Joining Forces to Fight Hunger

Debate continues over the role of public-private partnerships in providing development assistance. We spoke to World Food Programme Ass. Exec. Dir. Elisabeth Rasmusson about that agency's approach.
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December 9, 2013
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The World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations agency charged with fighting hunger worldwide, has been working with other UN agencies, national governments, and non-governmental organizations to deliver emergency food assistance and support poverty reduction for decades. And yet ending global hunger remains elusive, despite an increasing awareness of the importance of adequate nutrition to human development and the vast quantities of food being produced today.

Now the WFP is reaching out to a new group to help it stamp out hunger – the private sector.

The addition of private corporations – from PepsiCo to MasterCard – to the partnership mix is reviving hopes that global hunger can be eliminated. By harnessing the innovative energy of the private sector, advocates of public-private partnerships argue that higher impact food assistance can be provided on a much larger scale. But this type of collaboration is not without risks. To learn more about the drivers and drawbacks of this trend, OpenCanada spoke with Elisabeth Rasmusson, the WFP’s Assistant Executive Director for Partnership and Governance Services following her lecture at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

How would you describe the relationship between the World Food Programme and the private sector today?

The relationship between the World Food Programme and the private sector today is developing in a very, very positive way. I think that the organization is increasingly aware that we cannot do this alone. While that is something that we have always said, previously our operational partnerships focused on NGOs and governments, whereas now we recognize that we need also to partner with the private sector because they have knowledge, resources, technology, and ideas that others don’t have and that we need in order to enhance the quality of the assistance that we provide.

So is it fair to say that the WFP is approaching collaboration with the private sector in a substantially different way?

The relationship with the private sector has changed dramatically in the last decade. The WFP wrote and adopted a private sector partnership strategy in 2008. Based upon management’s evaluation of the 2008 strategy, we developed a new partnership strategy that was approved by our board in June 2013. 

The new strategy is interesting in that it does not envision the private partnership relationship as only about the WFP getting money from the private sector – it emphasizes the ways in which we can team up with the private sector in order to fully exploit its capacity to help provide assistance. We see the innovation that is going on in the private sector today and we want to harvest it to our advantage.

And have you been able to do that successfully?

We have found that by talking to the private sector about the challenges we face, and how to address them, the number of innovative ideas we generate multiplies. We have partnerships with American companies that have proven absolutely crucial to addressing certain challenges, such as our partnership with MasterCard – we needed their assistance in order to provide “e-cards” for Syrian refugees. This technology allows refugees to buy food at participating supermarkets or shops that has the technology to process “e-cards”, electronic vouchers to which money can be uploaded directly. People can simply swipe their cards to pay for their purchases. This makes their lives much easier, improves their sense of dignity by letting them make their own decisions about what to eat, and boosts the local economy. Without MasterCard, we couldn’t provide electronic vouchers because we don’t have the technology.

Are there external pressures driving the WFP’s increasing recognition of the value of the private sector partnerships in providing new and more effective forms of assistance?

I think that globalization is playing a role. The more interconnected the world becomes, the more we realize that we are operating in the same context, and the more we move towards seeing the private sector as an integral  part of the solutions to food security.

As you know, the Canadian government has been emphasizing the role that public-private partnerships can play in delivering development assistance. Do you see the WFPs evolving relationship with the private sector as part of a broader trend towards public-private cooperation in achieving global development targets?

Absolutely. The WFP is not partnering with private sector companies because any government or company is telling us to. We’re doing it because we recognize that it enhances the way we work. WFP has been working successfully in this area for more than 12 years. I think that the Canadian government shares this recognition, in part because of the very positive public partnership experiences it has had like the Micronutrient Initiative. I think the Canadian government recognizes that when you create a partnership involving the government, the private sector, and an organization like the WFP, you can get the best of what each actor can offer and accomplish more of your development goals because of that.

Do you think governments and organizations working on development goals adequately understand the importance of nutrition and food assistance?

I think we still have a ways to go in expanding the awareness of the importance of nutrition. We find people who don’t fully understand the importance of nutrition within our private sector partners as well as the governments we deal with – even within the WFP.  We need to keep explaining to the world that the importance of nutritious food cannot be underestimated. We still have a lot more work to do on that.

Some beliefs about hunger are in the process of changing and some are not – the belief that as long as your stomach is full then you’re fine remains. But that isn’t true, because if you don’t fill your stomach with nutritious food, you’re not responding to what your body really needs and so you’re not allowing for proper growth and development.

Many people also believe there are risks to governments or organizations like the WFP participating in public-private partnerships – is this a real concern?

Absolutely, there are risks. That is why we have very robust due diligence mechanisms at the WFP to ensure that we do not partner with companies that violate domestic laws or the international UN resolutions that we are bound by. We also make sure that we do not team up with companies that could compromise the reputation of the WFP.

It’s also very important for us to be very, very clear about the fact that when we partner with a private sector company, we partner to achieve some common, very specific objectives. We do not work exclusively with anyone and they cannot make money by working with us. If we partner with a company that we are also procuring commodities from, we make sure that there is a firewall between the procurement part of our relationship and the partnership part.