Sorensen Distinguished Lecture: A Conversation With Cindy McCain

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Executive Director, United Nations World Food Programme


Senior Vice President, Digital Editorial and Programming, CNN; CFR Member

Cindy McCain shares her vision to combat hunger and malnutrition around the world. The World Food Programme (WFP) works in the most challenging contexts around the world, reaching more than 150 million people a year. As food becomes an increasingly important issue for stability and peace, she will discuss how WFP navigates crises and works to put in place a more stable and resilient future for the most vulnerable communities.

The Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations was established in 1996 by Gillian and Theodore C. Sorensen to highlight the United Nations and offer a special occasion for its most distinguished and experienced leaders to speak to the Council membership.

MABRY: Good evening. Welcome to tonight’s Council on Foreign Relations Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations. I’m Marcus Mabry, senior vice president of digital editorial and programming for CNN, and I will be presiding over tonight’s discussion. 

This evening’s event is the annual Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations. Generously established by Ted and Gillian Sorensen, the Sorensen Lecture welcomes those intimately involved with the workings and issues of the United Nations, and invites them to meet with the CFR members. We are thrilled to have Gillian Sorenson here with us this evening. (Applause.) And we are grateful for her and her family’s support ongoing—on an ongoing basis to the Council on Foreign Relations. 

We are also incredibly thrilled tonight to welcome Ambassador Cindy McCain, who is executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme. I will not read Ambassador McCain’s bio, because you all have it in your printed materials. We’re going to talk for about thirty minutes tonight, and then we’ll open up for your questions for another twenty minutes or so. We’ll be ending at about 7:20 tonight. Both your questions here in the hall and online. 

Ambassador McCain, thank you so much for being here. Of the myriad challenges you face in your role, which is not an easy one, the challenge receiving the most attention globally right now is certainly the war in Gaza, where Israel and Hamas have been battling since the terror attacks of October 7. When it comes to the World Food Programme, what is the latest situation on the ground in Gaza? 

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here. And you offered me such a gracious invitation. Thank you, Mrs. Sorensen. And I also want to say that Marcus was kind enough to give my daughter her first job. (Laughter.) So—in journalism. So I thank him for that. (Laughs.) Thank you very much.  

MABRY: Many moons ago. (Laughs.) 

MCCAIN: Yeah, many moons ago, I know. 

Gaza is such a complicated problem and such a complicated mess right now. Not just politically, and that goes without saying. And I can’t address the politics of it. But I can address the desperation and the lack of so many things to help keep people alive. I know it was—it made the news quite a bit the other day. I talk about famine in the north. There is, indeed, famine in the north. But we have managed to get enough food into the north to help stave it off. With recent developments, as you know, it’s been very difficult to do it. And unless we can sustain that aid, famine will blow its head back up.  

We deal with gates and we—I know you count trucks, and, you know, we all pay attention to the news and see what’s going on. There’s really no day that’s the same. There’s sometimes we get trucks in. Sometimes we don’t. Rafah’s closed, as you know, and then we have Kerem Shalom, which the U.N. gate that goes in. The pier we built—the pier. The pier was—became very dangerous this week, so we’ve halted—we’ve paused our use of the pier for the moment because we have to guarantee our people’s safety. We had—deconfliction is an issue, not just for us but for every aid agency in there, those that are in there, because they rocket—they rocketed two of our warehouses. One person was injured as a result of it.  

It’s a—my field—my senior field people are saying it’s the worst conflict they’ve ever seen, from a humanitarian standpoint. They’ve never seen anything like this. I wish I had better news. I wish that I could say—all of us are praying for a ceasefire, for our ability to be able to get in and feed at scale. And, more importantly, to remember that the brunt—the people that are taking the brunt of this are women and children. And so on a daily basis, we have to try to either get lots of trucks in, a few trucks in, maybe we don’t get trucks in that day, maybe we don’t the next day. And the safety aspect. I have—that’s my first and foremost concern for our staff there. We have staff that are working there right now that have not rotated out since it began, because they can’t get out. And so that’s a staff wellness issue now that we have to deal with.  

I have to tell you, though, WFP has some of the finest people I’ve ever met, especially these—you know, these that face these horrible crises like this. They’re remarkable. They’re dedicated. They’re driven. And they do not stop. They do not give it up. They’ll take it to the very end, until we can’t—simply can’t get it in at all. So, again, I wish I had better news. I was saying earlier, I’m a lot of fun at a dinner party. I can bring it down like that. (Laughter.) 

MABRY: It is not an easy job, as you said at the top. For those who don’t know what deconfliction is, what is deconfliction?  

MCCAIN: Well, deconfliction is when our warehouses or other hospitals or things are identified as not—you can’t touch them, in terms of bombing them, shooting them, whatever it may be. And it’s simply—there’s confusion on the ground. We get—we never get quite the same stories. Nevertheless, our warehouses are not safe, and our people are not safe. We’ve now moved them all to a collective safe house in the middle of the country right now.  

