

Three is that I think the work of people of faith, we are creating and contributing to and growing the human will to end hunger, which then generates political will.

And then, lastly, if I may—I’m sure we’ll speak more to this—is that a reason for hope, at least for me—I know that we have a diverse group of audience joining us, which is great. But I know for myself is that I’m—as a pastor, as a minister, as a person of Christian faith, I’m reminded that especially during the season of Advent, that we have a hope that we’re clinging onto in addition to the work that we do here on Earth, of that hope—that theological hope—contributing and bringing depth through the work that we do.

So I’ll stop here at this moment. Mic back to you, Irina.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much.

Ambassador Cousin, can you talk about how you think the United States can address food security abroad while ensuring it is doing enough to end food insecurity here at home?

COUSIN: Well, first of all, let me begin by thanking you, Irina, and the Council on Foreign Relations for giving me this opportunity to participate in today’s discussion alongside Reverend Cho.

Let me, Reverend Cho, take this opportunity to congratulate you for your leadership of Bread for the World and look forward to working with you in the future.

And I also want to note, Irina, that the Council provided me with a list of the distinguished and widely representative audience of faith leaders participating in today’s conversation, and to note that the faith community has always served as the operational backbone for food assistance and relief programs, both globally and domestically. So I’m honored to speak to this audience. This community has long accepted that addressing hunger is just—not just an economic and a political challenge; as Reverend Cho just stated, it is a religious challenge as well.

When I was serving as the executive director of the World Food Programme, Pope John Paul came and delivered keynote remarks at one of my final sessions as executive director in 2016. And during his presentation, he specifically said we are bombarded by so many images that we see pain, but we don’t touch it; we hear weeping, but we don’t comfort it; we see thirst, but we don’t satisfy it; and all those human lives turn into just one more news story. The pontiff acknowledged that the global interconnections created by modern communication technologies has led to an information overload and the numbers that were just stated by Reverend Cho become—we become immune to other people’s tragedy. And right now the tragedy is unfolding in front of our eyes.

As reported by WFP, 811 million people—more than 10 percent of the world’s population—go to bed hungry tonight. After nearly a decade of progress, as Reverend Cho just said, the number of hungry people has slowly increased, driven by the twin scourges of conflict and climate change, and now compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. And that COVID-19 pandemic did not just compound hunger abroad, but here at home. And we know that while Asia is home to the greatest number of undernourished people at 418 million, Africa is the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment in percentage of population terms at about 21 percent.

The WFP is now also raising the alarm about the forty-five million people in forty-three countries at the emergency phase of food insecurity in 2021, just one step away from starvation or famine. Afghanistan becoming the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with the country’s needs surpassing those of the other worst-hit countries of Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, and even Yemen, where over half the population is food insecure and requiring international food assistance. Amongst the most vulnerable groups are internally displaced people and refugees caught between the frontlines and many of whom are totally dependent on food assistance. And despite the record amounts of resources raised by WFP and the humanitarian system, WFP is now some $5 billion short of the financial resources required to meet the acute emergency food needs of the population that is on the verge of hunger.

But it’s not just about the emergency system; it’s also about the challenges of moving from just saving lives. It’s also about how we invest in adaptation and supporting our food system, because today’s global food system is fundamentally unviable, contributing to poor nutritional outcomes, climate change, destruction of biodiversity, unstable food prices insecurity, and providing low-quality, low-wage jobs in too many places. The World Bank says that our food system costs us about $12 trillion a year.

So in answer to your question of what is the U.S. doing to help address these challenges both from an emergency side, as well as from an investment in the adaptation and mitigation that is necessary to address our—and create a food system that supports our environment, human health, and economic community, I’m proud to say that the U.S. is—has historically and continuously serves as the largest government donor to the multilateral food system around the world. The U.S. in 2020 contributed $3.7 billion to the World Food Programme when the World Food Programme raised about 8.4 billion (dollars). And the U.S. is the largest contributor to the FAO’s budget, with a total of about 527 million (dollars) between 2018 and 2019 assessed period, as well as the IFED, which is consistent with our leadership role there. The U.S. contributes about 7 percent of the total budget, or $129 million pledge annually, to that budget.

