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​The Paradox of Hunger

· ​An interview with nutritionist Charlotte Dufour ·

"First of all, being a nutritionist at the FAO" – explains Charlotte Dufour – "means wondering, on the one hand, why there are still 800 million people who suffer from hunger and why one in four children suffers chronic malnutrition, while on the other hand, there are problems with being overweight and with obesity, which are linked to cardiovascular diseases and tumors. I deal with these issues, question food systems, policies, and agricultural programs in order to conceive them in a way that helps people nourish themselves better. In doing this, I work with agronomists and experts in fishing, forest resources management, and livestock."

Giuseppe Sirni, «Bambina afgana» (2004)

Dufour primarily deals with sub-Saharan Africa. She explains: "I work at the headquarters in Rome. It is my job to support my colleagues working on the ground in different countries. They give policy advice. They are in contact with the local ministries of agriculture and livestock to see how their agricultural policies respond to the needs of the people. Then there’s work on a more concrete level, often in collaboration with non-governmental organizations and civil associations, which includes, for example, the promotion of little livestock farms and vegetable gardens in homes and schools. Education in the nutritional field is also needed. We noticed that even when a family produces enough, woman and children do not have the food that they need, due to a lack of knowledge.

Does a woman play a fundamental role in nutrition? "Yes, because she often has an important place in familial production. For example, when money is acquired, she is the one most capable of spending it on the health, education, and nutrition of her children. Therefore, it is important that she has the necessary knowledge on how to best use resources. We work with other organizations. As the FAO, we promote meals that fit the needs of children by looking at the food that the family has and how it can be properly prepared for the good of the child." Does that mean that in various countries an educational network already exists? "Exactly. The FAO is first of all a technical assistance organization. Our added value in development programs is expertise in sectors related to nutrition. For this reason, we work with partnership programs. Often we work with the networks closest to local realities, such as groups for female literacy, cooperatives run by women, support groups for mothers set up by UNICEF. We support this education with training manuals and other tools. In some crisis contexts, where the FAO’s on-site presence is very weak, like in Chad, Somalia, in poor regions of the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, we will increase our presence to come to the aid of the people."

In what country were you last? "I was in Cairo with the representatives of the FAO that work in countries affected by the Syrian crisis. They are regions where problems are linked to being overweight and to chronic diseases, but suddenly they found themselves involved in this conflict with all the imbalances that it brings. It is sad to see countries that once enjoyed a certain economic development completely destabilized by the war. The Syrian humanitarian crisis is the greatest in history."

You spent many years in Afghanistan, another country in difficulty. "At the start of my professional life, I had applied to the organization 'Action contre la faim' and I thought that they would send me to Burundi or Sierra Leone, in those days countries in crisis; instead, they proposed Afghanistan. I arrived there without preconceived notions. I only knew that the Taliban controlled the country and that the region was cut off from the world. I was immediately fascinated by the Afghans' smiles, humor, intelligence, and their capacity to move forward, despite what they are living. It is a spiritually rich country; their faith moved me. I wanted to return as often as possible. In 2001, the Taliban regime fell and, the following year, when the process of reconstruction began, I returned for short evaluation missions. Then I went with the FAO, which allowed me to witness the reconstruction and participate in it. Really, I would say that I myself was reconstructed." In what sense? "I was young when I began this work. I felt useless when faced with difficult situations. There was no solution, no hope. Everything had been destroyed. We were there with emergency aid programs, but they were drops in an ocean of needs. We asked ourselves: what are we good for? Then, we understood that our presence counted more than the nutritional aid. If today I work at the FAO, it is because I consider myself a courier. In intervening action, what is important is meeting another person, what you learn from another person, what you can build together. When you stay in a country for a long time, you ask yourself: what remains? What remains are the human relationships that it was possible to form, what everyone could get out of that experience, and what it continues to give in their own lives. I created friendships with my Afghan colleagues, and the relationships with others and with ourselves remain, what could be learned about life remains. Basically, you can be a courier or vehicle of the will of God. My Afghan friends taught me to put what I must do in the hands of God. If we can contribute to this, if we can be vehicles for this, then we've done well.

The risk, Dufour concludes, "is to get visible deductions wrong. Often humanitarian challenges are evaluated based on results, but what is actually important is presence and human contact, which give birth to concrete progress."

  Catherine Aubin




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 18, 2020