Muhlenberg College welcomed Mr. Gerald Bourke, Senior Communications Officer at the World Food Programme office in New York, on February 26, 2016 for a lecture on WFP's operations in Syria and around the world. Fifty students attended the lecture under the auspices of the Humpty Dumpty Institute’s Higher Education Alliance. The lecture was supplemented by a meet-and-greet where students had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Bourke in a more informal setting and ask questions regarding his work.
Mr. Bourke began the lecture with a discussion on World Food Programme (WFP) operations in Syria, which he described as one of the “largest and most complex crisis the WFP has faced”. He pointed out the high-altitude food drop that took place in Syrian airspace recently as proof. The WFP is currently delivering 31,500 tons of food to distribution centers every month. The situation in Syria is so difficult because it is a man made crisis, and he went on to explain that when the WFP responds to a natural disaster they do not have to negotiate for access to deliver much needed food. Mr. Bourke stated the importance of keeping politics and humanitarian aid separate to ensure access to the people. In Syria he noted that anything can happen while you are trying to reach a destination, a battle can break out causing aid trucks to be unable to reach those in need. Most of the WFP staff in Syria are local to the area. Mr. Bourke described how they are truly heroes because there are times when they are unable to even leave the office because of bombs or gunfire. WFP reaches more than four million people every month inside Syria with urgently needed food and provides electronic food vouchers to 1.3 million refugees in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. WFP will need US$142 million to continue providing aid to Syrians affected by the conflict until the end of the year. Mr. Bourke then went on to discuss the situation of Syrian migrants in Europe, stating that WFP is not helping these refugees as they must be invited by the government to operate in a country and that the individual countries and the European Union are providing services to them.
Mr. Bourke then spoke in more general terms on the work of WFP in responding to conflict and disaster situations around the world. Food aid is essential for social and humanitarian protection. To the extent possible, the provision of relief food aid is coordinated with relief assistance provided by other humanitarian organizations and governments. In this way, WFP is well placed to play a major role in the operational phases from emergency relief to development. The World Food Programme gives priority to supporting disaster prevention, preparedness and mitigation and post-disaster rehabilitation activities as part of development programs. Emergency assistance is used to the extent possible to serve both relief and development purposes. Targeted interventions are needed to improve the lives of the poorest people - people who, either permanently or during crisis periods, are unable to produce enough food or do not have the resources to otherwise obtain the food that they and their households require for active lives. In this way, WFP uses food aid to support economic and social development; meet refugee and other emergency food needs, and the associated logistics support; and promote world food security in accordance with the recommendations of the United Nations. Mr. Bourke went on to state that WFP ensures that its assistance programs are designed and implemented on the basis of broad-based participation. Women in particular are key to change; providing food to women puts it in the hands of those who use it for the benefit of the entire household, especially children. This also strengthens families coping ability and resilience. To be truly effective, food security programs should be fully integrated into the development plans and priorities of recipient countries and coordinated with other forms of assistance. WFP's starting point is the national policies, plans and programs of developing countries, including their food security plans. WFP pulls its activities together in an integrated way at the country level so that it can respond to urgent needs as they occur while retaining core development objectives. Mr. Bourke then went on to speak of the immense fundraising challenges of the World Food Programme. In 2015 on average, WFP has had to raise some $25 million a week to meet demand. Some $7 to $10 million of this has been for Syria alone. Current emergencies there and in Iraq, Central African Republic, Nigeria and South Sudan make up most of the other emergency programs currently being addressed by WFP making this year’s budget request approximately $7 billion. The United States is the major donor, providing almost a quarter of that amount.
Gerald Bourke, Senior Communications Officer, is a New York-based spokesperson for the UN World Food Programme. He joined the WFP in 2001 as spokesperson for its operations in the DPRK and China. He was subsequently a Senior Donor Relations Officer at its headquarters in Rome, a Senior Liaison Officer in the office of the Deputy Executive Director and then, for four years, a Senior External Relations Officer in New York. Prior to joining the UN, Mr. Bourke was a foreign correspondent for more than 20 years, working mostly in Africa and Asia.