While these numbers seem significant, they pale in comparison to the rising need, and the threat conflict and climate pose to food security and nutrition of the world’s most vulnerable people. And in response to that, how do we transition the food system, at the recent U.N. Food Systems Summit, the—from Secretary Vilsack and Administrator Power we heard a new U.S. commitment of $10 billion—$5 billion for—to support and strengthen our domestic food system; and $5 billion to support Feed the Future, which Reverend Cho talked about, and to expand the number of countries that Feed the Future works in.

And again, at last week’s Japan-convened Nutrition for Growth conference, the world recognized that despite malnutrition being the underlying cause of nearly half of all child deaths under five, less than 1 percent of all the global foreign aid is currently spent on malnutrition-related issues, and they noted a gap of some $700 billion in addressing malnutrition. And at that conference, the U.S., through Administrator Power, committed to an additional $11 billion over the next three years.

These numbers are important and they represent a significant contribution. But as you can tell, the difference between what is required and what the—what our country as one of the largest donors is providing leaves significant gaps, both in our emergency funding system as well as what is necessary to support the mitigation and adaptation of our food system to ensure that we avoid the crisis in the future. So it’s no longer enough, if it was ever enough, for just governments alone to support the financial contributions that are necessary to—for the emergency as well as the development system. We must seek and receive more support from business, from organizations, and high-net-worth individuals if we hope to begin to fill this gap in the funding requirements.

When I was U.S. ambassador, I was always proud to say that the U.S. taxpayer, through our government, are the most generous donors in the world. The challenges, as well as the opportunities, to change our—to change lives and to expand the—to embrace the ability to avoid conflicts and to avoid the crisis of hunger in the future will require us expanding the field of actors here at home and abroad, and the investment in the food system and addressing malnutrition. So we must provide the resources to protect and save lives from today’s crises while supporting and adapting to the changing climate—to changing climate challenges to avoid tomorrow’s crisis.

FASKIANOS: Thank you both.

We’re going to go now to all of you for your questions. You can either raise your hand by clicking on the icon and I will call on you—when I do, please unmute yourself and state your name and affiliation before asking your question—or else you can write your question in the Q&A box.

And I see that the first question comes from Bruce Knotts, who is the director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He actually has two parts: Please discuss how to address famine such as it persists in Yemen and is beginning in Afghanistan. And where are the worst areas of hunger in the U.S.?

I think I’ll start and let you answer that before going to the second part because that is a big question right there. So I don’t know who wants to go first. Reverend Cho, do you want to start about Yemen and Afghanistan, what you’re seeing?

CHO: Well, I think simply by the fact that that question is raised that we know that Afghanistan and Yemen are two of the—sadly, these hotspots of extreme hunger, conflict, and challenges. There are numerous other places as well. I think we’re still processing data that’s coming in. For example, as we’re highlighting the circumstances in Afghanistan, things remain very fluid. We know that it’s bad. We know that it’s challenging. And part of the reason why it’s challenging is we’re unable to be—to freely send resources to be able to confidently do that work there.

Earlier in the century, as I’m looking at some of my notes, Afghanistan is an example of a country that had made strong progress on reducing hunger and malnutrition. Over the course of a decade, hunger fell by half. Child mortality, I believe, was—had fallen by nearly a third during that time. But again, an example of conflict has contributed to some of the challenges there.

We could also speak about the circumstances in Tigray in Ethiopia. And some of the most common elements is either because of famine, because of natural disasters related to climate change, and again, the challenges of what happens when conflict enters into a situation.

I’ll ask Ambassador Cousin to speak more, but in terms of domestic issues, I think one of the things that we have to relay to the American people is that hunger is not a partisan issue. What I mean by that is it’s impacting all people. It’s impacting all of our neighbors in our nation.

Now, as we say that, we can also speak an element of truth that there are people that are more particularly vulnerable as a result of the challenges that confront us. During the height of the pandemic, 40 percent of Black and brown families were having difficult times putting food on the table to feed their families. That’s at the height of it, 40 percent. And by that we’re speaking about African American, Latino, and indigenous families. And so I think we have to acknowledge that, yes, it’s impacting all communities, and yet, as we hold up that truth, also speak that there are certain communities that are particularly experiencing more challenges as a result of the different circumstance.

