The World Food Prize Foundation

2003: Bertini

Hon. Catherine Bertini


THE HONORABLE CATHERINE BERTINI was chosen as the 2003 World Food Prize Laureate for transforming the United Nations World Food Programme into the largest and most responsive humanitarian relief organization in the world, capable of ensuring that food of good quality would be available in sufficient quantities to the world’s neediest, even in the direst of circumstances.

In 2005, she joined the faculty of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University as a professor of public administration specializing in humanitarian action, international organizations, and girls’ education.

Full Biography 

As executive director of the World Food Programme for ten years, Ms. Bertini time and again faced challenges in getting food to desperately hungry people in remote locations. Severe humanitarian crises – both natural and man-made – created extraordinary needs for emergency relief. In such disasters, millions of people on every continent faced imminent famine and death; in every instance, Ms. Bertini and her 8,000 dedicated staff members confronted and halted incipient starvation.

Ms. Bertini grew up in New York and received a degree in political science from the State University of New York at Albany in 1971. After graduation she worked in New York state politics and then in philanthropic and government affairs at a Chicago corporation. She received a fellowship at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics in 1986 and went to work in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services the following year.

After two years as director of the Office of Family Assistance, she was named an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1989, where she worked until 1992. At USDA, she oversaw 13 food assistance programs aimed at supporting the nutrition of America’s poorest children and families. The impacts of her service included simplifying the food-stamp distribution process through the implementation of electronic benefit transfer, to ensure that benefits reached the families – many of which were headed by women – for whom they were intended, as well as creating a breastfeeding food package, which helped increase the number of poor American women who breastfeed their children, and expanding the number of schools providing breakfasts to poorer students.

The five years Ms. Bertini spent addressing critical food and nutritional issues among America’s poorest and emphasizing the importance of women and the concerns of the poor prepared her well to head the U.N.’s World Food Programme. From 1992 to 2002, she was Executive Director of the organization and not only administered the delivery of relief but spent countless hours on the ground, observing the processes of food distribution as well as the factors that required such assistance and implementing changes which enhanced the program’s effectiveness; following her two terms as Executive Director, Ms. Bertini was appointed the United Nations Under Secretary General for Management in 2002.

Ms. Bertini, with the keen understanding that women gather and prepare food and feed their families, began channeling food aid through women to ensure widespread and equitable distribution. As a result, more than 60 percent of the WFP’s assistance is now delivered through women. In Afghanistan, Ms. Bertini and her staff successfully created, even under Taliban authorities, bakeries run by Afghani women for widows.  The WFP’s total efforts in Afghanistan helped save some 9 million lives in that country.

Combating childhood malnutrition was another key emphasis for Ms. Bertini. Under Ms. Bertini’s initiative, the WFP rescued 3.3 million North Korean children and millions of the country’s citizens from severe malnutrition. Subsequently, Ms. Bertini directed the WFP to reenergize its global school feeding program with a significant boost from the US government.  In 2002, this helped improve the health, livelihood, and education of 16 million children in 64 countries.

By streamlining the agency’s operations and increasing transparency and responsiveness, Ms. Bertini was able to overcome various obstacles that blocked aid efforts. She directed the WFP in creating transportation infrastructure in southern Africa, rebuilding railroad lines in the Caucasus, carrying out the largest humanitarian airdrop in history in Sudan, and even delivering food on the backs of elephants and mules. She also mandated security and management training for all her staff, allowing WFP workers to increase their activity in high-risk and war-affected areas.

Ms. Bertini’s work was deemed a “logistics miracle” that brought food to millions in the drought-ravaged Horn of Africa, in Central America following Hurricane Mitch’s devastation, in the refugee camps and conflict zones of Kosovo and East Timor, and in dozens of other crises. The logistics apparatus that Ms. Bertini put in place continues to produce miracles after her departure. WFP currently ships 1,000 metric tons of food each hour, 24 hours per day, 7 days a week. Her work and that of her colleagues at WFP over the past decade helped make this heroic achievement possible.

Ms. Bertini donated the cash proceeds from the 2003 World Food Prize to the Catherine Bertini Trust Fund for Girls’ Education at the Friends of the World Food Program. The United Nations continued to harvest the benefits of her managerial prowess and insight from 2003 to 2005, when she served as Under Secretary General for Management.

In 2007 Ms. Bertini was awarded the Gene White Lifetime Achievement Award for Child Nutrition, an award recognizing the efforts and impacts of men and women improving child nutrition. Former recipients include Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern. Also in 2007 Ms. Bertini was appointed to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program as a senior fellow where she works with the Agricultural Development team. She has received ten honorary doctorates from universities in four countries, and was decorated by the Republic of Italy.

Formerly chairperson of the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition, Ms. Bertini continues to serve in numerous facets such as a member of the Board of Directors of the Tupperware Brands Corporation, the Trilateral Commission, and the Council on Foreign Relations. President George W. Bush appointed Ms. Bertini as a member of the Board of International Food and Agricultural Development in 2006, an advising agency for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She is a fellow for the National Academy of Public Administration, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the International Academy of Food Science and Technology . She is a founding board member of the new Global Humanitarian Forum in Switzerland and a member of the Humanitarian Prize Jury of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

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