MABRY: As you said, the situation changes day to day and gate to gate. 

MCCAIN: Yeah. Yeah. 

MABRY: Overall, how would you quantify, if you can quantify, how much—how many trucks, how much food, however you want to quantify, it is getting in versus how much is needed? 

MCCAIN: Mmm hmm. Well, we need way more than we’re getting in—way more than we’re getting in. And we’re also now beginning to see what could be developing famine-like issues in the south. And so we need to be able to get in at scale. What does scale mean? I mean hundreds of trucks. And we need to be able to get it in fast. People are starving to death. They really are. And more importantly, it’s women and children, as I said, that are really taking the brunt of this. Which is the same situation in every country that has conflict. Women and children take the brunt of it. That’s true with COVID—or, that’s true with climate change as well. So, you know, if I could get as many trucks as I want in, I’d have them running 24/7 to be able to get them—get it in, and get it distributed to those.  

MABRY: Prime Minister Netanyahu said that, when you used that phrase of “famine,” he said you were misinformed, I think was the phrase he used. 

MCCAIN: (Laughs.) No, I’m sorry. I’m not laughing—(laughter). Look, the political aspects of this, as I said, I work for the U.N. I have no political advantage in this. But there is famine. And we’ve seen it. We’ve seen the evidence of it and we’ve seen the deaths from it. So it does exist within the country. We can’t—and we can’t let that slide. This is not a political issue. This is life and death. And so I have had some good conversations with the Israelis. I’ve had the option to voice what our concerns are and what we think. And they have responded, to a degree. So I’m not—you know, again, we have to work there. But we’ve got to feed people. We have to. 

MABRY: How much time do we have to avoid famine?  

MCCAIN: Very little. Very little. Especially in the south. I mean, we’re talking maybe a couple of weeks. It’s very difficult. There’s a report called the IPC report which discusses hunger and famine depending on the region. And it grades it. And that’s coming—that will be out next week. So you will see—and that’s not just for Gaza. It’s also for Yemen. It’s for Sudan. It’s for DRC Congo. It’s also for Haiti. You’ll see it. And it’s a worldwide approach to it.  

MABRY: Again, for lay folks who may not understand difference between these terms, let’s say hunger and famine, when you were on CBS on Sunday you used this kind of heartbreaking formulation where you said sometimes you have to take food away from the hungry to give it to the starving.  

MCCAIN: True. That’s true. 

MABRY: I wonder if you could talk to us about those differences between famine and hunger.  

MCCAIN: Well, in the case of that it’s a situation, and in some other countries as well, like Sudan, we’ve had to make the conscious decisions because we don’t have enough money. So how do we feed? Where do we feed? Who do we feed? So I’ve had to cut rations. I’ve had to cut people from the roles that can’t even get food now. And I have been faced with the decision, along with my team, almost on a daily basis, which hungry people do I take it from to give to the starving? Because we don’t have enough money. 

MABRY: For a long time I was a foreign correspondent based in Europe and then Africa, and in Africa often covering war zones in Angola and Sudan. It was the World Food Programme that allowed me access, as a journalist, to get into places. And so thank you for that, because journalists can’t tell the stories to the world if we don’t go places. And, of course, Gaza is a place where it’s hard for us to go to. But thank you for all your efforts that have helped countless journalists around the world to tell the stories.  

I try to explain to my two fourteen-year-olds what it’s like at a camp, with children who can’t eat and parents who—sometimes moms are still nursing their children who are really not here anymore. Can you tell us, doing this work day-in and day-out, how do you find the hope to keep doing it? 

MCCAIN: Yeah, I came into this job with a solid knowledge of what I was getting into. I have to say, it’s gotten much tougher, because we’ve had—I’ve been on the job a year now, and we’ve had crises after crises after crises. It’s almost been like one a month for us. So what I do—I mean, I really—there were days when I really just wanted to cry and stick my head in a pillow because I was so overwhelmed with the amount that was coming at us. But I think, you know, on those days—and my children actually said this to me. They said, mom, you can’t give up, because then they give up. And so they were right. They’re absolutely right.  

But the folks at WFP, that’s the beauty of them. They don’t give up. And we have to make the decisions. It’s a tough—you know, this is a tough line of work to be in. It’s a tough line of work. But I’m so proud to be a part of this. I’m so honored to have the ability to lead this organization. It was a lifelong goal of mine to do this. (Laughs.) So here I am. 

MABRY: And we’re grateful for you to doing it. Do you have any more insight than we do? We’ve heard lots when it comes to the hope for, if not a peace, at least a ceasefire. We’ve heard lots of information, and we hear different things being said publicly versus privately. Do you have any sense of where Hamas or the Israeli government is right now in accepting the U.S. put forward plan and resolution that was passed in the U.N.? 