COUSIN; Well, if I may—

FASKIANOS: Yes, absolutely.

COUSIN: —speak to, first, the domestic challenge. COVID exposed the fragility of wage-earner households in the United States, particularly frontline workers and those we refer to as “essential,” as well as the vulnerability of workers across our food system. In the U.S., the food distribution channels were simply upended. Companies that produce, process, and distribute food now evaluated that—they’re now evaluating and reexamining the risks that were illuminated during COVID in our food system. And as a result, we saw an increase in the number of those who were food insecure as—including about 13 million children as projecting by Feeding America.

But the reality is that the COVID relief programs that provided the safety-net support from housing support to the additional child assistance that was provided has made a significant difference in avoiding the projections that Feeding America  offered during the height of COVID. I have not—the challenge of over thirty million Americans being food insecure is nonetheless a crisis, but the numbers that Feeding America was projecting of forty-two million did not—we did not achieve—reach those numbers, thankfully, because our government did respond.

But the question is, those programs that we responded with are temporary. How do we ensure that those households that live on the cusp of hunger right here in our own country continue to have the access to the financial resources and the support that is required to allow them to access the food through the market system, and that we are supporting our food banks and our philanthropic food system in a manner that will ensure that where families do not have the financial means that they have access to the food support that is required in their communities? That is what is necessary, is that we cannot simply say the crisis is over and we no longer need these programs at home.

And in Yemen, I will simply add on in supporting everything that Reverend Cho has said but also recognize that we have the challenge of donor fatigue in countries like Yemen and South Sudan, where we have had a population of over 50 percent of the nation requiring access to emergency food assistance for over five years now. And as Afghanistan comes online as a greater challenge, we see donor—reduction in donor contributions to places like northeast Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen, resulting in a requirement that those agencies that are providing that assistance, including WFP, are then forced to reduce the number of people that they serve, and to those people the amount of food assistance that they provide. We cannot have—we cannot prioritize one hungry child over another. We must continue to provide the necessary financial support to meet the full emergency needs of those countries, whether it’s a country like Afghanistan where we’re seeing increases over the last six months, or a country like Yemen where those—the number of those who are acutely food insecure has continued to plague that nation and those families for over the past five years.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

We’ll take the next question from Azza Karam.

KARAM: Thank you very much indeed. The presentations from Reverend Cho and Ambassador Cousin are just brilliant and very enriching.

I have a quick comment and a question. And the quick comment is I’m not sure how many people realize on this call that Ambassador Cousin in her stint as the World Food Programme executive director did something that no other United Nations system leader dared to do and that many of us are still complaining about when it comes to governments, which is she took the extra step of inviting the pontiff, Pope Francis, to a board meeting where she introduced him not only to the members of the board, the various governments, but to her staff, who received him, I think, in a way that even Bono or any major star would not have been received, quite frankly. And it goes against all that talk about how secular the global system is because there was genuine joy to see him, but also made sure to introduce him to something else which she had thoroughly innovated, which is to create a board of multi-religious advisors to the World Food Programme precisely because of the point she mentioned in the very beginning, is she saw how incredibly critical and tipping point nature it can be to engage religious organizations in the distribution and advocacy. So I just—I can’t let this call go. Sorry, Irina, but I can’t let this call go without giving her a special tribute for the courage and the visionary wisdom that she has.

Now I want to ask a question to both of you, if you don’t mind. Isn’t there a bit of a dissonance—and I’m being—trying to be polite here—a bit of a dissonance between the incredible giving, the incredible leadership the United States International Aid and Development puts forward, on the one hand, and the sometimes interesting relationships, militaristic weapons, industry based, interest alliances, that are made with certain governments around the world which are actually contributing to food insecurity among their own populations, and populations of their neighboring nations?

I think, in this regard, I wouldn’t necessarily need to name names of countries, but you can well imagine who I’m referring to that are strong allies of many, many successive administrations, not just one. But also a small point to share here that if you look at the sanctions that are currently imposed on the Afghan regime for perfectly fine reasons, are these not somewhat a dissonance with the concern about those who are now generally facing starvation? Is there not supposed to be a connectivity within any administration between the military, defense, and the international aid industry?

