Working Toward a More Resilient World

To improve humanitarian aid and eliminate hunger, we need to join forces, according to the new director of the Feinstein International Center

It’s a critical time for the Feinstein International Center at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. From the COVID pandemic and climate change to increasing hunger and ongoing conflicts, the world faces a host of serious, often interrelated international challenges. With its 25th anniversary on the horizon, the center—which is also connected with The Fletcher School—is clarifying its role in tackling these challenges and charting a way forward.

New director Paul Howe, who joined in September 2021, is uniquely qualified for the job as both a practitioner and an academic: He spent 17 years working with the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) and has conducted influential research on famine. As the center celebrates a quarter-century, Howe envisions the team contributing to humanity’s wider efforts to achieve a world with zero hunger and increased human resilience. He also plans to teach a class on world hunger in 2023 (more details to come). It’s a tall order, but he’s optimistic.

Tufts Now: What drew you to the Feinstein Center?

Paul Howe: For me, there’s always been different ways of approaching the problem of hunger. I completed a doctorate looking at ambiguities in the way famine is conceptualized and exploring the very real human toll that the lack of a clear definition had during the response to the 1998 famine in what is now South Sudan. With my supervisor Stephen Devereux, I proposed a new approach to defining famine. Many others, including outstanding colleagues at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, were also working on this issue and took these efforts forward.

When the United Nations made the first ever official declaration of ‘famine’ in Somalia in 2011, I had deeply mixed feelings: it was tragic that another major crisis had occurred, but it was also encouraging to see how the combined efforts of academics and practitioners could lead to important changes in the system. I then had a long career as a practitioner with WFP, but I was always writing papers and eventually sensed that it was time for me to put academics back at the center of my efforts.

There was one place I immediately thought of. The Feinstein International Center has a wonderful reputation within the United Nations, with NGOs, and within the field more generally. I was attracted to the focus on both hunger issues and humanitarian crises, and their intersection in famines, and the opportunity to work with incredible people who are at the forefront of thinking and teaching on these topics. In some ways, I could not have arrived at a better time. It’s exciting: We’re reaching our 25th anniversary and can celebrate a long history of contributions to the field. Now we want to set the stage for another 25 years of research, teaching, and positive impact.

On that note: What are your hopes for the future and your goals as director?

My hope is that we continue to make truly meaningful and significant contributions to achieving zero hunger and supporting human resilience on a global scale. Hunger is a huge problem, one that’s increasing in absolute numbers. During my time at WFP, I learned how a lack of adequate nutrition for children can lead to irreversible, lifelong damage and prevent them from ever achieving their full physical and mental potential. We also know hunger slows economic growth and may contribute to political instability. But finding sustainable solutions is challenging. For instance, the way we’re producing food at a planetary level is contributing to climate change; we cannot address one problem without considering the impacts on the other. So, it’s a multi-dimensional problem that requires a multi-disciplinary and holistic approach to address it.

The Feinstein team, with its network of partners across the globe, has great expertise in the issue of hunger and where it intersects with humanitarian crises. I think of Dan Maxwell’s work on famine, Helen Young and Ana Marshak’s studies of drylands malnutrition, and Erin Coughlan de Perez’s exciting research on climate change and anticipatory action for hunger crises. Being at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy allows us to collaborate with and draw on a wider set of faculty and expertise to help us think through these issues  – whether it’s Patrick Webb and Eileen Kennedy’s work on world food systems or Will Masters’ groundbreaking studies of the cost of nutritious diets across the globe.

The second goal focuses on the problem of humanitarian crises and how to support human resilience in a context of climate change, new pandemics, conflicts, and economic shocks. That’s another key challenge that is very much embedded in the Feinstein International Center’s history. I think of Andy Catley’s leadership on global standards in emergencies and pastoral livelihoods, Liz Stites and Kim Howe’s work on child marriage in conflict settings, or Teddy Atim and Dyan Mazurana’s introduction of academic research as evidence for the first time as part of a reparations case before the International Criminal Court. Focusing on zero hunger and human resilience as our two themes, and given our 25 years of experience and our incredible team and partners, we’re uniquely placed to tackle them.

How will you work to address these issues?

The first way is through research. One of the unique things about the center is that it takes an approach that involves presence in some of the most challenging and difficult situations that humans face globally. We conduct research with our partners on the ground, really understand the issues by engaging with affected populations, and then make recommendations that can affect policy and programming at the government, U.N., and NGO levels.

The other piece is education: getting that next generation ready to continue to tackle these issues from a variety of angles, whether as future researchers or, more often, as practitioners. Our Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance (MAHA) has focused on ensuring that leaders from countries affected by conflicts or crises have the opportunity to receive advanced academic training, reflect on their experiences and what they have learned, and come back even stronger. A few years ago, the World Humanitarian Summit emphasized the importance of ‘localization,’ or better supporting local communities and groups on the front line of responses. By training leaders from the countries most affected by humanitarian crises, the MAHA program focused on these efforts long before the term localization was invoked.

How has the world changed in 25 years?

Let me start with some of the good things that I’ve seen happen. There’s been a continued expansion and improvement of the global humanitarian system. There’s been a professionalization of the approach to addressing zero hunger and human resilience, which the Feinstein International Center has been a part of. In my time at WFP, I also saw how the humanitarian system learns from research and adopts new, more effective technical solutions, whether it’s the rapid expansion of the use of cash in emergencies where appropriate, community-based models for addressing acute malnutrition, or greater consideration of gender, protection, the environment, and accountability to affected populations in analyses and action. There is also a willingness to innovate using new technologies and predictive analytics.

There have also been developments on the political side. For instance, UN Security Council Resolution 2417 on hunger and conflict and the use of starvation as a weapon of war is a contribution to a wider process of creating a political environment in which the creation of famine is unacceptable and its prevention is a priority. These changes do not happen overnight, but they do happen over years and decades through constant engagement.

But we’re also facing real challenges. Ongoing conflicts continue to drive a lot of emergencies. We’ve also seen the impact of new pandemics such as COVID-19, which was a factor in recent increases in hunger. We’re also quite concerned about the current and future impacts of climate change. And there is some resistance to the political changes. As resources are limited and more potential crises appear on the horizon, we need to continue to be very creative and innovative in our thinking and approaches, and to listen and learn from one another to find solutions as a human community –which is part of the role our center can play.

What’s your philosophy on humanitarian aid?

We need an approach to humanitarian assistance that makes sense for the moment that we’re facing. That moment, unfortunately, is full of challenges for the people most at risk. Everyone, as members of the human race, will need to be able to help address crises when and where they arise, which ties into the idea of localization. Traditional systems on their own may not be adequate. We also need to explore the possibilities of things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, and modeling, because they can help us be much more targeted, effective, and tailored.

We also need to explore how to give greater political prominence and focus to these issues. That means creating a political environment within the larger global community all the way up to the Security Council where it’s a priority to keep people from experiencing crises, and it’s unacceptable to intentionally create them. That’s where International Humanitarian Law and U.N. Security Council Resolution 2417 become so important. 

Working on both the technical side and the political side is going to be critical, as well as recognizing that we need a whole-world approach to address challenges related to hunger and humanitarian crises. Obviously, governments have the primary responsibility. U.N. agencies, NGOs, and the private sector are critical too. But really it will take all of us.

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