Roger Thurow and Chancellor Emeritus Brady Deaton wage a war on hunger

Hunger activist Roger Thurow: “I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for being a change in the world. ‘Getting into the problems of the world, how can I impact that?’”


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Hagirso Ketema is forever stunted. At 15, he was just learning how to read and write.

At five years old, Ketema and his father Tesfaye Ketema lived through the Ethiopian Famine of 2003. As part of a poor sustenance-farming family, he, along with 20 million others, had no way to receive proper nutrients.

“Their stories, their lives, their narratives; it’s really important for people to hear,” hunger activist Roger Thurow said.

Thurow was one of many experts at the 2016 Universities Fighting World Hunger Summit, brought to MU by The Brady and Anne Deaton Institute for University Leadership in International Development and the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security.

Chancellor Emeritus Brady Deaton founded the Deaton institute, which focuses on interdisciplinary research on the food security and socioeconomic needs of developing nations.

Thurow worked for 30 years at The Wall Street Journal, 20 of which he spent abroad in Europe and Africa as a foreign correspondent. He now works as a senior fellow on global food and agriculture for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and is waiting for the release of his third book in May, “The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children — and the World.”

To write his book, Thurow followed mothers and children in India, Uganda, Guatemala and the South Side of Chicago during the two-year critical period when a child relies on nutrients for necessary cognitive and physical development. According to the World Food Programme, about one in nine people are undernourished. Almost half of deaths in children under five, or 45 percent, are caused by malnutrition. One in four children in the world are stunted.

“The (necessary) nutrients and vitamins are the same everywhere in the world,” Thurow said. “There is no distinction between rich, poor, north, south, urban, rural, educated or illiterate. They’re humanity’s common denominator.”

As a foreign correspondent, Thurow said he always looked for the next story to cover and the next place to go. His mindset changed when he began reporting on the Ethiopian Famine of 2003.

After he wrote his first book “Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty” with Wall Street Journal colleague Scott Kilman, his passion for the hunger issue led to his decision to leave the paper.

“That was a longer story that I knew would be going on and it became a story that I needed to come back to,” Thurow said. “That story and the outrage that we had brought hunger with us into the 21st century, even increasing numbers of hungry and micronutrient deficient at the start of the century, that’s the one that was really firing my passion as a journalist.”

Deaton said Thurow’s vast experience and knowledge on hunger elevates thoughts about this issue at MU and allows Thurow to hear thoughts from the university’s students and faculty.

“In my association with him in the past, we’d been dealing with similar kinds of issues on national and international levels,” Deaton said. “Over time, we develop a dialogue and ensure that our students are right on the edge of the frontier in addressing these very critical issues.”

Deaton and Thurow’s connection dates back about four years when the two met through national forums in Washington, D.C., through the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Through his role as chair on the Board of International Food and Agricultural Development, Deaton also connected with Catherine Bertini, former WFP executive director and distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who spoke at the 2016 UFWH Summit. This role allows him to travel and stay informed about current global knowledge on new ideas and research, which he uses to advise the United States Agency for International Development.

Last year, the summit was hosted by the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Deaton, who presented and spoke on a panel, brought MU students with him to the conference.

“(The students) were so enthusiastic and enjoyed (the summit) so much that shortly after that, they suggested that we have the next event here this year,” Deaton said. “The Deaton Institute threw itself behind it with the support of other faculty on campus.”

Deaton signed the Presidents United to Solve Hunger initiative during the first summit in 2014. This was signed by around 70 university leaders from around the world who promised to make food and nutrition security a priority.

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, organizers developed concurrent sessions to address more issues. About 300 people attended the summit, not including those who live streamed the panel discussions, exceeding their expectation of 250 people.

Thurow, one of three keynote speakers, also spoke at the 2010 and 2014 summits about his international experiences with hunger.

Thurow mentioned his time in West Germany, South Africa and Togo as examples of his coverage of momentous events. He attributed his time in these places as a way for him to gain context to the stories he wrote.

“(There was) the aftermath of the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany, which is something I had been involved with for awhile in terms of the Cold War and the lead up to that,” Thurow said.

To Thurow, the Ethiopian Famine seemed different than other stories he had covered in the past. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the end of communism in eastern Europe, he saw these notable events beginning and ending, but hunger still remained an issue.

“All these forces had happened in those couple of three months or so, or four months of time, and the world stood upside down,” Thurow said. “No matter what had happened in the world in terms of catalyzing events or transforming events, this problem (of hunger) remained.”

Deaton realized his passion for fighting world hunger at a young age.

Even before he joined the Peace Corps and worked in Thailand for two years, Deaton joined the 4-H Club, a youth development organization, because of his passion for helping others escape poverty and hunger.

“As a child, I always loved looking at National Geographic magazines,” Deaton said. “I was reared in a family that was always concerned about poverty and feeding the world.”

A point of convergence between Thurow and Deaton: They both knew Norman Borlaug.

Borlaug founded the World Food Prize and was a 1970 Peace Prize laureate for his lifetime of work to help solve hunger and increase agricultural productivity. He is also known as the “father of the Green Revolution,” “agriculture’s greatest spokesperson” and “The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives.”

Although Borlaug passed in 2009, his granddaughter, Julie, attended the summit at MU as a panelist with Thurow.

Thurow knew Borlaug journalistically as a source from writing articles for the Wall Street Journal. Borlaug answered questions about why the Green Revolution did not go to Africa and other factors regarding global agriculture.

Deaton, who has advanced degrees in international commerce, diplomacy and agricultural economics, studied Borlaug’s work for years before he had the chance to meet him. In 2002, MU gave Borlaug an honorary degree for his lasting impact on society. Borlaug had a close relationship with plant science research at MU, Deaton said.

Thurow said the influence of Borlaug and what he was able to accomplish inspires his work on hunger, as well as other people who have worked on the “front lines” to solving such a major global issue.

Thurow praised Brady and Anne Deaton for engaging students and faculty, stimulating debate and supporting related research. Furthermore, he said that students at universities have great opportunities to learn about the issues and becoming part of the solution. He said students can use their studies to help end injustice.

“I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for being a change in the world,” Thurow said. “‘Getting into the problems of the world, how can I impact that?’”

Deaton believes that it is important for students to understand and work on solving the hunger crisis from an ethical standpoint and from an economic standpoint.

Thurow said that in an age of interconnectedness, many parties have the responsibility and opportunity to stop hunger: governments, NGOs and journalists to name a few.

Thurow said in his UFWH keynote speech when he first arrived to Ethiopia, a WFP member warned him of the anguish he would feel upon meeting Hagirso and Tesfaye in their undernourished state.

“Looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger is a disease for the soul.”

Edited by Waverly Colville |

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