WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Catherine Bertini has left her mark on global food security through her work as the former executive director of the United Nations World Food Program.
As head of the program from 1992 to 2002, Bertini led the U.N. response to food crises in North Korea, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo and was credited with helping to save millions of lives in famine-stricken regions.
Bertini, who was also awarded the 2003 World Food Prize, talked Nov. 2 about global food security at Purdue University.
Purdue President Mitch Daniels hosted a question-and-answer session with Bertini.
How did you know you wanted to be involved with government?
When I was 15 years old, I went to a seminar for high school students interested in government. It was a five-day seminar at Colgate University. I grew up in upstate New York, so it wasn’t very far away.
It totally sold me on government and politics. I decided that, instead of being a music teacher, I was going to go with government. That’s where it started.
What other work did you do?
I went to university in New York — in the capital, so I could work in the Legislature and in the governor’s office. From there I worked in politics for five years.
I didn’t want to be a 25-year-old who had only been a politician. I wanted to be able to offer something else. So I went to a public affairs job … Finally I said that I better get around to being in government.
I said I wanted to be in social service and service delivery … I was nominated to run the domestic food assistance program. From there, I went to the World Food Program.
What would your career have looked like if you didn’t go into government?
If I hadn’t gone into government, I would have been a high school music teacher. I played the clarinet and still do. I’m in a community band.
How did you put the focus on women in ag at the WFP?
When I got to WFP, I looked at the statistics for all of the international staff — what percentage were women or men? The female percentage was 17 percent. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was around 35 percent.
I asked my new colleagues why our numbers weren’t like their numbers. They said we did more “guy things” here.
Guy things included managing trains, trucks, planes and ships needed to move food. I didn’t believe there weren’t women in those fields.
When people say there aren’t enough women in an area because there just aren’t any, that’s bologna. There are women in every field.
I said we’d find them, and we did. By the time I left, the number was 39 percent.
What role do women in developing countries play?
Who cooks food? In the developing world, it is virtually all women. If women are cooking, finding water, collecting firewood, growing food, working in the field while they have babies on their back — milking cows and taking milk to the co-op at night — they’re doing everything.
Somehow we needed to partner with women because they’re the ones in a position to help end hunger. We decided to consult with women and find out what they needed.
We ended up organizing leadership groups so that we could hear from women. We had to find ways to reach them.
What did you do with your World Food Prize winnings?
I asked the World Food Prize, rather than to give the money to me, to give it to the newly created Catherine Bertini Trust Fund for Girls’ Education. The grant gifts money to small organizations around the world working to get more girls in school.