MCCAIN: Well, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield this morning. And I asked her the same question. I said, is there any hope? Is there any hope? And she was a little optimistic, but she was also real that things could change. You know, views could change. It’s a very delicate situation in this. I just—you know, I say continuously, and post online continuously, we have to have a ceasefire. We’ve got to have a ceasefire to make sure that these people all don’t starve to death. It’s the only way out of this, with regards to humanitarian aid. 

MABRY: The Wall Street Journal had an exclusive piece this morning on the Hamas leader and his communications—reported communications with his negotiators, in which he said, you know, it’s very chilling messages. Perhaps not surprising, given the source. But including the fact that, you know, things are—to the effect, things are going our way. These tens of thousands of Palestinian casualties. They have Israel on ropes, as they—as he put it. That would—one would think that means that, you know, it’s not in his interest to have a ceasefire. 

MCCAIN: I would say not. (Laughs.) Yeah, yeah. I think—I don’t discount what you’re saying at all. Again, politically, I just keep my head down on that kind of stuff. We’re not allowed to voice any political decision. I’m not trying to dodge the question. It’s the truth, though. I view this from a simple lens of we’ve got to feed. We’ve got to make sure people don’t die. And we need trucks fuel. You know, we take in not just food. We take in water. We take in sanitation supplies. We take in medicine also. It’s the U.N. together in one area.  

I know the question—some people were asking a question about UNRWA, and what does—what role does UNRWA play in all this. And I know UNRWA’s very controversial, but I will—I will tell you, it’s very difficult to operate in Gaza without UNRWA because they’re connected in the neighborhoods, they’re connected in the fields. Now I know that there’s discussions about whether or not, you know, there’s Hamas within their—infiltrated in there. Our people have never seen any indication of that. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but right now we are working together with each other trying to get as much food in as we can get.  

MABRY: Have you been able to bring more aid in since the very well-publicized rescue of the four Israeli hostages? Has that opened up— 

MCCAIN: No, it’s less, because we’ve had to—we’ve had to keep—we can’t use the pier right now. We’ve made the conscious decision with the U.N. security services that we can’t use the pier at this moment. But we are getting in other ways. We’re taking food in from another direction. So the north, the south. There’s a road called the Fence Road. It’s a military road that we use. And we also use an external road that goes up within Jordan to the—to the north, and then comes in that way. 

MABRY: In which part of Gaza is the greatest risk of famine present right now? 

MCCAIN: The south right now. There at Rafah. 

MABRY: OK. We’ve talked about Gaza and, you know, like I said, it is the crisis grabbing international headlines the most, but it is not the only crisis, by far.  


MABRY: You talk a lot about Sudan. And it’s something that maybe we the media—we have done some coverage at CNN I’m very proud of, but probably none of us have done enough. Tell us about the Sudan situation and what the world should know. 

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, don’t forget about it, because, as I said, it will—it has the very serious, urgent possibility of becoming the largest humanitarian crisis on the planet. Famine is evident. As I said, there the IPC report is going to pretty much say that in in many ways. There’s different levels of it, but they’re going to—it’s not a good report that’s coming out. And it’s been difficult to get in. We’ve had to work with various factions. You know, we can’t work with the military. We’re not—you know, by mandate, that’s not what we do. So being able to get in and not be not being held at a gate or held on the road for three months before we can take it up to where it needs to go, or being safe when we do it—safe and unfettered access—is a large part of this.  

So we’re limited. There’s a couple of gates from the Chad direction that we can get in from. There’s one—right now we have a ship full of sorghum, which is an important element that that they need in that region, that the Egyptians are bringing down. They’re going to put it at Port Said, and then they’ll take it in from there. We’ll see if that works. But it’s very difficult. And, you know, of course, climate change is huge, and now we’re coming into what they call the lean season. That means heavy rains. And you cannot—you can’t even drive in the—in the heavy rains. So it becomes very difficult. We’ve staged food in both Chad and South Sudan, but it’s going to be really hard and people are going to die.  

MABRY: And say again, for those who—you said it quickly—you can’t work with the military. (Laughs.) 


MABRY: And in a lot of these places, the military is in control. So say more about that. 

MCCAIN: Well, we—you know, we try to negotiate with what government there is to see—to make it so that we can get in, and get in safely. But it’s, you know, a lot—in a lot of places the only people that are on the roads are the military. So we have to—just have to be careful. And we have to maintain our independence and our neutrality in all of this. And that’s very important.  

MABRY: And in Sudan then, who do you have to negotiate for access, and for safety, and secured, unfettered? 

