The World Food Programme (WFP) is the food-assistance branch of the United Nations (UN).
It is the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, focused on hunger and food security. Founded in 1961 as a way of utilising surplus corn in the USA, it is headquartered in Rome and has offices in over 80 countries.
Over the years Ireland has remained a generous supporter of WFP’s work, as a donor and friend.
Lobbying for a portion of this year’s donations to go to the Middle East is Sean O’Brien, WFP country director in Syria.
Originally from a calf-to-beef enterprise in the midlands, Sean remembers the early days of his 25 year career with WFP.
“I grew up on a beef farm in Ballinamere, just outside of Tullamore town. We reared calves for fattening. My brother Donal was always the real farmer, but in younger years I was involved in the farm too; up early in the morning feeding calves and whatever else needed to be done.
I’m not sure why, but I chose Tanzania. I spent two years out there as a volunteer
“When I finished my business degree in Galway, I worked as a trainee auditor to get my [accountancy] qualification. I always wanted to work abroad. So in 1993, I walked in off the street one day to Concern Worldwide in Dublin, asking if I could volunteer. They laughed, ‘No don’t be silly, you can’t just walk in asking to be a volunteer. We have hundreds on a list. Unless you happen to be an accountant or a nurse?’ There and then, they offered for me to go to Ethiopia, Tanzania, or Mozambique.
“I’m not sure why, but I chose Tanzania. I spent two years out there as a volunteer. The first year was quiet, but during the second year (1994) the Rwandan genocide occurred. At that point we started working closely with WFP and other partnering UN organisations.
“After that, the Concern office in Dublin passed my CV to WFP’s office in Rome. Eventually I was hired by them and moved to Italy in 1995. Initially I worked as an accountant, but my role has changed quite a bit over the years. In 2011, for example, I was appointed acting chief finance officer, for about a year and a half.”
Having spent the majority of his career to date at WFP headquarters in Rome, last Christmas Sean packed his bags for Syria,
“In WFP you are subject to rotation and I had been subject to rotation for the last 20 years. So I decided it was time for a change. I flew to Syria last December to start my new post as WFP representative and country director, which will last for at least two years.”
Agriculture is very diverse here, with the growth of olives, lamb, beef, spinach, citrus fruits and more
Despite the fertile land and once vibrant agricultural sector in Syria, WFP support millions of Syrian people with food supplies each month, Sean explains.
“There are two main rivers – the Euphrates and the Orontes – which dictate the most fertile areas of Syrian land. The northeastern region at the Euphrates basin is known as the ‘breadbasket’ of Syria, due to its abundance of wheat.”
“Agriculture is very diverse here, with the growth of olives, lamb, beef, spinach, citrus fruits and more. Syrian food is really good. But the conflict over the last 10 years has led to a lot of disruption and change to every sector, including agriculture.
“We align much of our work around Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG2) ‘zero hunger’. WFP feed approximately 4.8 million people in Syria every month. Before the war, the population of Syria was just less than 21 million people. About five million of those are now refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. There are another six million people internally displaced.”
I was in a bar in Rome having a coffee when I heard that WFP had just won the Nobel Peace Prize
“We are entirely voluntarily funded. Any dollar we spend has been given by a donor – which keeps us honest. That’s what I have spent the last 20 years working on, our financial policies. It’s not very exciting, but implementing international accounting standards for example, makes the organisation transparent. And at the end of the day, there are no hidden secrets, which has a huge part to play in how confident our donors are giving us money.”
Sean regards WFPs 2020 Nobel Peace Prize award as honorary to all UN partners, donors and staff members.
“I was in a bar in Rome having a coffee when I heard that WFP had just won the Nobel Peace Prize. I was completely shocked. I wanted to tell the barman, I didn’t know what to do! It was amazing.
“The award is very much in recognition of all WFP field workers, partners, donors and the staff we have lost, including Michael Ryan; who lost his life in an air crash in 2019. Mick was a very dedicated Irish colleague for many years. He was excellent at his job.”
Working as an accountant for Concern Worldwide and WFP back in the day was a real springboard for the rest of my career
Sean credits those humble beginnings as an enthusiastic trainee for his progression and success to date.
“Working as an accountant for Concern Worldwide and WFP back in the day was a real springboard for the rest of my career. I walked into Concern that day in 1993 looking for an opportunity to travel and see the world. I wouldn’t have gone anywhere without a qualification. For me it has been a huge journey.
“The hardest part of my job right now is being away from my family, but I am absolutely privileged with my career to date within WFP. The organisation has been so good to me and given me such a motivating career.”