Thank you.

COUSIN: Well, I’ll jump in here. (Laughter.)

FASKIANOS: Good. Take the ball.

COUSIN: Let me thank you, Ms. Karam, for recognizing the convening of global religious leaders that has been maintained by my successor at the World Food Programme. But it was the first—we began that convening of all faiths because despite the challenges that the international community experiences in raising capital for the support of hunger relief and malnutrition, we identified and recognized that every faith believes that you should feed the hungry and saw them as an ally and a partner, not just in our operations but also in our policy—in our policy advocacy work.

It is imperative that we have faith leaders using their political capital in a nonpartisan way to ensure that we advocate for the financial resources that are necessary to provide the support that is required to feed hungry people and to support agricultural development activities.

And in that same regard, we need this community to support the policies that will ensure access. In places like Yemen, Afghanistan, northeast Nigeria, many times the challenge to providing assistance to the most vulnerable populations is because of lack of access to humanitarian workers.

Despite the global commitment to the humanitarian principles, those principles are often disregarded when it comes to operations on the ground and ensuring that those who provide that assistance, whether they are local actors or international actors, have the access that is required in areas of conflict.

So to your specific question, I’m a pragmatist in everything that I do and the reality is where there is conflict there are hungry people, whether you’re talking historically or in modern times. The challenge of ensuring that we distinguish between those who are noncombatant actors and those who are part of the conflict, to provide the assistance that is necessary is one that has—that challenge is one that has plagued committed humanitarians throughout the ages.

And one of the reasons why I was successful, my predecessor was successful, is because we separate the politics from the humanitarian work, and if you are going to serve as a humanitarian and meet the needs of vulnerable populations, it requires that those questions that you are asking about the combatants and the investments in arms that humanitarians are not part of that dialogue.

But the—recognizing—I’m not naïve. I recognize that those issues challenge the ability of those on the ground to access food as well as the ability of humanitarians to access those in need. But you must separate the politics from humanitarian operations.

FASKIANOS: Reverend Cho, do you want to—

CHO: I’ll offer a couple thoughts from a neophyte, someone who’s not necessarily an expert on geopolitical aspects, but just maybe a couple broad contributions to the conversation.

Without naming names, I think about twenty-plus years ago I was having a conversation with a significant philanthropic humanitarian organization, and in this conversation one of the things that I had heard that was really alarming as a minister, was that this foundation was intentionally choosing not to work with faith-based or religious organizations even though they were working in places around the world where there were significantly high populations of faith-based communities, whether Christian or Muslim, and the list goes on.

And I thought that was so naive that they, in their Western perspective as a secular organization, was choosing not to do that. And, thankfully, in subsequent years, they had a change of heart, and they had a change of heart because we have to acknowledge that for good or at times not good, religious people comprise a significant population of the world. To deny its reality and to deny its identity is simply not genuine.

And so I’m grateful for the fact that as these conversations about hunger and poverty, climate, and conflict, and the list goes on, we’re not reducing it simply for that conversation to exist within religious spaces but that we’re including religious voices in that dialogue.

That’s the major, I think, contribution that I want to make about this, that in many ways we can see how religious people have contributed to harm but may it be more about positive contributions as we work for the sake of the common good of our global world.

To the second point,  I—again, I’m not an expert on these things. But I think the point that I want to emphasize here again is that while we work around these hunger and humanitarian spaces—and I want to affirm what Ambassador Cousin mentioned—but I think it’s also highlighting the reality that as much as we work in these spaces that we understand that in the bigger picture of things these things are all connected in some way or the other and, thankfully, there are others who are contributing to these conversations.

The word that comes to mind for me is distance, and maybe to take a step back, let’s just talk about climate change, for example. I find it troubling when United States, that we’re trying to lead the conversation around climate change when or if we don’t acknowledge our complicity, when we don’t acknowledge that we’re one of the biggest contributors to some of the hazardous statistics around climate change.

So to simply say that while we have to not necessarily in our space engage in the politics of it is that we need to have the prophetic courage to contribute to acknowledging where in, again, our policies might we be contributing to that dissonance.

