05 November 2018

Youth are the Future: They are also the Present

During the recent World Food Prize week in Des Moines, I was invited to give talks to 3 groups of young people: the Borlaug Fellows, the African Youth Institute, and the Global Youth Institute. I was delighted to do so. The first group was the oldest—early career researchers and policymakers, the second being young African entrepreneurs, scientists, and scholars and the third group being high school students from around the world.
The addresses were tailored a bit to each group, but they had many common elements and here they are.
  1. You are the future. But you are also the present. Too often we stop at “you are the future” and of course that is true, but whether a high school student or an early career professional, these young people are the present. They have agency. They have tools like social media to mobilise and organise and speak out, they have computer literacy to design apps that can promote accountability and transparency, they have an ability to multitask and they have numbers—the we are approaching a youth bulge in many parts of the world. Many of these young people are already entrepreneurs, leaders and consumers. Many of them will soon become voters and employees. They have power, individually and collectively. Let’s support it and help focus it.
  2. Learn your craft, but live broadly. If you hone your skill, whatever that is, people will beat a path to your door. This requires hard work, focus and dedication. Think of the dozens of performances the Beatles gave in the Cavern Club in Hamburg. But you have to live widely too. That means read outside your area of specialism (blogs, websites, newspapers, nonfiction books), talk to people who are in different locations, sectors, political spaces. Get a rounded picture of a situation because it will help you deploy your specialism. Understand how to tune into the frequency of those who do not think like you because this is the only way you will ever persuade them to think differently. Also be open to your own views being challenged. The global financial crisis of 2007-8 made me think hard about some of the assumptions economists make about development (I even wrote a paper about it).
  3. Understand how change happens and don’t be afraid to be a part of the process. If you are reading this, the chances are that you have chosen your profession because you want to leave the world a better place than you found it. That means understanding how chance happens. Sound evidence is not sufficient to spur change, it may not always be necessary, but it sure is helpful. Master it better than the person you are trying to influence. Watch for opportunities to effect change. Usually these opportunities manifest themselves if there is a change in leadership or some big crisis (i.e. every crisis is an opportunity). But to contribute to that change you need to be brave and insert yourself. Make that presentation to the group of parliamentarians, find investors for your idea that will change the world, write that op-ed, brief your local political leaders, organise that rally.
  4. Develop a wide range of skills that are not always taught in school or university. Communication—oral and written—is so important. This is about listening as well as speaking. Keep it simple. Short sentences, no jargon. Like you are writing home to your folks. Once you are in the bubble it is difficult to remember that most of the people you need to persuade to do something are not residents of said bubble. Be an entrepreneur—find people to back your ideas. Talk to them with evidence, passion but patience and they will come around. Broker relationships. It may not be easier to get things done when you are in alliances and movements and partnerships but it is more enduring.
  5. Treat people well. This sounds obvious, and often we have to work with people we do not like or respect. But as well as being the right thing to do, if you are kind, treat people like you want to be treated yourself, don’t give in to the temptations of hierarchy, and put the issue before yourself, you will find people want to work with you, listen to you, take brave decisions with you and act alongside you.
  6. Identify people who inspire you. Try to learn from them, emulate them and also don’t be afraid to challenge them. I was lucky enough to have some of these fantastic people around me and they helped me grow up fast. They know who they are.
  7. Finally, don’t forget who you work for. Ultimately it is not your teacher, parent, line manager, programme leader or even yourself. If you are reading this, you have already decided to work for and with those who are less fortunate than you in large part because of the randomness of where on the planet they were born. They are the ultimate boss. It is easy to forget this. Don’t.

Why I am driven to fight malnutrition

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.
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.
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.
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.