Departing U.N. Food Chief Reflects on World Hunger

James Morris addresses the media in Kenya in March 2006, after an 11-day inspection of drought. i i

James Morris addresses the media in Kenya in March 2006, after an 11-day tour of regions suffering from drought. Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
James Morris addresses the media in Kenya in March 2006, after an 11-day inspection of drought.

James Morris addresses the media in Kenya in March 2006, after an 11-day tour of regions suffering from drought.

Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

James Morris, the retiring director of the U.N. World Food Program, has spent much of the last five years on the road in a job that he says takes a toll.

"You get quickly emotionally overwhelmed to see so many children, so many orphans, so women at risk," he said. "Women who are 35 years old and look like they are 80. Children who are 15 and look like they are 7. You have to have emotional strength and courage to deal with all of this."

The numbers are staggering. Morris says there are 400 million hungry children in the world.

"Every single day 18,000 children die of malnutrition and hunger. These are issues we know how to solve. The world simply has to be more generous," he said. "We all have to do a better job."

The United States remains the biggest donor to the World Food Program. The Bush administration has tried for the past couple of years to give cash in addition to commodities, but Congress and the farm lobby have blocked those efforts, so the U.S. tends to give food.

Morris — who comes from Indiana, a farming state — is diplomatic about this. He says it helps to have cash to support local economies, though commodities are needed, too.

"There are a lot of places where we work where food is not available for purchase," he said. "And the generosity of the U.S. in Sudan, Darfur, Ethiopia, in Kenya and Afghanistan, in all sorts of places where food is not available — where we would have to bring it in — the U.S. has been a really generous donor."

Morris says Arab countries are starting to become donors to the World Food Program. During his tenure China graduated from being a food aid recipient, and Morris hopes Beijing will now do more to help others. He sees big challenges ahead, with conflicts and natural disasters becoming more frequent.

"The World Bank will tell you that the number of natural disasters in 2005 was four times the number of natural disasters in 1975," he said. "Weather patterns, all sorts of things, are changing in the world, and the natural phenomena that we respond to are just more difficult — like the tsunami, like the earthquake in Pakistan, like the drought in the Horn of Africa."

He recalled the logistical nightmares he had getting food aid and other humanitarian assistance out to remote areas of Aceh in Indonesia after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2005.

He also had to deal with North Korea's decision to scale back his agency's ability to monitor food aid. That meant he had to limit what the world food program could offer. A new nuclear deal with North Korea may open the doors again. Morris — who seems to be a walking dictionary of facts and figures about hunger — says North Korea's need is great.

"It's extraordinary, really," he said. "The average 7-year-old North Korean boy is eight inches shorter, 20 pounds lighter and has a 10-year-shorter life expectancy than his 7-year-old counterpart in South Korea. And to have this much disparity by age 7 — it's a terrible thing."

The former businessman has won plenty of praise from U.S. officials for the job he has done, even as the Bush administration calls for greater reforms throughout much of the U.N. system.

His successor, Josette Sheeran, is currently the U.S. undersecretary for economic, energy and agricultural affairs. Morris says she has a big job ahead.

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