Getting the Wrong Right: Connecting with Arif Husain

In October, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the Nobel Peace Prize was to be awarded to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).  This announcement prompted us to reconnect with Arif Husain, alumnus of our department (PhD, 1997) and Chief Economist for the WFP, and to invite him to make comments at a College event held in honor of the 50th anniversary of Norman Borlaug’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, an event at which Shenggen Fan (PhD, 1982) also spoke.  Below are excerpts of Husain’s comments. 

Why did WFP receive the medal? Essentially three things. One is that we are front and center in combating hunger worldwide. So, in any given year we help about 100 million people in 88 countries through food assistance, including cash assistance. The second reason is that we are trying to better conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas. We have enough food in this world to feed everybody and then some, but the problem is that a large part of our world right now is dealing with conflicts. About 60 % of the 690 million people we call ‘chronically food insecure’ and an additional 270 million people who we call ‘acutely food insecure’ live in conflict affected countries. So, if we want a hunger free world by 2030 as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) suggest, we need to deal with the root causes and one big root cause is conflict. The third thing, which was recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, was our efforts that food should not be used as a weapon of war. We should not be starving people as a policy or as a tactic in a war or conflict. We are trying to use food as a weapon of peace. We clearly see that there is a very clear relationship between starvation, destabilization and migration. The recognition of all of this, together with our partners, is the reason why we got the Nobel Peace Prize.

I have three messages for students, many of which I learned at the University. The first one is to get the wrong, RIGHT. This means, spend time getting your problem statement, what you are trying to solve, right. Because if you don't get that right, you may be solving something, but it's not the right problem. So it is really, really important to know what’s wrong. Because if you know what's wrong, then maybe you can solve it. The second message is that you have to believe that you cannot dismiss things as somebody else's problem. We live in the 21st century, in a globalized world where I like to say that actions and reactions are no longer in the same place. You may have war in Syria but refugees show up in Europe. You may have economic instability in Central America and economic migrants show up at the doorstep of the United States. We spend a lot more resources and effort to keep them out or try to help them in our countries after they have arrived, than we would if we worked to make their lives better in their home countries where they wanted to stay in the first place. Again, comes down to helping end the wars so people don't have to make crazy decisions and try to move out of destitution. The third message is, in your research when you have analyzed the problem, don't just leave it at the analysis. Tell the policymakers, the decision makers, the politicians, why it should matter to them. What is so important, why 690 million people starving every day should matter to them sitting in a rich country.  And, if we can make those connections between our research and its importance for decision-making, I think we can make a much, much bigger impact.

Thank you, Arif Husain, for taking the time on the day you received the Nobel Peace Prize to speak with us.  It can be easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged, and the Nobel Prize for the WFP is a message of hope to all of us.  Let’s all remember to “get the wrong right.” For more on hunger as a weapon of war, see Ford Runge and Linnea Graham’s article in the April 2020 edition of Food Policy.