MCCAIN: The various factions that are in there. Some of the government, although there’s not much government left. Really depends. A lot of times it’s villages. It’s the leaders of the village. I mean, you get, you know, a ways up the road and then there’s another checkpoint with other people that are—that are defending that checkpoint. So it’s a problem. But I will say, our people—on the day that that occurred, our people managed to put together a car convoy of about thirty—I guess, thirty vehicles. And we got out about 150 people, didn’t we, to help—and WFP people drove them out to get them out safely. These are diplomats and people that were on the ground living there and things. So I’m very proud of our people for that.  

MABRY: And talk to us about Yemen, another— 

MCCAIN: Yeah. Well, right now the folks in Yemen kidnapped or arrested thirteen U.N. workers, and various workers. They’re not all U.N. One of which is a WFP worker. And we can’t get—we haven’t been able to get her released. So what’s actually happening there is that now they’ve accused us—you’ve seen the news, I’m sure. We’re all spies. Everyone that works for the U.N. is a spy. Yeah. So that has caused a kink in what’s going on in terms of us being able to negotiate them out and to get—not only get the aid workers out, to be able to get food in. We’ve had to halt right now our aid operations in there, because we can’t—we can’t function right now.  

MABRY: So how many people are not getting food? 

MCCAIN: A lot—700(,000)-800,000. 

MABRY: You mentioned the climate change challenge.  

MCCAIN: Yeah.  

MABRY: What is the connection between the climate change challenge and food security globally? 

MCCAIN: Mmm hmm. Well, climate change has changed—well, you all know that climate change has changed the face of food security across the planet. And not just in Africa and not just in the Middle East, but all over the world. And so what does that mean? It means in many places people are having to—and we’re helping them do this—redesign how they—how they farm. So the crop that worked, you know, two years ago won’t work this year because, number one, there’s less water. Number two, the soil’s depleted. Number three, they don’t have the advantage to be able to predict climate change aspects that occur.  

And so part of what WFP does is resilience work. And that is being able to forecast climate change problems that are coming up, being able to help farmers—and these are primarily women, by the way—farmers to be able to pick crops that are climate-smart crops, instead of just growing what they’ve always grown. And also being able to manage water. And we help them with their water management skills, also their ability to manage water and find water. And so it’s a combination of things. But it’s all about resilience. We’re never going to stop hunger unless we can make people resilient and be able to feed themselves. That’s why we’re here. I’d like to put us out of business. (Laughs.) That’d be my goal.  

MABRY: How many countries are you operating in right now? 

MCCAIN: Hundred and—Paul, how many? Hundred and thirty-five? Hundred and thirty-five. 

MABRY: Most of the planet. (Laughs.) 

MCCAIN: Yeah. 

MABRY: We all think of—well, many of us think of WFP when we think of the relief workers, the aid workers. You just talk about a lot of science. (Laughs.) Who else works for the WFP?  

MCCAIN: Oh, we have all kinds of people. We have—we have folks that work on science and technology, that work on the aspects of being able to design a farm that’s much more efficient. Now we’re all having to do all this with less money. So we have gone through a complete overhaul of how WFP operates so we are more effective, more efficient. So that the dollars that are sent to us go exactly where they’re supposed to go, and do so in a way that’s much more, as I said, effective and efficient. But it’s hard. We have 23,000 employees worldwide, and we—and we could use a lot more. But we can’t do that right now.  

MABRY: So any young folks out there interested— 

MCCAIN: Exactly. Come—(laughter)—you have a daughter, son, grandson, or granddaughter, send them my way. 

MABRY: To switch only slightly, because this is all very much related, and, as you said, you have strictures on how much you can talk about politics. Yet, I, of course, have to ask you, given your illustrious past— 

MCCAIN: I know what’s coming. (Laughter.) 

MABRY: We are less than five months away from a presidential election here in the U.S. And it promises to be a consequential election. You’re a traditional Republican. Even though you were, you know, hired in your previous job by a Democrat who currently sits in the White House. (Laughs.) 

MCCAIN: Who, by the way, this Democrat introduced my husband and I. (Laughter.) That’s how I met my husband. He introduced us. So, yeah. 

MABRY: It’s a great story. You want to tell them the story, where you guys were? 

MCCAIN: We were—we were—I was with my parents. And we were in Hawaii. I was a teacher at the time. It was spring break, so we went to Hawaii. And we were invited to a reception that was held at this place called Halekoa, which is a military hotel and base within Waikiki. And this friend said, I’ve got a friend that I want you to meet. And I said, get away. I’m not—ugh. (Laughter.) And then the next thing I know, Joe Biden came up, and Jill was right behind him, and said, you need to meet this man, and drug my husband over. And he said—(laughs)—you need to meet her. You need to meet him. And that was it. (Laughter.) We were married a year later. (Laughter, applause.) 

MABRY: Great story. So you are traditional Republican. Your late husband carried the banner the Republican Party as the party’s nominee. Today’s GOP is in a very different place, certainly when it comes to international affairs and America’s role in the world. (Laughs.) Do you have any thoughts? (Laughter.) 

