Hoosier Jim Morris leads U.N. World Food Program
In the upper right-hand corner of the Web site for the United Nations World Food Program, above news and photos from the Pakistani earthquake recovery and a bulletin about the vicious storm season in Central America, a counter is displayed. The number ratchets upward every four seconds - 6,561,551; 6,561,552; 6,561,553 - the grim tally of people dying this year from hunger.
That tally runs just as relentlessly through Jim Morris' head.
"It's the saddest, most reprehensible, unacceptable thing I can think about for children to be hungry in today's world," says Morris, the executive director of the WFP. "Eighteen thousand children will die today because of hunger. That is comparable to 75 747s full of children crashing today. And it happens tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that.
"We need to have a movement comparable to the environmental movement or the civil rights movement, saying it is no longer acceptable in this world for children to be hungry."
Such frustrated, bold words are understandable coming from the leader of the World Food Program, which fed 113 million people in 80 countries last year, maximizing the voluntary contributions it receives from nations, corporations and individuals.
Less predictable is that such an impassioned appeal would come from someone like Morris, who spoke to NUVO while in Bloomington to receive a Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Arts & Sciences at Indiana University. Balding and 62 years old with a ruddy complexion, the Terre Haute native looks more likely to be headed to a Chamber of Commerce luncheon than to WFP headquarters in Rome, much less drought-stricken southern Africa.
In fact, Morris attended plenty of power lunches in a career that began as chief of staff for Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar during the late 1960s. Morris then worked for Lilly Endowment as president before becoming chairman and CEO of IWC Resources and Indianapolis Water Company.
But Morris says that a career as a Republican and businessman was good preparation for his work at the WFP, where he was named executive director in April 2002. "You never know what is around the corner for your life," he admits with a laugh. "On the one hand, nothing could prepare you to do what I do. On the other hand, everything prepared me for what I do now. Certainly my years with Lugar and my years with the Endowment caused me to understand the problems of poor people and the problems of people at risk and the issues of vulnerable children. I tried to be a person who did whatever I could wherever I was for people at risk.
"My job now is a management job, a leadership job, a fund-raising job. I experienced a lot as a person with enormous responsibility, dealing with tough issues, dealing with confrontation, dealing with political dynamics. A lot of what I've done civically is being involved with fund-raising. I've raised lots of money for lots of things. That's what I do now - I raise lots of money for hungry people around the world."
Other anti-hunger advocates agree that Morris' Main Street skills and connections are well-suited to the challenge of confronting global poverty. "Jim brings a kind of Midwestern practicality and management sense to these issues," says the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. In today's Washington, Morris' Republican bona fides are a huge advantage, and Beckmann cites Morris' ties to now-Sen. Lugar, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and to the Bush Administration. "President Bush has spoken out several times on hunger issues, and I think Jim had a lot to do with that. Jim Morris has a very broad vision for changing the world, and having him in Rome has been a big help to a lot of hungry people," Beckmann says.
Being a U.S. political insider can pose complications for Morris, however. When he goes to see government leaders on World Food Program business - asking for donations from the wealthy countries and coordinating distribution with the poor ones - Morris is sometimes asked to defend or explain U.S. foreign policy. "I absolutely stick to being an advocate for the humanitarian agenda," Morris says. "That's who we are, that's my job.
Morris also has to walk the fine line of being a loyal American and having his organization's goals occasionally come into conflict with U.S. policies. For example, even though the U.S. is by far the largest donor to the World Food Program, some anti-hunger advocates criticize the U.S. for tying its food aid to American agri-business and U.S.-flag shipping vessels. Such "tied assistance" limits the flexibility of donation programs and blocks the opportunity to support struggling communities by buying food in developing countries. "We're grateful for anything and everything anybody does to help us," Morris says carefully, noting the U.S. generosity. But then he singles out countries like Sweden and the Netherlands for special praise, noting that they give their donations without strings attached. "Unrestricted multilateral support is the most valuable support we have," Morris says.
For many years, there has been plenty of food in the world to feed everyone. The challenge is to get the food to the right place at the right time, Morris says. War, climate change and deficient agricultural infrastructure are all obstacles to ending global hunger.
Another problem is that the public and their governments are easily distracted from the most pressing needs. Funds were plentiful for WFP programs in Iraq, Afghanistan and in response to last year's deadly Indian Ocean tsunami, but donations lag for food programs in west Africa, for example, where drought and locusts have caused massive suffering and death. "Ninety percent of the children who die every day of hunger don't die in high profile situations," Morris says. "They are more likely to be in Niger or Mali or Malawi. Our job is to help people understand about the crises that exist in places that don't make the front page every day."
Morris insists all these challenges are surmountable, and well worth the expense of just $35 a year to feed a schoolchild in Africa.
"People need to do more. People are doing a lot; governments are doing a lot. But if everybody would do a little more, we could solve this problem. Compared to what is being spent on all sorts of other things - some worthwhile things, some frivolous things - the world has the capacity to feed our children."
Donations to the World Food Program can be made online at www.wfp.org.