U.N. undersecretary wins World Food Prize

DES MOINES (AP) -- Catherine Bertini, an undersecretary general at the United Nations, has been named the winner of the 2003 World Food Prize for her work with a U.N. relief agency, providing food to more than 700 million people.

Bertini, the first woman to independently claim the $250,000 prize, will be honored at a ceremony Oct. 16 for changes in aid distribution she made as director of the U.N. World Food Programme from 1992-2002.

"I have worked very hard doing what I think was the right thing to do. I never expected for me, or for the World Food Programme, to get this kind of recognition," Bertini, 53, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

Bertini said she gets much her motivation from her family, including grandparents who fed the hungry during the Depression, a father who was a city councilman and dedicated to public service and a mother who was a nurse, and by identifying with people in need of help.

"I put myself in the position of what if I was the beneficiary," she said, recalling how as a child her grandmother would drive through a poor neighborhood and remind her of their family's good fortune.


During Bertini's tenure, the World Food Programme shifted its focus from development to humanitarian relief. The program became known for its ability to get aid to remote or dangerous locations, including Latin America, North Korea and Afghanistan, World Food Prize officials said.

That includes rebuilding the Georgia-Armenia-Azerbaijan railroad line to transport food, organizing the largest humanitarian airdrop in history in the Sudan, and even using elephants and mules to deliver aid to other hard-to-reach areas.

Her work recently allowed the organization to be able to provide enough food to feed all of Iraq during conflict with the United States.

"As a result of Ms. Bertini's leadership, for the first time in history, the international community attained the capacity to confront and defeat large-scale famine anywhere around the globe," said Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation.

Former President George H. Bush has called her work in the drought-ravaged Horn of Africa a few years ago a "logistics miracle."

A women's rights advocate, Bertini shifted the focus of aid delivery during emergencies to women. She said it is women who gather and prepare food and ensure that their families are fed.

Now more than 60 percent of the World Food Programme's assistance is distributed through women, which Bertini called a practical, not political decision.

"It was so simple, but never really articulated before. Women are the ones committed to ending hunger in a family," said Bertini, who also helped promote women to leadership positions in the countries in need of aid.


Before serving as director of the World Food Programme, Bertini was an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where she pioneered changes in the federal food stamp program, including the use of electronic debit cards instead of coupons in some states to decrease fraud and simplify food assistance.

In August 2002, she began a two-year term as chairwoman of the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition.

Bertini grew up in Syracuse and Cortland, N.Y., where she lives with her husband, photographer Tom Haskell, and last year played clarinet in a community band.

After graduating from the State University of New York in Albany, she worked for then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and the Container Corp. of Chicago. In 1982, she made an unsuccessful bid for an Illinois congressional seat.

Bertini, who was named U.N. undersecretary general for management last January, currently is working to help Secretary General Kofi Annan increase administrative effectiveness, streamline the budget, hire more women and improve safety for U.N. workers, something she said has been a challenge throughout her career with the United Nations.

"I think the hardest thing ... is to ensure the security of our staff. In order to reach people cut off from food one has to have distribution networks in some of the most dangerous and difficult places in the world," Bertini said.

Bertini was announced the winner of the World Food Prize during the World Congress of Food Science and Technology in Chicago on July 16.

The prize, awarded annually since 1987, was the idea of Iowa native Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and father of the Green Revolution.

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