MCCAIN: Well, what I—what I will say is that elections have consequences, and elections affect what we do. And so these—not just these elections, the EU elections that just occurred. There’s been elections within Africa and within Asia as well. All this affects what we do, because we need people to understand the need for what we do, and also understand the depth that it takes us to do this job. So I’m hoping that whomever is reelected or elected understands the gravity and what’s at stake here.  

You know, these are—if we don’t feed these people, and if we don’t feed these children especially, they’re going to go in the hands of the bad guys, because the bad guys have food, and so—that they probably stole from me, so. (Laughs.) But, I mean, it’s so—it’s so, so important to remind people that this really can affect everything. It can affect not just—not just a continent, but it can affect an entire region. And so I’m hoping that whomever does this will have the same vision that some of our past leaders have had on these particular issues.  

MABRY: If there is a turnover in the White House, what are the arguments—maybe those are the arguments—that you’ll be using, or that WFP will be using, to make sure that support keeps coming from the U.S.? Because we’re an incredibly important donor nation. 

MCCAIN: Well, we have to make our case, obviously, and make sure that people understand not only what’s going on here, but what will go on if we’re not involved in it. And food security is—hunger has already always been around, but the dicey-ness of food security now—which, by the way, is a national security issue, is very prevalent. And you and I both know, like I said, your family—I would do anything to feed my children, anything. So it’s the kind of thing you don’t want to see. 

Right now—let me back up for a second—mothers are running, particularly I’ll use Congo as one of them, they’re running from villages where they’re being taken over by militants and all these things because they don’t want their sons or daughters sold into this. I mean, these are children, and they’re selling them or grabbing them and kidnapping them. And so it’s really important that we stay and we perform, and that the U.N. stays in place in these places.  

MABRY: And you mentioned the EU parliamentarian elections this weekend, where the right and far right—far right did historically well. What are your concerns with European donor nations in that regard?  

MCCAIN: Well, it’s a much more isolated view of things, not completely. But what does this mean? They want to—their vision of helping both the resilience work that we do and that the critical crisis work that we do is going to change. And it will change—it will change in terms—we won’t have as much funding for the crisis side of it. And funding for resilience, but not as much. A lot of their constituents that elected them want them to—the money should stay here and not go into aid agencies, or go to foreign aid. I mean, is how it’s described to me. 

MABRY: Right. Right. Well, we are at the mark where—oh, wow. (Laughs.) Hands up right now. It’s good. Nothing wrong with that. (Laughs.) Let me read this a little bit first before we start. At this time, I would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record, unlike most Council affairs. And we will take our first question from here in New York, right there. First hand that went up. 

Q: Hi, Ambassador. I’m Lauren Leader. I run All In Together.  

One of the pieces of information—you know, in the current environment is so hard to get accurate information about what’s happening on the ground. There have been lots of videos circulating of aid trucks, presumably from the World Food Programme, being hijacked by Hamas and other terrorist actors in Gaza. Lots of videos circulating about that on social media. You didn’t speak to that. What is your sense of how accurate that is? And the question about whether or not—because you talked about having, you know, food trucks 24/7. How much of those even will make it to their target, versus being hijacked by bad actors who want to use it for other ill purposes? And thank you for your service.  

MCCAIN: Thank you. I should have spoken to that. Number one, there is looting. We’ve had looting. And it’s not just us, by the way, but we’ve all been looted. We’ve all been terrorized by it. But people are hungry. You know, I—although it frustrates me and it’s dangerous for our people, you know, I—people are trying to feed their families. The bulk of this kind of food that’s going out is not going to bad guys. It’s going straight into the stomachs of these poor people that have no other place to go. But with that said, I understand what you’re saying. And there is a concern about it. And there is misinformation out there on this.  

So what I try to do is remind everyone, watch what you’re reading. You know, read, read, but don’t believe everything you see, because it’s—there’s literally—I see things that say, yeah, WFP did this, and we weren’t even in the region. You know, so it’s a problem. The misinformation is a problem for us, and for any aid agency. And you got to remember, it’s a conflict zone. It’s war. It’s a war zone. So there’s—news isn’t always accurate. 

MABRY: We’ll come up here to the first row.  

Q: Ambassador McCain, thank you so much for being here. Elliot Waldman. I work at an investment fund in New York City.  

One of the complaints we often hear from the humanitarian community with regard to the conflict is this issue of aid trucks being held up at the border due to dual use items, which a lot of people say the list is a little bit, you know, not fully transparent, or it’s shifting. Trucks are held up for a long period, or sometimes denied entry simply because of one item. Curious to what extent you see that as a continued impediment. Has there been any improvement? And how much of a difference would it make if there was more of a transparent process there?  

