Tuesday was just as dull as Monday, but on Wednesday I got to attend an event! The speaker was Rick Leach, President and CEO of the World Food Program USA. Mr. Leach is an incredible person. He’s worked for the WWF, WHO, and UNHCR; he was also appointed to work on our national child immunization program during the Clinton Administration, and has served on House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Hunger. What I appreciated about him most, though, was his clear dedication to helping others. He really emphasized making your work about your mission and your passion rather than focusing on what makes you look best or gives you a leg up in society.
The mission of the WFP is to bring aid wherever it may be needed and support communities until they are able to support themselves. As the world’s largest humanitarian organization, they provide food for 90 million people annually, and are present in the most dangerous of areas (including Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen).
The overarching message of Mr. Leach’s presentation draws from the immortal Charles Dickens quote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” He explained that we are living in a paradoxical period during which solving hunger seems both within reach and impossible.
On the positive side, we are armed with highly sophisticated technology that allows us to target the problem in innovative ways. For example, WFP partnered with MasterCard to provide debit cards to refugees in Lebanon recently, allowing them to buy locally. This strategy fed the hungry and simultaneously injected $1 billion into the Lebanese economy, which has had to struggle under the pressure of hosting over a million people who have fled Syria. Other 21st century tools include early warning systems that are able to indicate when a famine or other crisis is imminent, iris scans to help ID those living in refugee camps, and a paste that provides all nutrition needed in one day (and doesn’t even need to be refrigerated!).
Unfortunately, we are also plagued by unprecedented problems. The WFP has counted 28 wars that are currently ongoing, which means today, more people are displaced worldwide than any other time in recorded history. The average displacement time is 17 years (for most of us, that’s our whole life- imagine growing up knowing nothing but a refugee camp). To make matters more complicated, most refugees are situated in developing countries which often don’t have the resources to help themselves, let alone outsiders. And finally, a recent 28% increase in food insecurity can be attributed to weather, so climate change also contributes to the immensity of this issue.
Despite all this overwhelming information, Mr. Leach was truly inspiring, and in a very genuine way. When asked how he deals with the exposure to suffering that is inevitably a part of his job, he answered that he is moved by the strength of the human spirit and people’s capacity to care for others. He talked about the courage of WFP volunteers who put their lives at risk to help however they can, citing their amazing response after the Philippines was ravaged by a typhoon, and their determination to stay in Sudan even though relief workers there were being targeted. He mentioned a school in Kibera, Kenya, where many students are either orphans, victims of abuse, or HIV-positive, and yet remain relentlessly optimistic about their education and their futures.
My mom always asks me how I’m going to work in politics or in the humanitarian sector without feeling depressed all the time, and I think Mr. Leach answered my question. I would feel better about the world if I was able to do the kind of work the WFP does every day. After the presentation, I got to meet him and his team, who were all visiting from DC. They were all so kind and talked to me for a long time about how they got to where they were and what their jobs entail. One of them had the same name as me (but spelled Aliya). I’m glad to know there’s another small brown Aalia out there and she’s doing some really good things. I will use her as a role model.
Apart from that event, which I feel very lucky to have attended because I got a lot out of it, the rest of the week has continued to be boring. On Thursday I almost got to go to a roundtable called “Syria: A View from a Christian Priest” but then they didn’t let me because apparently there was work for me to do in the office. I hoped that the work was worth missing the event, but sadly, it wasn’t.
On Friday, I was asked to make a countdown calendar to a conference that’s being held in September called the Future of Asia. I took matters into my own hands and put an interesting fact about Asia on every other page of the calendar because I’m a little tired of doing things that require absolutely no thought. Never knew I would miss calculus like this!