So far, I think in my talk and in Ambassador Cousin’s remarks, we’ve mentioned conflict numerous times. Well, as we’re addressing conflict, if we’re wanting peace in our world then we have to contribute to policies that contribute and promote peace.

And so to the—to Ms. Karam, who made her comments, I don’t have all the answers but I can simply affirm that I acknowledge at times the dissonance and want to contribute not just to reductions in poverty and reductions in malnutrition but also wanting to see policies that promote and contribute to peace and prosperity in our world.

FASKIANOS: OK. Thank you. The next written question comes from David Wildman, who is the executive secretary for human rights and racial justice with the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries, and he writes, many of the places facing hunger are in conflict areas like Afghanistan and Yemen. Many of these same places are also subjected to sanctions. While the U.N. and governments all claim they make exemptions for food and medical supplies, the reality is that sanctions, especially banking sanctions, are contributing to hunger in many places. How can we address the impact of sanctions on global hunger in so many places?

Ambassador, do you want to start?

COUSIN: Yeah, I’ll start where I left off. OK. The sanctions are a tool that the political community uses internationally to support the behavior change or to reinforce the—as a negative reinforcement for actions that a country may take.

The literature is filled with analysis of the impact of sanctions on vulnerable populations. This is—there’s nothing that I could say or add that has not already been written about with the recognition of the impact of sanctions on populations.

The opportunity, then, is for those who are the provider of support to those vulnerable populations is to ensure that those sanctions do not affect the ability of the organizations to deliver the food assistance that is necessary to populations who are detrimentally impacted by those sanctions.

If we look in the political toolkit of what actors—what governments have to address the behavior of countries, sanctions is one tool that, I would argue, is—while it has a potential detrimental impact is less impactful than armed conflict as a response.

And so if you think about what are the tools that governments may use in—to drive actions of state actors, sanctions are a legitimate tool. But those sanctions have consequences that any government that determines that they’re going to use that tool must be prepared to address to ensure that vulnerable civilian, and vulnerable populations are not detrimentally affected by those sanctions, and that includes ensuring that there’s access to the financial resources as well as access to the populations to provide the assistance that is necessary.

FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to go next to Lynne Speed, who has a raised hand in the queue.

SPEED: Thank you. Can you hear me?

FASKIANOS: Yes, ma’am, we can.

SPEED: OK. Great. Thanks. First—

FASKIANOS: Please give us your affiliation.

SPEED: Oh. Lynne Speed with the Schiller Institute.

And, first of all, thanks so much for having this program on this most important topic, which is all too much being ignored, I think, both in the U.S. and internationally by governments, people, et cetera.

So I have two quick questions. First of all, as Ambassador Cousin already emphasized and the Schiller Institute has been very concerned with this, our co-initiator of the Committee for the Coincidence of Opposites, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former surgeon general of the United States, has—who I think Dr.—I see Ambassador Cousin is nodding—knows her well from the Clinton administration of her other work.

But she has really stressed that the immediate short-term emergency solutions are not adequate, that you need long-term durable solutions including a full-scale health care system in every nation and this includes infrastructure.

It includes clean water. It includes, in fact, food. I mean, how can you vaccinate starving people? That’s not going to do very much. It includes energy and it includes the infrastructure to support this. So my first part is on that.

My second question is, Schiller Institute president Helga LaRouche has called for what she calls Operation Ibn Sina to work with the Afghanistan government, first of all, in releasing the $9 billion in Afghan government funds, which had been held back by financial institutions in the U.S. and internationally, and to further support the stabilization and future through this kind of infrastructure development. The alternative is unthinkable, as Ambassador Cousin already pointed out. Humanitarian concerns have to supersede geopolitical policies and politics.

So I would like your comments both in terms of this question of the infrastructure development and more investment and development in these areas that could be done by governments around the world so we’re not always playing catch up on these emergency situations.

And secondly, very specifically with respect to Afghanistan, this is not a sanction question. This is money that belongs to the Afghan people being released immediately to deal with the impending starvation of some eighteen to twenty million people.