MCCAIN: Well, you’re speaking to the commercial trucks versus the aid trucks. And initially, during the initial confusion of the whole thing, there was a lot of stuff—I was on the Egyptian side when it broke out. And you saw a lot of trucks with a lot of different aid. And it was about trying to process it and get the right stuff in at the right time. So my—I mean, I joke about it, but it’s not funny. You know, I told the—some of these folks that were on the border, you know, can’t eat a blanket. You know, as much as I’d like to say, we need to get the food and then get the blankets and the other stuff in, we have to be organized about it. It’s better now. 

We particularly, WFP, we go through the gate of Karem Shalom, and it’s strictly a U.N. gate. So we—our logistics department has packed the trucks. They’re easy to X-ray, they’re the right height, you know, all this kind of stuff. They don’t have to tear it apart and redo it. So in that respect, we’re lucky. But you’re right, we get held at the border. We get looted at the border sometimes. It’s a rotten situation. 

MABRY: Gentleman right here in the middle. The mic is coming to you. 

Q: Thank you for being here, Ambassador. My name is Gatluak Ramdiet. 

And my question relates to rations. You mentioned earlier that now with so many priorities you have to cut rations on someplace. My question is, how do you decide what ration to cut and where? And I’m only asking that because I actually spent about six years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. And it seems as if my rations were cut literally every month. I’m just curious to know. Thank you. 

MCCAIN: Yeah. Well, it—I will be very honest with you. In this—in this climate right now, some countries are heavily funded and some countries are forgotten. And I understand what you’re saying, because it does feel like rations are being cut every day, I’m sure every month. It depends on where we’re at. It depends on the country. I have no funding for Yemen. I have no funding—or less funding, much less funding for Ethiopia. We just got a little more for Ethiopia. But there’s some places that just aren’t funded because the world’s forgotten about them.  

So that’s my job, is to remind everyone exactly what’s going on out there and remind everyone that we can’t keep cutting rations or taking people off the rolls, which is even worse. And so I have great, great teams on the ground. They can—they’re really great at massaging this and trying to figure out better ways, isn’t there a way to maybe keep some people on and some people off. But the truth is, we’re taking people off rolls right now. And I hate to do it.  

MABRY: And what does that mean, to take people off the roll?  

MCCAIN: Well, we have a system where when they—when they sign—when we collect them and they sign up, we either thumbprint them or we use biometrics to identify who they are, number one, and then then they’re given a three-month ration, or whatever it may be. I mean, whatever the design is for the country. Could be three months, could be six months, depending on what it is. It could be just infant nutrition, depending. And in those cases, we will take them—a lot of them—we try not to be the lactating mothers—but we’ll—after three months, we have to pull them off the rolls because we don’t have—and there’s more people coming in behind that are desperate. We stabilize those folks, but we can’t—so I got to pull them off so I can put more in, stabilize them. 

MABRY: Yes, right here in the center. 

Q: Hi. Valentina Barbacci—(inaudible)—London, working on social impact issues.  

Could you please address—I appreciate your need and desire to remain apolitical—but could you please address the sort of compounding effects of long-term malnutrition? Because we’ve known, obviously, that there are—you know, it’s not just the present issue of famine, it’s a—it’s almost used as a strategy. It’s weaponizing food, ultimately, as a strategy to undermine society for the long term. And certainly when you’re so busy being starving, you can’t be busy doing anything else. So I’d love to address that. Because it’s not just malnutrition in the present. It’s undermining capability and brain power in the future as a tactic.  

MCCAIN: Yeah. Well, thank you for the question. Long-term malnutrition in a child, what I’ll address, is—so a child that has no proper nutrients for an extended period time, and can’t have access to them, has lack of water, a lack of stability, I mean, it all affects the body. Takes a generation of children and takes them out of—completely takes them off the books. You know, you and I and all of us had the great opportunity to have great nutrition. We grew up healthy. We grew up in an environment where we were safe. A lot of these children don’t have it. And the effects of long-term malnutrition, they don’t function properly. 

You know, these—we’re talking about future leaders of countries. We want them to be well fed. We want them to be—to be healthy, and all this. And long-term malnutrition degenerates all of that. And so it is a—it’s literally a generation of children that are being harmed and put through this, and in many ways dropped because they aren’t—they’ll never function properly because of it. And that just breaks my heart. You know, I find that hard. And we try to do—we try to take our infants, of course, they get a special high nutrition—this packet thing that we put them on for weeks, and then once they gain some weight we can take them off. But it really depends. But kids need nutrition to have their brains grow properly and their organs to grow properly. So everything is a wreck without good nutrition. And it affects an entire generation of children. 

MABRY: Ambassador, we’re going to take a call from our online audience. 

MCCAIN: Oh, good. Online. 

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Felice Gaer. 

