Why I am driven to fight malnutrition

Des Moines, Iowa, 23 October 2018 - 

At GAIN we are passionate about changing the world to abolish the malnutrition that destroys lives, families and undermines communities and nations. In giving his acceptance speech for the 2018 World Food Prize, GAIN Executive Director Lawrence Haddad turned to the personal experiences that shaped commitment – we offer this as an example of the personal and human character of malnutrition – its causes and the potential resources to eliminate it.

Ambassador Quinn, the Borlaug and Ruan families, and distinguished guests, I would like to thank the Council of Advisors for selecting David Nabarro and me as this year’s World Food Prize Laureates. It means so much, to so many of us, that this community has recognised the transformative power of nutrition.

So, this speech. My first attempt at writing it reminded me of the UK civil servant who retired to write poetry, but ended up writing poems that sounded like ministerial briefings. My first speech sounded like a policy brief. But tonight is very special, and so I ditched that and decided to get out of my comfort zone and share with you some things that I rarely acknowledge to others, and perhaps not even to myself.

I was brought up by a warrior mother. She fought like a tiger for me and my sister. When we no longer had a father, she became both parents. When we had no money for new clothes she got us good used clothes. When it looked like I could not get into a good state school, she made sure I did. That is the power of mothers. Thank you mom.

Two girls in a dandelions field in Rajasthan, India

In a beautiful dandelion field in Rajasthan, two young girls look at the sun going down. © Sharbendu De / GAIN

I was born in Africa and raised in England. I am very proud of my African roots, but I was lucky to be brought up in a country like England with its powerful welfare system. Our small family qualified for a council flat in a London tower block, I got free school meals, free prescription glasses, and a free university education. That is the power of the state.

So to my uncle. He was the first in our family to go to university. He worked at a small flavouring company. As a teenager I would get regaled with stories of the things the food industry was doing in the 1970s: freeze dried coffee, instant mash potatoes, and ravioli in a can. If you can make ravioli in a can taste OK then anything is possible! That is the power of business.

My mother worked as a volunteer in Save the Children in London. She had no child care and so she brought me along. While helping out I talked to staff. I was inspired by their sense of purpose and their conviction that they could make a difference. That is the power of civil society.

So, by age 18, I had powerful examples of the roles mothers, governments, civil society and businesses play in shaping destiny. But 1 in 3 people on this planet are denied a say in shaping their destiny–because they are malnourished. That is outrageous, unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.

So all of these different actors have to come together to end malnutrition. That is because the things that converge to generate malnutrition are powerful—not enough food, water, sanitation, health care—and they must be vanquished by even more powerful alliances drawn from all corners of society.

But that is not enough. Those coalitions, alliances and movements need a spark: a spark to catalyse the outrage.

1 in 3 people on this planet are denied a say in shaping their destiny–because they are malnourished. That is outrageous, unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.

It was when I went to work in the Philippines and India as a young man that the fire was lit for me. The shock of seeing the skin of babies impossibly stretched across bone. The shock of hearing about farmer suicides because of the despair of failed harvests. The shock of seeing girls deprived of food that is routinely given to their brothers. The shock of seeing a mother trying desperately to care for a child with constant diarrhoea.

This was visceral: only experienced, as Dr Borlaug would say, by going to the farmer. This was when I realised that malnutrition was about injustice. And it radicalised me.

Since then I have been a monomaniac on a mission. Generating evidence on how to end malnutrition. Learning about how change really happens. Working with countless others to become a part of the change process. Many of you in the house tonight are sisters and brothers in arms — and I honour you for your generosity of spirit, time and commitment.

This was when I realised that malnutrition was about injustice. And it radicalised me.

Working together, I believe with all my being, that we can consign malnutrition to the history books – and sooner than we think.

I have only been able to this work because of my incredible family. So my deepest thanks and love go to my wife, Frederique, and to my children, Sovanne and Raphael. They have made many sacrifices for my work. They have put up with many absences and –when present—a certain level of grumpiness, distraction, and absentmindedness. Despite all of this they have provided me with unending amounts of inspiration, support, encouragement and love. That is the power of family and that is the power of love.

Thank you.