“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!”
That’s what the Dodo declares at the end of a race in Lewis Carroll’s famous novel, Alice in Wonderland.
There’s certainly no shortage of prizes in the world today–at least 30,000 around the globe carry some kind of cash compensation and something like $2 billion is given away each year, according to the International Congress of Distinguished Awards.
Everybody has heard of the Nobel Prizes and the Pulitzer Prizes. The MacArthur “genius” grants are also well known, and many people recognize that the Templeton Award (for religious progress) is the world’s most lucrative prize, worth more than $1.1 million.
Let me tell you about one of the most important awards offered anywhere: the World Food Prize.
Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for contributing to the “Green Revolution,” founded the prize in 1986. Four years later, John Ruan, a businessman and philanthropist in Des Moines, endowed it. Since 1986, the World Food Prize has honored outstanding individuals who have improved the quality, quantity, or availability of food throughout the world. (Full Disclosure – I’m a member of the WFP Advisory Council.)
Laureates have come from all over the planet: Bangladesh, China, Denmark, India, Mexico, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Last year’s winner was born and raised in Cuba but is now an American citizen.
This year’s recipient is Catherine Bertini, an undersecretary general at the United Nations. At a ceremony on October 16, she’ll take home a check worth $250,000 for her good work, along with world-wide recognition.
A native of upstate New York, Bertini ran the United Nations World Food Program from 1992 to 2002. During her tenure, she helped feed more than 700 million people and earned a reputation for delivering food aid to people in war-torn countries, such as Afghanistan, and just plain dangerous ones, such as North Korea. Her organization rebuilt a railroad that transports food through Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan and coordinated a huge airdrop into starving Sudan. To reach out-of-the-way places, her dedicated group has made use of elephants and mules.
Former President Bush has called Bertini’s work in the Horn of Africa a “logistics miracle.” UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also praises her efforts in that operation, “She led so effectively that she became a household name among the leaders and the needy of the region.”
Today, the UN World Food Program helps feed the liberated people of Iraq–and its leaders credit much of their current success to reforms Bertini made during her time at the relief agency.
“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,” says Ambassador Kenneth Quinn of the World Food Prize Foundation.
She’s the first woman to win the World Food Prize without having to share it with another recipient. Indeed, one of her innovations at the UN was to focus on the role women play in alleviating hunger. “It is women who gather and prepare food and ensure that all the members of the family are fed,” she has said.
That’s the way it works in my home–and in most homes. Yet it was Bertini who brought this simple insight to the UN. More than 60 percent of all World Food Program aid is now channeled through women, which makes eminent practical sense.
“I have worked very hard doing what I think was the right thing to do,” says Bertini.
The unsung heroes of Bertini’s efforts, of course, are the farmers who grow the food that makes all these humanitarian missions possible. We can’t give a prize to all of them individually, of course. And if we did, we’d probably have to call it something like the Golden Dodo.