Q: Thank you very much. I noticed last fall that you received a lot of criticism, lot of news articles about—from your own staff—about your own position with regard to Gaza and having gone to a particular conference. I’m wondering how you addressed that, and if you have—and if it’s been—and if it’s continued. And if you could comment on that. 

MCCAIN: Sure. Well, first of all, I went to the Halifax Forum. And there was an award being given to an organization in my husband’s name. So I was there because of my husband. And people disagreed that I shouldn’t have been there. They thought perhaps I shouldn’t be a part of that. I shouldn’t have—you know, and I—as I said to the people that criticized me, and I’ll say it again, you can take a lot of things away from me to do this job, but not my husband. And so I back—I backed people down, and I just stood my ground. But nevertheless, it was quite an outcry from it. And I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry for the fact that people were so upset, because I didn’t do anything political. I was just supporting my husband. 

MABRY: Thank you, Ambassador. Back here on the right. 

Q: Thank you so much for your service and your answer just now, and I had seen it in the news before. It’s inspiring and beautiful.  

My question is about climate change. And I want to commend you on all the work that you’re doing towards improving resilience. But at the same time, there’s a tension when we think about the upstream drivers of famine. Right now, we are facing the convergence of two existential threats, climate change and biodiversity loss. And a lot of that is driven by appetites in high-income countries and middle-income countries for meat. And I’m just curious how you see that tension, because this desire in higher-income countries for certain foods might actually be driving famine elsewhere in the world. 

MCCAIN: I’ve heard this argument. And I don’t disagree with any of it. I’m just not a scientist to be able to tell you what’s right or what’s wrong. What we try to do—we deal in two kinds of food. We deal in emergency, immediate food to fill stomachs who are empty. And we also deal in resilient foods that we grow, and the long-term things, like our malnutrition efforts for our young babies and things. I think I’m going to leave that up to the scientists to tell me what to do, because, as I said, I’m not—we do have a team of people that are working on just that, to figure out what’s the right thing to do for us and the right thing to make sure that we do for biodiversity and climate change as well. But I’m going to—I’m going to claim ignorance on this one, and tell you—it’s not out of our realm of thinking at all. It’s on the table at WFP—but I don’t have an answer. 

MABRY: I had a question right here, second row. 

Q: Thank you for the inspiring work that you do. I’m Bhakti Mirchandani from Trinity Church Wall Street.  

I was curious, you’ve been around a lot of bipartisan solutions, and have probably been central to some of the thinking on a lot of them. What’s a bipartisan solution that we could all rally behind to solve some of these issues? Kind of historically some of these things—these things are not getting solved. Would be, you know, as American as, you know, apple pie and motherhood and we could all get behind them. But what do you think would work today? 

MCCAIN: Well, from a bipartisan standpoint, the truth is we should never politicize food. And we should never politicize who gets food and who doesn’t get food. That should never be a part of this. So I’ve been asked this question before. And what I say is, look, we got to work together on this. The world’s too small not to. And we have to make sure that we—that we not just talk amongst ourselves, but we talk to each other and around our churches, our synagogues, our schools, whatever it may be. And teach our children about making sure that we deal in respect and dignity for all people. And so that—I mean, that’s the simplest way I can explain how I feel and how I think we should operate this. But in a large part of it, that is respect and dignity in schools. 

MABRY: Thank you. I’m going back to the same place, and then we’ll go to this gentleman here after. 

Q: Thank you so much. I have a million questions, including why we can’t find more money, but I would like to ask a question. I’m the dean of Long Island University’s Global College. And I know many people who, you know, are connected to young people. Our young people are amazing. And I’d like to just say here, if there’s any way that maybe, you know, offline or I could talk to someone in your staff we’d be happy to either do fundraisers or do education campaigns, because obviously this is crucial. And to hear there’s not enough money just breaks my heart.  

MCCAIN: Thank you.  

MABRY: Thank you.  

MCCAIN: I appreciate you saying that. I really do. I think our future—and now I sound like an ad—but the future’s our young people. But that’s the truth. And at WFP we are mentoring young people to do just that, and to be able to be not just a part of what we do, but be a part of what the world needs. And that is better use of land, better use of food, better stability around the world in a peaceful way. 

MABRY: This gentleman here, then this gentleman here. 

Q: Jeff Laurenti with New Jersey’s Capital City Redevelopment Corp, but long time with the U.N. Association. 

And it’s a U.N.-y kind of question I’m going to pose to you. The executive board for the World Food Programme has some thirty-six member countries. 

MCCAIN: Oh, it’s more than that, yeah. But, no, the executive board. You’re correct. Yeah, about thirty.  

Q: Right. How intrusive are they in trying to steer decision making, resources, whatever that are made available to the program? How much of your time is spent soliciting contributions from member governments and making the rounds of the generous, or not-so-generous, donor countries? Do they offer commodities? Or do you only take cash? And specifically in Washington, what’s the kind of reception you are getting on the Hill now to your long laundry list of needs and their pecunious resistance to spending money?  

