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Women are Key to Battling World Hunger, says former WFP Chief - 2003-07-17

The highest-ranking American in the United Nations is receiving a prestigious award for a decade of leadership battling world hunger by focusing on women.

With Catherine Bertini at the helm of the World Food Program from 1992 to 2002, the organization delivered crucial food aid to more than 700 million people in 100 countries.

The independent World Food Prize Foundation says she transformed what was a small development assistance program into the world's largest humanitarian relief organization, which saved more people from starvation and death than any other organization.

Ms. Bertini did it by targeting aid to women.

"The woman is the person who prepares the food. And she not only prepares the food, but she finds the water to cook the food. she finds the firewood to make the fire to do the cooking," she said. "She is exclusively responsible for this part of her family's existence. So she is the person dedicated to ending hunger in her own family. So if that is our mission, ending hunger, we have to partner with her."

This week, Ms. Bertini, who is currently the U.N. undersecretary for management, was named winner of the World Food Prize, sometimes called the "Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture."

She led relief efforts in Afghanistan that saved nine million people on the brink of starvation, and she clashed with the Taleban in order to keep women-run bakeries open.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said Ms. Bertini's accomplishments were so widespread in the Horn of Africa that she became a household name among the needy there.

Kenneth Quinn, the head of the World Food Prize Foundation, credits Bertini with an historic achievement: confronting and defeating famine.

"In the past 100 years more than 160 million people died from famine and starvation," he said. "During Catherine Bertini's time that she headed the World Food Program, around the world there were 50 million people at risk of starvation. She and her organization led the way in ensuring there was no large-scale famine and mass deaths as a result of it."

But Ms. Bertini says much work remains to be done, in a world where 800 million people face desperate hunger.

"As we have worked to ensure that we can reach the people who are cut off from food because of war or natural disaster, we have not done enough, the world has not done enough, for people who are hungry just because they are poor," she said. "And it is that that needs significant attention and much more financial support."

Ms. Bertini says she plans to donate the $250,000 in prize money to another food aid mission, so that the money can be used for the same purpose for which it was won.