FASKIANOS: Ambassador Cousin, do you want to start with that, and Reverend Cho, we—

COUSIN: Yeah, I’ll start with that. I’ll begin where I ended and that is that there’s a tension—there’s often a tension between the political community of actors and the humanitarian community of actors, and the decisions that are made in addressing geopolitical challenges have, too often, detrimental human consequences, and the opportunity for the dialogue that is necessary to create the environment where those political decisions do not or minimally, if at all, impact civilian populations of a country are critical.

You can point to these challenges from Syria to Afghanistan and beyond. These are always questions that are raised if there are economic—particularly where there are economic issues at play, and the response of the political actors is to then provide the financial resources and the political support for humanitarian actors to respond to the consequences, and they’re not—they’re unintended consequences but they’re definitely not unforeseeable consequences of political decision-making. And if I—to suggest that I have the perfect answer to that juxtaposition between the political actors and the humanitarian consequences is above my experience as well as my intellectual capacity.

But I would also add to what she said about infrastructure and wholeheartedly agree from a food system standpoint that it is an imperative that we need to invest in the adaptation measures that are necessary to support developing countries’ ability to build a food system that protects the environment, produces affordable and healthy food, and provides for economic return for all of the actors across the food system.

This is the only way that we are going to build a food system infrastructure that supports our ability and supports the ability of global communities to address the impact that climate will have on the ability of populations to feed themselves and, particularly, their vulnerable people. And so these investments are an imperative.

We don’t have the ability of addressing the emergency challenges that we’re describing in isolation of performing the work that is necessary to create the systems and the infrastructure support from food, health, education, that will support the ability of populations to prosper and not just survive.

FASKIANOS: Reverend Cho?

CHO: Yeah, just a couple thoughts. I want to, first, begin by just saying a wholehearted affirmation with what the ambassador just shared about the infrastructure. I think the question almost answers the question. We believe that it can’t just be a Band-Aid response to these issues. We know there’s always going to be emergencies. But I think Feed the Future is an example of trying to give a more holistic approach in creating more vitality and health.

Right now at Bread for the World one of our focuses in recent years, in this year, and in the coming years, is the issue of malnutrition, and I know it’s a very specific topic, but we’re trying to emphasize the significance of investing in nutrition for a child in their first one thousand days, and how when we do this collectively it has a significant impact for that child’s life, for that mother’s life, for that family’s life, for that community’s life, and, ultimately, it contributes to the well-being, the flourishing, of that entire community and nation.

And in some ways, I think that’s a microcosm of looking at it from a more holistic perspective, whereas twenty, thirty years ago, I think, oftentimes we saw or we were obsessed with simply getting calories into human beings that were struggling with hunger. And so we see it now in a much more holistic infrastructure perspective.

The second thing that I wanted to contribute to this question was just I think our job, I feel like, in the complexity of the questions that were being asked—and certainly for myself as a minister, a pastor of a local church for many, many years, these are very complex, nuanced conversations.

I think the ambassador is giving great answers but she’s also acknowledging how complex these things are. And yet, having said that, I feel like, as I’m speaking for myself, my job is to keep amplifying the message that right now, if we’re talking about Afghanistan, two million children right now as we’re speaking need immediate life-saving treatment for malnutrition. And I think when things get very complex—and, certainly, geopolitics, is very complex—what gets lost is the stories of real people that are suffering not because of their actions but because of what’s confronting them.

So I would suggest that, yes, as we acknowledge and try to engage these complexities let’s not grow weary in highlighting these real stories of women and children especially who are being affected by what’s going on.

FASKIANOS: I am—we’re almost at the end of our time. I’m going to try to squeeze in one last question, and my apologies for not getting to all of them. The next and final question comes from Imam Saffet Catovic, who is with the ISNA Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances.

Do you believe, as late Senator McGovern did, that global hunger could come to an end by 2030, as stated in his book, The Third Freedom, in which he calls for the U.S. government to step up its game and adopt his five-point program, which includes universal lunches for all students worldwide? This could only be done if funds America currently spends on the military is spent on these five priorities. After all, is not global hunger in and of itself a destabilizing force and military threat?

So I’ll turn it to each of you to share your thoughts and make any final remarks.