MCCAIN: Thank you. You know, for the most part, it’s—I’ll start with Capitol Hill. I have a pretty good relationship on Capitol Hill. And I can—I know I can talk to people. They don’t always agree. And that’s fair. But I plead our case. And that’s important. They need to know the reality of what’s going on. And they listen. Again, it’s an election year, you know—(laughs)—your guess is as good as mine as to what they’re going to do. But they are willing to listen, and they’re good people. They really are good people. 

As far as being able to—the second part of your question, say again? 

MABRY: Commodities or— 

MCCAIN: Commodities, right. 

Q: The question was whether the current political—(off mic)— 

MCCAIN: Yeah. Right. Well, our—I spend a lot of time talking to our donor countries and finding new donor countries also. The majority of my time is spent doing that. And it’s important, because those who are bigger donors need to see me and know that we’re doing the right thing, and what the progress is or what the lack of progress is, whatever it may be. That’s important. I mean, they’ve been kind enough and willing enough to give us money, and so we need to show them what we’re doing.  

Our board is—they take a lot of time. I love them all. They’re very needy. I love them. (Laughs.) But they’re—but, you know, the thing about it is they’re well meaning. I mean, every country has a reason for wanting to be there and wanting to be a part of this. And I respect that. And I love what they do. And they do have their opinions, but they don’t really meddle so much in what we do, other than they like to guide us a little bit. Which is fine. (Laughs.) 

MABRY: And the commodity and cash issue? 

MCCAIN: Oh, commodity and cash. It’s primarily cash contributions, or contributions—monetary contributions that come out of most of these countries. In the case of the United States we have a lot of in-kind stuff too.  

MABRY: Excellent. Thank you. This gentleman here. 

Q: Hi. My name is Paul. I’m with the U.N. Development Programme, actually. So it’s— 

MCCAIN: Oh, wonderful. Yay. (Laughs.) 

Q: My question is sort of a follow on to this gentleman’s question. You mentioned that a lot of the money is earmarked for specific countries. And I’m wondering, does WFP have core funding or slush funding? And if so, how do they get more of it? And what is your discretion to use it? And what are the internal politics, not external politics, at play? I’d be curious to hear more about that.  

MCCAIN: Right. Well, you’re speaking about flexible funding. And so we love flexible funding—(laughter)—because there are times when I really need to draw on flexible funds to be able to move a country along or keep a country afloat. So flexible funding is very, very needed and very respected when it’s given to us. But I also understand the needs of countries, and I’ll speak to the United States on this, who want to direct it where they believe it should go and where they think it will be most effective.  

We do discuss it. We do, you know, talk a lot about—(laughs)—maybe try this instead of that. But for—so the U.S. is primarily directed money. But a lot of—a lot of European countries would rather do flexible funds. And I like that. I really do. In our case, we put everything into the field. We put absolutely everything we can get put into the field, because those are our frontline workers. And that’s the place that needs it the most. Not headquarters, out into the field. And so we work very hard to make sure that happens. 

MABRY: To this gentleman here and the gentleman in the very back after. Gentleman here. 

Q: Hi. Good evening. Seth Siegel from New York. 

I will ask a naïve question. Why are there so many countries that are in need of food support? Why are there so many millions or billions of people needing food support? What can we do structurally to bring this number down, instead of it seems like it’s going the other direction, it’s growing? And is it really sustainable if the number is going to be growing?  

MCCAIN: That’s a really good question. I think climate change right now plays a huge part in this, but conflict has also exploded right now. And, you know, it started with Ukraine and now we’ve come all the way into where we’re at now. 

I think what we need to do is not give up—continue to work as countries, as people, as organizations, as churches, whatever you—whatever you care to be a part of, and make sure that that we can—we just got to keep it up. I mean, I’m a very organized and linear person. We have a plan. This plan will work. It’s going to do—and that’s not what happens when you start talking about humanitarian aid and food security.  

I think my best answer to you, and it’s probably not a very good one, is to just keep trying. Really, that’s all we can do. And I share your frustration, though, with countries that cannot or do not process this with themselves. I don’t know if this makes sense. We need their involvement in it. We need their government’s involvement in this. It just can’t be us doing. They have to be a part of this. And so that’s a large part of what happens too.  

MABRY: On that note, I’m sorry, sir, I’m not going to be able to get to your question. We are actually at time, Madam Ambassador. I want to thank you for joining today’s Sorensen Distinguished Lecture. Thank Ambassador McCain. 

MCCAIN: Thank you. Thank you. 

MABRY: And please note that the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. For those of us joining us in person, I hope you’ll be able to stay for the dinner reception. Thank you, Madam Ambassador.  

MCCAIN: Thank you. My pleasure. (Applause.) 


This is an uncorrected transcript. 

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