RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now that the United Nations has a new secretary general, its agencies are also getting new blood at the top. Among them, the world food program. U.S. state department official Josette Sheeran will be its new head. She's replacing James Morris, who is retiring. Morris stopped by our studios for a look back at his tenure with NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN: James Morris has spent much of the last five years on the road in a job that he says takes a toll.

Mr. JAMES MORRIS (Outgoing Executive Director, World Food Programme): You get quickly emotionally overwhelmed to see so many children, so many orphans, so many women at risk. Women who are 35 years old and look like they're 18. Children who are 15 and looked like they're seven. You have to have emotional strength and courage to deal with all of this.

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

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

KELEMEN: The U.S. remains the biggest donor to the World Food Programme. The Bush administration has tried for the past couple of years to give cash in addition to commodities. But because of Congress and the farm lobby, the U.S. tends to give food. Morris, who comes from a farming state, Indiana, is diplomatic about this, saying it helps to have cash to support local economies, but commodities are needed too.

Mr. MORRIS: There are awful a lot of places where we work where food is not available for purchase. In the Sudan and Darfur, in Ethiopia, in Kenya, in Afghanistan, and all sorts or places where food is not available, where we would have to bring it in, the U.S. is really been a very generous donor.

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

Mr. MORRIS: Weather patterns, all sorts of things are changing in the world. And the natural phenomenon that we respond to are just much more difficult, like the tsunami, like the Pakistan earthquake, like the drought in the Horn of Africa.

KELEMEN: He recalls the logistical nightmares he had getting food aid and other humanitarian assistance out to remote areas of Aceh, Indonesia after the tsunami. 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 Programme 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 the needs in North Korea are great.

Mr. MORRIS: It's extraordinary, really. The average seven-year-old North Korean boy is eight inches shorter, 20 pounds lighter, and has a ten year shorter life expectancy than his seven-year-old counterpart in South Korea. And to think this much disparity by age seven, it's a terrible thing.

KELEMEN: The former Indiana businessman has won plenty of praise from U.S. officials for the job he's done, even as the Bush administration calls for greater reforms throughout much of the U.N. system. His successor is currently the U.S. undersecretary for economic energy and agriculture affairs. Morris says she has a big job ahead.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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