COUSIN: Well, as the military and the Department of Defense has acknowledged is that food insecurity is a conflict multiplier, and that there’s—without—and it may—we may not have the ability to draw a direct causal relationship between hunger and conflict but there’s definitely a correlation between conflict—between hunger and instability, and the need to ensure that we address the challenges of hunger and malnutrition are definitely security questions, which is why not only does the Department of Defense say this, but the Munich Security Council now regularly convenes conversations around addressing food insecurity as a conflict-prevention strategy.

And so this is—I would say in the words of my son, this is a no-brainer, that we must provide the assistance that is required to ensure that we support access to the food that is necessary to ensure stability, particularly in places that are vulnerable to conflict.

CHO: These are fantastic questions and we could probably go on for hours at a time, and I know we’re almost up in time.

The question referenced Senator McGovern and his leadership, and one of the things that I wanted to highlight is, his name has popped up often in the past week at the Bread for the World offices and his name has popped up because of his friendship and partnership with Senator Bob Dole, who, as we all know, passed away this past year.

Senator Bob Dole was a member of the board of directors at Bread for the World since 2001, and I find it really interesting that for some folks they don’t quite realize the significant role that Senator Dole and Senator McGovern had in their respective areas of leadership, and it reminds me—just as one example, they created the bipartisan McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, which provided school meals in forty-two countries and equipped leaders to graduate and then begin administering the program themselves.

This was a significant victory for the global community, for humanitarian issues, and for me, it’s a reminder how important leadership is during our current time. We need leadership in all levels, whether it’s in a private sphere, whether it’s in corporations and universities, certainly, in religious spaces and among our leaders in our respective nations.

As a U.S. citizen, I need—I’m urging more substantive, moral, prophetic, courageous leadership from our members of Congress and from the administration to continue to lead in these spaces. I’m encouraged that during what feels like a very partisan time issues around hunger still experiences a level of bipartisan support.

We’re working on something called the Global Malnutrition Prevention and Treatment Act right now, which, if it gets passed, would have impacts on tens of millions of people, an example of—and we need more of this during our current time.

The last thing that I’ll just share is I think for those who are listening right now and watching, is that we need to make sure that as we grow in our intellectual acumen and our policy wonky chops, that we don’t forget that when it’s all said and done it still needs to be a personal issue, and I’m reminding myself of this on a regular basis.

My father was born in what is now called North Korea. When he was a child, there was only one country before it was separated by war. And to this day, he still shares, occasionally, stories of what he experienced as a child of hunger, a child of war, a child of conflict. He lived in a refugee camp for some time separated from some members of his family, having to pull out grass from the ground to consume it because it was the only thing that he could do to satisfy hunger pangs.

This is the story of my father from decades ago but just the reminder that this is also a reality for our neighbors around the world, and for that reason I pray and I hope that as we learn, again, statistics and ways in which we engage this is that, from my theological perspective, to embrace this truth that every single human being deserves inherent worth and dignity, that every single human being is created in the image of God, and this is why we need to have the moral urgency to do what we can and to keep going. So I’ll stop there.

FASKIANOS: That was a beautiful way to end. Thank you very much to both of you for sharing your insights, your expertise, the work that you’re doing. Thank you for your service to this country and all that you’re doing for people around the world. We really appreciate it.

You can follow Reverend Cho on Twitter at @EugeneCho and Ambassador Cousin at @Ertharin1. Just going to let that sit there for a minute. (Laughter.) We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion, and please feel free to email us at [email protected] with any suggestions of topics we should cover, going forward—suggestions, feedback, et cetera. You know where to find us.

Thank you both again for today’s terrific discussion and to all of you for your great questions, comments, and participation. Wishing you all happy holidays.

Top Stories on CFR


Against a backdrop of widespread violence, a record number of voters will look to elect Mexico’s first woman president in a June election that polls predict will go to Claudia Sheinbaum.


In his inaugural address, Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te signaled broad continuity on cross-strait issues. China, however, is likely to respond with increased pressure. 

Election 2024

The European Union (EU) began implementing the Digital Services Act (DSA) this year, just in time to combat online disinformation and other electoral interference in the dozens of elections taking pl…