Catherine Bertini transformed the United Nations World Food Programme into the largest and most responsive international humanitarian relief organization, working "logistics miracles" to bring food to desperately hungry people in remote locations around the globe, from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa. As Leader of the U.N. World Food Prgramme, Bertini time and again faced, and successfully met, challenges of delivering food to critically hungry people in remote locations.
Born in 1950, 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 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 impact of her service included: simplifying the food-stamp distribution process through the implementation of electronic benefit transfer, which ensured that benefits reached the families – many of which were headed by women – for whom they were intended; creating a breastfeeding food package that helped increase the number of poor American women who breastfeed their children; and expanding the number of schools providing breakfasts to poor students.
The five years Bertini spent addressing critical food and nutrition issues among America’s poorest, while emphasizing the importance of women and the concerns of the poor, prepared her well to head the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). As Executive Director of the organization, Bertini administered the delivery of relief and also spent countless hours on the ground, observing the processes of food distribution. She analyzed and adjusted the factors involved in providing assistance, and implemented changes that enhanced the program’s effectiveness. Following her two terms as Executive Director, Kofi Annan appointed Bertini as the United Nations Under Secretary General for Management in 2002.
Bertini, with the keen understanding of women’s roles in preparing food and feeding their families, began channeling food aid through women to ensure widespread and equitable distribution. By the end of her term at the World Food Programme, more than 60 percent of the organization’s assistance was delivered through women.
In Afghanistan, Bertini and her staff successfully created, even under Taliban authorities, bakeries for widows run by Afghani women. The WFP’s total efforts in Afghanistan helped save some nine million lives in that country.
Combating childhood malnutrition was another key emphasis for Bertini. Under her direction, the WFP rescued 3.3 million North Korean children and millions of the country’s citizens from severe malnutrition. Subsequently, Bertini directed the WFP to reenergize its global school feeding program with a significant boost from the U.S. 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, Bertini was able to overcome various obstacles that had 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. She also mandated security and management training for all of her staff, allowing WFP workers to increase their activity in high-risk and war-affected areas.
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 regions experiencing crises. In 2003, the WFP shipped 1,000 metric tons of food each hour, 24 hours per day, seven days a week. Her work and that of her colleagues at WFP over a decade helped make this heroic achievement possible.
Bertini won The World Food Prize in 2003 for transforming the World Food Programme into the largest and most responsive humanitarian relief organization in the world.
Bertini donated the $250,000 proceeds from her 2003 World Food Prize to the Catherine Bertini Trust Fund for Girls’ Education at the Friends of the World Food Program.
In 2005, Bertini 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.
In 2007, she 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 (2008 World Food Prize Laureates). That year, Bertini was also appointed to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program as a senior fellow, where she worked with the Agricultural Development team. She has received several honorary doctorates from universities in multiple countries, was decorated by the Republic of Italy, and was listed by The Times of London as one of the world’s most powerful women.
Formerly the chairperson of the U. N. Standing Committee on Nutrition, Bertini has also served in numerous facets for organizations such as the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. President George W. Bush appointed Bertini as a member of the Board of International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD) in 2006, an advisory body 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 Global Humanitarian Forum in Switzerland and served as a co-chair of the Global Agricultural Development Initiative of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and chair of the Council’s Girls in Rural Economies Initiative.