[INTERVIEW] WFP Korea director discusses global food insecurity
The exhibition is being held in the Nadeulgil underground pathway to the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, central Seoul. It runs through the end of this year.
Korea director Marian Yun says the show celebrates the first year since the WFP, the world's largest humanitarian organization and part of the United Nations, received the Nobel Peace Prize. This year is also particularly special for Korea as it marks 30 years since the country joined the United Nations.
Yun lived most of her life in Africa, graduating from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Since becoming country director in July, Yun has been working to raise the profile of the WFP in Korea and the role of Korea within the UN organization, especially as Korea is one of its top donors.
The following is the e-mail interview with Yun.
Q. Can you briefly introduce the photo exhibition? Why is it being held at the end of the year, and will it help raise awareness? Do you plan to turn it into an annual event?
A. In December last year, the United Nations World Food Programme(WFP) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the work that we do on the frontlines and the contribution that our food assistance makes towards peace and stability in a world where conflict is the biggest driver of increasing hunger and food insecurity.
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the Republic of Korea's ascension into the UN, and as a shining example of a country that was able to end hunger and rise from the ashes of war to become one of the most developed nations in the world in a single generation, it is apt to celebrate WFP's one year anniversary of the Nobel peace prize in partnership with a country that has such a unique story of success to share with the world.
Through this humble exhibition, WFP wanted to remind ordinary people of the extraordinary journey of Korea's development and the pride that we should all feel knowing we were once recipients of assistance and now one of the top 10 donors to the United Nations.
We planned this event as a one-off, but it could be meaningful to recognize the strong partnership between WFP and Korea every year with various activities.
The unprecedented global pandemic has economically affected many people. How has Covid-19 affected WFP's programs, especially in Korea?
The addition of global pandemic, with already ongoing problems such as conflict and climate crisis, has created a "perfect storm" for food insecurity worldwide. Right now, as I am writing this, up to 811 million people — more than 1 out of 10 people in the world — still go to bed hungry each night. And 45 million people in 43 countries stand on the brink of famine.
One of the world's largest humanitarian crisis is happening in Afghanistan, with the country's needs surpassing those of the other worst-hit countries — Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and Madagascar.
Korea, like all countries, has been hit hard economically by the pandemic. While the government doesn't require WFP to provide any assistance here, I am very grateful to see how the government of Republic of Korea as well as many other participants, including the private sector, foundations and academia, have stepped up its support and interest to combat the burden of Covid-19 and its impact in increased hunger worldwide.
Why is it important to support food-related efforts in Afghanistan or in Madagascar?
WFP engages with all parties to end hunger. It does so guided by the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and operational independence.
Afghanistan is currently our biggest humanitarian response, while Madagascar is a crisis resulting from climate change, something that the entire world needs to unite against mitigating and providing adaptation support to vulnerable communities suffering the effects harder than others.
Currently, a staggering 22.8 million people are facing acute food insecurity across Afghanistan. That's more than half of the nation.
And in Madagascar, at least 1.3 million people *(Integrated food seucurity phase classfication 3 or above) need emergency food and nutrition assistance, 512,000 of whom are one step away from famine.
Whether in Afghanistan or in Madagascar, conflict coupled with climate change and Covid are making food insecurity deteriorate with speed and scale. With winter in Afghanistan and consecutive droughts in southern Madagascar, the situation calls for concerted effort to alleviate suffering of millions of citizens during a dire time of need.
If we want to tackle world hunger, we need to respond with timely and adequate life-saving assistance while looking at ways to strengthen resilience of communities and systems that can recover as well as withstand future shocks.
We need to contribute to stability so that people are not forced to flee from their homes because this in itself can cause regional and global instability.
In this context, we are immensely grateful to the Korean government and the people of Korea for their commitment: $9 million for humanitarian response in Afghanistan and $200,000 for Madagascar.
WFP programs are mainly focused on underdeveloped countries with serious food crises. Do you believe climate change is becoming visibly apparent to the extent of affecting advance countries? How much do you think will it disrupt the global food security?
Climate change does not discriminate — it affects all of us. When we look at the climate crisis — if average global temperature rises by 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, an additional 189 million people are expected to be pushed into hunger.
In a 4 degrees Celsius warmer world, this figure could rise to a staggering 1.8 billion. Climate change and Covid-19 interrupt agriculture and logistics, which leads to an increase of food prices.
And we must remember that supply chains are interlinked, meaning the effects are likely to be felt globally. High cost of nutritious foods, coupled with persistent income inequality, put healthy diets out of reach for around 3 billion people — with the poorest disproportionately affected — and these figures are expected to rise across the globe due to the economic slowdowns exacerbated by Covid.
