This week, the UN World Food Program officially appointed George Stroumboulopoulos as its first ever Canadian ambassador. Following the announcement, we held a brief Q and A about George's new role with members of the Canadian media, George, Stephen Lewis, and Bettina Luescher, Chief Spokesperson for North America at the WFP.
Here is the transcript...
Bettina Luescher, Chief Spokesperson for North America, WFP.
How are you feeling about this post, and what does it mean to you?
GS: I'm excited to be a part of it. In any situation like this, there's all kinds of work being done on the ground by all kinds of people. So someone in my position, all I have to do is shine a light on the work that's already being done and hopefully use the position I have with the television show and the radio show to garner some interest, a little bit of mobilization, especially with things like Free Rice and We Feed Back. So I'm just excited to be a part of it. Being a solo artist is fun but being a player in a band is way better. And that's what this feels like.
What does your role actually involve?
GS: A lot of it's creating awareness and mobilization. So we'll start with using the show and the radio show to talk about the work that the WFP is doing, and talk about what's happening in the world. It's an extension, really of what we do anyway. We're always trying to draw attention to the situations around the world and just speak to the humanity. So we're going to do that part, that's the first phase. The second phase is doing something about it in a more direct way. So We Feed Back and Free Rice is a chance for us to use something that exists and play with the audience and get them involved and generate some awareness, some dollars, some food, whatever we can do. And then the third stage we don't know what it will be. We'll see how the relationship develops, see what goes on. We'll see how the world changes, and how the need changes. And then we're open to participating any way we can.
Was your trip to Pakistan in the capacity of an ambassador?
GS: That was the beginning of it. So what we wanted to do was, when we make the announcement and involve ourselves with the WPF, we wanted to show the audience what was going on and how the WPF is working. Pakistan was a great example. There's a lot going on there post-flood, post-earthquake, and of course there's the ongoing conflict. There are a lot of reasons why Pakistan was a great country to show the work of the WPF and just set the stage for what's happening. So that was part of the trip.
How did George become a candidate? How did you entice him?
BL: He's simply a wonderful voice for us, and a voice for the people who have no voice. There are almost a billion people who are going hungry in the world, and if you hear that number you just want to shoot yourself. But if you find somebody who can shine a light on issues like that, and not only show the problems but also the solutions, then you have an absolutely win-win combination. I said to him, we love him because he's totally hands-on. And he said, be careful, I'm VERY hands-on. He's somebody who will go to areas, dangerous areas, and he will bring the cameras, and people will be interested. So it's great. We're excited, we're honoured to have him. Canada is one of our top countries, our top friends. It's so important what Canada is doing, so today he was declared the favourite Canadian!
And the first Canadian, which is surprising since Canada has such a strong role. Why?
BL: The thing is, we are an organization that is very deep in the field. We go to the most dangerous places on earth. We've been doing that for 50 years this year. And we've always done our work, but we haven't focused that much until a couple of years ago on doing publicity, and going out and talking about our work because we were so busy with the work we were doing. So we've really only started the Ambassadorship Program in the last couple of years. We really reached out to people. So it's a good thing that we've got a Canadian on board, too.
Is that what attracted you to George, that he's a communicator?
BL: Yeah! We need storytellers. We need to tell the stories of people who cannot tell their own stories. Look at us. You and I, we've never experienced hunger. We've at most had an appetite. But hunger is something very, very deep. I've heard from Haitians that when you are hungry, it's as if you have bleach in your stomach. And those are the stories we have to tell, so that people will not be forgotten. And at the same time, that we have the tools to fix this. Hunger is not a problem that can't be solved. You can end hunger. If I go today here in Toronto and buy a cappuccino, I could feel a kid in school for a month. So I'm not playing a guilt trip on you - I'm telling you what wonderful things we can do, and how easy it is to help. You don't have to be Bill Gates. You don't have to be a TV host. You and I and everybody can do something and end hunger.
Stephen, what would you say George brings to the role?
SL: He brings a voice. He brings a very powerful presence. He brings a capacity to raise the issues and give them a profile. And that's what ambassadors do. I used to be in charge of ambassadors for UNICEF when I was the deputy. The best work was done on the ground, visiting places like Haiti and Pakistan, and coming back and conveying to Canadians what it is that the WFP is doing, and why their support is invaluable and why Canadians can get involved. And it also by the way is a tremendous spur to the government, because it gives to a Canadian the kind of profile that makes a government proud of what they're doing and they can continue to sustain the WFP as Canada has done for a long time.
You mentioned celebrity advocates and how people can be quite cynical about their role...
