A Change of Guard

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Sunday, 9 October 2011

Guest columnist: Let's make Iowa the hunger-fighting capital of the world [former U.S Ambassador recounts seeing Khmer refuggees dying at Thai border]

Written by KENNETH QUINN, a former ambassador to Cambodia, is president of the World Food Prize Foundation. Contact: kquinn@worldfoodprize.org

Oct. 8, 2011 |
The Des Moines Register

I witnessed the most devastating scene I have ever encountered exactly 32 years ago this month, in October 1979, as I stood in a rain-soaked field in Thailand with Robert Ray, then Iowa’s governor. Before us, 30,000 starving Cambodian refugees were sprawled in the mud, dying at the rate of 50 to 100 a day.

That image remains etched in my psyche. And that experience altered the course of my life.

Most urgently, that trip sparked us to lead the Iowa SHARES (Sends Help to Aid Refugees and End Starvation) campaign, which, with help from The Des Moines Register, reached across the state and elicited a huge outpouring of donations from Iowans so that food, medicine and Iowa doctors and nurses could be rushed to the Thai-Cambodian border over the next two years. Five years later, a similar campaign called Iowa CARES was led by Gov. Terry Branstad, which helped starving people in Ethiopia.

And just over 10 years ago, I decided to continue on the path to support Iowans and others in the fight against hunger, when at the invitation of John Ruan III, I assumed leadership of the World Food Prize.

Still today, there are far too many people living without enough food. Occasionally, a crisis like those in Cambodia or Ethiopia, or currently the horrific famine in the Horn of Africa, captures our attention. But the work to innovate, to secure food for all people, is an ongoing effort that deserves far more of our regular attention.

That is exactly why the World Food Prize was created. This year, as Oct. 16 — World Food Day — approaches, the World Food Prize will celebrate 25 years of honoring individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.

The prize was the brainchild of Iowa’s greatest hero: Norman E. Borlaug, who was born just outside of Cresco, and spent his life finding new ways of improving agriculture to alleviate famine around the world.

He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work, and he felt an urgency to place the spotlight on hunger, and to inspire new breakthroughs to feed the world. The World Food Prize was transplanted to Iowa in 1990, with the support of John Ruan and the State of Iowa, and it has grown to be more impactful than either of these great men could ever have imagined.

This week, Iowa will be at center stage, as the world’s key players in food security gather in Des Moines for the World Food Prize and the “Borlaug Dialogue” international symposium.

When I assumed leadership of this organization over 10 years ago, only about 50 people from outside Iowa attended each year, for a one-day event. Today, with Norman Borlaug’s legacy and the Ruan family’s support, we have built the World Food Prize programs into a major international event that has been called “the premier conference in the world on global agriculture.”

We will have more than 1,200 people from 65 countries here this week for a week-long series of events, including our:

Laureate Lecture Series all week, at colleges and universities across Iowa, free and open to the public.

Iowa Hunger Summit, on Tuesday, which will draw over 500 fellow citizens to focus on efforts by Iowa social, religious and non-governmental organizations that confront hunger both at home and abroad.

Three-day Borlaug Dialogue international symposium, beginning on Wednesday, which will feature the head of the U.N. World Food Programme; a panel of ministers of agriculture led by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; a session on African leadership, with the prime minister of Tanzania and three former African presidents; and insights from the CEOs of the world’s top food and agribusiness companies.

Free concert by the acclaimed Tokyo String Quartet at the Temple for the Performing Arts on Wednesday evening, which is the World Food Prize Foundation’s gift to Iowa on our 25th anniversary.

Laureate award ceremony on Thursday evening at the magnificent state Capitol and broadcast on IPTV, at which we will present our $250,000 prize to the former presidents of Ghana and Brazil, John A. Kufuor and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Global Youth Institute on Friday and Saturday, which will have 130 high school students and an equal number of teachers from Iowa and 24 other states, as well as four countries, in attendance.

Finally, we will hold the grand opening of the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, our $29.8 million restoration of the former Des Moines Public Library, which will add a magnificent asset to our community, drawing individuals concerned with confronting hunger from around the world for our annual events.

It will also be a marvelous conference center and an educational facility, free and open to the public. It will teach visitors about Iowa’s amazing agricultural and humanitarian heritage, the incredible work of Norman Borlaug and the World Food Prize laureates, and the global issues that continue to face us.

I encourage you to join us for our open house on Oct. 15-16, and to come back in summer 2012 when we install the interactive educational exhibits.

Even though Norman Borlaug and John Ruan are gone, their vision and spirit will live on in this new building and in the World Food Prize programs that they created. It was my great privilege to work with both of them and to build upon their efforts to celebrate heroes and to inspire the next generation.

Two years ago, I signed a 100-year lease on the Hall of Laureates building, which was designed in the 19th century. As such, in 2111, at the beginning of the 22nd century, the impressive legacy of those two men instilled in this building will still be inspiring future generations in the struggle to alleviate hunger.

Or, maybe, just maybe, the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, in a state that deserves to be known as the Hunger-Fighting Capital of the World, will serve as the place where we celebrate our victory in vanquishing the scourge of hunger and poverty from the face of the Earth.

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