At the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Program (or WFP), Cindy McCain may still be learning her way around the building, but as the agency’s new executive director she now runs one of the agency’s biggest responsibilities, not necessarily familiar with its mission and potential: collect money “I’ve only been on the job for 24 hours, but I know I’ll be spending a good portion of my time fundraising, and making sure we have the means to do what we need to do,” he said.
WFP is made up of more than 20,000 people working in 123 countries with the ambitious, and increasingly challenging, goal of ending global hunger. But WFP tells us it currently has a quarter of the funding it needs – a $17-billion gap – which is causing cutbacks.
© United States Mission to the United Nations in Rome
Doane asked, “Who will eat, who won’t?”
“I don’t know yet, because I haven’t had to make that decision,” McCain replied. “I know that’s coming.”
WFP provided food assistance to 158 million people last year, but reported that about 350 million people needed it. It’s an “unprecedented food crisis,” they say, made worse by Covid, supply chains, costs and conflicts. Ukraine once produced about half of WFP’s wheat supply.
The United States is WFP’s largest donor, contributing more than $7 billion last year China, by comparison, is #44 on the donor list, giving about $12 million.
Doane asked, “Will you go after China to donate more?”
McCain replied, “I don’t know if ‘go after’ is the right word, but I would definitely be involved with China, as well as the Middle East and some other parts of South America.” He also aims to raise corporate funds.
McCain has devoted much of his life to humanitarian work, and for the past year and a half he has been traveling with WFP in his role as US ambassador to UN agencies in Rome.
“You’ve been critical of Russia in the ambassador role in the past,” Doane said.
“As an ambassador, yes.”
“Now, you work for the United Nations, which includes all countries. Russia is on the Security Council. Do you regret what you said?”
“No, I was representing the United States,” he replied. “And, you know, WFP is apolitical. Our mission is to feed people.”
“Is it hard to give up your political side?”
“Well, you know, everybody has their own personal opinion. So, I wouldn’t say it’s hard to leave. I put it in the right silo here.”
McCain has not kept her political views quiet in the past, nor has her husband John McCain, a longtime US senator from Arizona and the Republican presidential nominee. He was outspoken when he endorsed President Biden in 2020 against former President Trump. But reflecting his new role, he avoided commenting on Trump’s recent allegations. “You know, it’s the justice system working; I don’t know what else to say,” he noted.
“Is this a more diplomatic Cindy McCain than we’ve heard in the past?”
“My kids get a kick out of it!” She smiled.
A lifelong Republican, he is also good friends with the Bidens, who introduced him to John McCain.
Doane asked, “What advice or advice did your late husband, Senator McCain, give you?”
“A lot,” she replied.
“Is there something that still sticks with you today, something that you think about?”
“Do the right thing,” McCain said. “He was always about doing the right thing.”
“How much did you think about him taking on this role?”
“All the time. He’s with me every moment.”
“What do you think?”
“What he would say, what he would think about all this. I know exactly what he would say and what he would think. And also, I think he would be proud, at least I hope he would.”
“I can see the passion in your eyes,” Doan said.
“We miss him,” McCain replied.
At WFP headquarters, there is a map of flashing lights marking areas where food is in short supply It’s an overwhelming “to-do” list.
Doane asked, “What made you decide to do this? It’s a challenging job. It’s potentially thankless. People will still be hungry. Why not sit at home and worry about less challenging things?”
“Well, that’s what my kids asked me before I left,” she laughed.
“You don’t need work.”
“No,” she said, “but I want the job.”
It’s work – and fundraising – to give food and hope to the world’s hungriest.
Editor’s note: The United Nations has condemned the killing of three World Food Program employees in Sudan on Saturday, April 15.
WFP Executive Director Cindy McCain released a statement on Sunday that read in part: “I am shocked and heartbroken at the tragic deaths of three WFP staff on Saturday, April 15, in violence in Kabkabiya, North Darfur, while carrying out their first duty to protect lives. The global hunger crisis line. In the same incident Two WFP staff were also injured. We have informed the families of these dedicated team members and stand by them and our entire WFP family during this calamity. …
“While we review the evolving security situation, we are forced to temporarily suspend all operations in Sudan. WFP is committed to helping the people of Sudan facing severe food insecurity, but we cannot do our life-saving work if our teams and partners cannot ensure the safety and security of No.”
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The story was produced by Anna Matranga and Mary Lou Teel. Editor: Lauren Barnello.