Last but not least, better food makes a better world. Malnutrition comes in many forms, and nearly 39 million children around the world are overweight or obese, an issue that coexists with undernutrition in communities due to flawed food systems that don't deliver sufficiently healthy and nutritious food to everyone.
What do you think Korea can do other than donating? Do you think Korea's IT knowledge could play a vital role? If so, in what capacity?
As WFP's "shining example" of achieving Zero Hunger and becoming one of the leading donor governments of the Programme, there is much to gain from Korea's experience and knowledge to end hunger and graduate from donor assistance.
WFP Korea Office is currently discovering new partnerships with various stakeholders to expand Korea's role, especially in technology and IT as well as innovation from the private sector.
WFP has closed its office in North Korea due to Covid-19. North Korea has refused any outside help, including Covid-19 vaccines or other humanitarian support. What are your thoughts on the issue?
Due to Covid related restrictions, it is true that WFP has been unable to bring food into [North Korea] since 2020, and our international staff are working remotely from outside the country.
However, our office in [North Korea] remains open. WFP is committed to [North Korea's] women and children who are in need of our food and nutrition support, and we stand ready to resume our operation as soon as conditions allow us to do so.
In 2020, WFP brought in limited supplies and reached nearly 730,000 people, including children and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, with food and nutrition assistance. This was done through the collective efforts of our staff both inside and outside the country.
Before joining WFP, you worked at McKinsey. Is there a particular reason why you've changed your career path?
The three years I spent at McKinsey was a valuable experience in my life. As my first professional experience, I was able to learn so much from one of the best companies in the world.
I cherished every moment working there, and it was a great honor to be a part of McKinsey and to know its talented people and leadership.
At the same time, I have always carried a sense of attachment to Africa deep down in my heart. Probably this comes from my childhood living in Malawi. I have touched African soil growing up as a child and seen Africa firsthand.
Even as an adult, I have a special affection for Africa as the place where I grew up. After I passed JPO (Junior Professional Officer, supported by Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and was asked "which organization would you like work for," I answered "WFP" without any hesitation because this was the one UN agency I had seen in action during my time in Malawi. Its logo (of a hand holding wheat circled by the UN wreath) was a familiar symbol.
My childhood experiences and strong memories of that time became a huge motivation for me to join the UN and choose WFP, where I have been for almost 20 years now.
You lived most of your life in Africa. Could you tell us more about what Africa means to you? And what Korea means as well?
Africa is my home, a place of my childhood and where I have many fond memories. It is a place that has given me so many experiences and opportunities, and Africa has made me who I am today.
And it is a place I want to give back to in return. I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to live a rich life in Malawi and to study in South Africa. Africa is blessed with resources, and it is a beautiful place with so much history, diversity and potential. It has been a privilege for me to have spent so much of my life there.
Even though Africa was my home for much of my life, I was raised by my parents as a Korean and never forgot where I came from.
Even though I lived abroad for nearly 40 years, I never once considered changing my citizenship and have been proud to represent Korea, my country, especially in the UN.
When I first join WFP, Korea was not well known in the system. Since then, Korea has prospered and made great strides over the past few decades, and I couldn't be prouder.
People tend to forget that Korea was once one of the poorest countries in the world, even poorer than Africa.
Today I feel privileged to be part of this story and to proudly lend my voice to sharing it with other countries that can learn from Korea's experience and example.
You became the head of the Korea office in July. What are your priorities? What would you like to achieve during your term?
The first objective is to promote the presence of WFP widely in Korea. I want to raise awareness of WFP to the Korean general public, specifically what WFP represents, why we should be interested and how Korea and Koreans can help.
Korea first received food assistance from WFP in 1964 during a time when everyone was suffering from hunger after the Korean War and a huge flood in the early 60s.
Through WFP's assistance, Korea achieved remarkable development and graduated from beneficiary-country status after 20 years. Korea is the best example of achieving zero hunger, and I hope that WFP can spread this value nationwide.
The second goal is to raise Korea's visibility within WFP. When I first joined WFP in 2003, the awareness of Korea was minimal within the organization. Its contribution and role was small and not widely known even among its staff members in our HQ.
Now Korea has become one of its top donors to WFP operations.
It is a member of our Executive Board and plays an important role in its governance, strategy and policies.
The status of Korea has rapidly and positively changed in the past two short decades, and I would like to further enhance Korea's position in WFP by strengthening cooperative partnerships with all sectors of the Korean society and to advocate for and recruit new talent from Korea for the wider UN system.
BY LEE HO-JEONG [firstname.lastname@example.org]