SL: It purely depends on the celebrity and George is not a self-indulgent celebrity. He is as forthright and direct a person as you can get, and everyone honours him for that, loves him for that. Even my wife loves him for that! And that's a remarkable achievement because Michelle is an extremely critical feminist. So if George passes muster, anyone will pass muster. And my feeling is that George is going to make an impact. This is a significant thing for the WFP to have done in Canada. People will be moved, and they will get involved.
What about past ambassadors? Were there missteps along the way?
SL: Well, you can never tell. In the UNICEF history the great ambassadors were Audrey Hepburn and Danny Kaye. And all of the current and contemporary people you wonder about. But then you have the Michael Douglases and the Angelina Jolies and people who are bringing profile to the issues that really need the profile. And that, I suspect will be where George comes in. His voice will be heard. Look. He is an extremely articulate, knowledgeable person who has a very significant profile in Canada. Word will spread, people will listen, programs will be watched and heard. It makes a great difference. It's the way the world moves.
George, where are you headed? Do you have any trips planned with the UN?
GS: We're open to it now. We looked at the list of countries that work was being done in, and Pakistan was the right choice. Having seen it in the Sudan and seen work in sub-Saharan Africa, and now Pakistan, the next step is to get people motivated online and mobilized. And then who knows what country comes next?
You keep talking about the stories on the ground that we don't see. So tell me a story that made you want to be a part of this project.
GS: The floods in Pakistan shone a light on the levels of malnutrition there, which are profound. They're on par with some of the most horrific levels you'll see anywhere in the world. It not just showed us what's going on - people in Pakistan didn't even know how big a deal it was. So you get to the ground, see where people are living...IDP camps are difficult and very, very challenging no matter where they are in the world. But to see the IDP camp in Pakistan, and what the people are going through...and recognize that never mind just the earthquake, but the floods, and the fact that in a lot of those areas, the water isn't gone, and if it doesn't go by the time the rains come back again, they're going to be in even bigger trouble...just seeing the looks on the faces of the people. They're asking for help, and telling us what they're going through, and it's very complicated...but to see it on a human level...here it is right here. Not even Pakistanis...the elite, urban group...they didn't even see what was going on in their country. What I love the most about the WFP is that there are over 700 people who work for the WFP in Pakistan. 26 are internationals, and everyone else is Pakistani. That's really important. You're building capacity, you're empowering people. It's culturally sensitive, conversations are happening.
It's really interesting to watch the one-on-one interplay. People are in a really compromised position there. It's my job as a human being. I have a TV show. I should be doing this. This is what I should be doing as a person. And If I didn't have a TV show, I should do this with my friends. We should all do this anyway. So the construct of the media is what allowed me to go to Pakistan, and I'm glad it did. Because now I can say, hey look. Meet this woman. I interviewed a woman while you're standing in the rubble of what once was her place. We went to a place, and it was astonishing, north of a city named Mingora. It looked like a riverbed, right, and there was nothing. It's two football fields wide, and as far as the eye can see, it's just gravel. So you're standing there going, oh, this is a riverbed - no, this was the town. There's no remnants of the town. There's no wood lying around, there's no anything. Where did it go? Well the floods came in. The people were telling me it was like the rush of an airplane. Well, imagine an airplane right on the ground. And all of a sudden they looked around and everything was wiped away. And there's a little kid there who's probably this big. They were trying to build a road - it was the Work for Food programme, and they were trying to build a walkway. That kid got there at sic o'clock in the morning and stays there all night. He's too little to pick up big rocks, but he picks up the little ones and he throws them onto the pile. Those are the stories that make you think, yeah. We need to be telling these stories.
How are you going to bring those stories to the big red chair?
GS: We're just gonna talk about it all the time. I always believe in the church of Bruce Cockburn - "you gotta kick at the darkness til it bleeds daylight." And that's all we can do. I don't get overwhelmed by the numbers. I don't worry about "can we make a difference or not?" Of course you can. If you can make a difference to one person, you've done your job. That's it. There's no great ego play here. It's just "this person fell down, let's help them up." That's all this is. So if I can do that in the red chair, I'll do it all the time.
What should we expect in the April special?
GS: You're going to see how complicated Pakistan really is. I think in the Western world we hear about Pakistan really in terms of two conversations: when there's a disaster, but more generally in terms of conflict and militancy. You get there and you see the people who were affected by the Taliban, and the role Al Qaeda played, and you see the pile-on of challenges that people have to deal with. The realities of government. Corruption, but also the people working on the ground to try and make it better. You're going to see a really wide picture of what Pakistan is going through. And it's a community that's very important to Canada. I grew up in a neighbourhood with a very strong Pakistani population. So it was really important to do something, but it was also very important to us.