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Feinstein International Famine Centre

Name Feinstein International Famine Centre    
Address Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy,
Tufts University,
126 Curtis St. Medford,
Year formed January 1997

(617) 627-3423

Director Peter Walker
Fax (617) 627-3428 Staff (global) 21
Internet site Annual budget 3 million dollars


Interview by Jeremy Shoham

Tilling the land,Ethiopia, observed during Feinstein field trip.

Field Exchange interviewed Peter Walker (Director), Helen Young (Director of the public nutrition programme) and Sue Lautze (Director of the livelihoods programme) from the Feinstein International Famine Centre, at Tufts University, USA.

Peter, who only took over directorship of the centre two years ago, explained how the early history of the famine centre was tied up with the 150th anniversary of the Irish famine (1840-6). The original concept was to establish two centres of learning on famine (one in Boston, which has a large Irish immigrant population, and one at Cork University in Ireland), partly as a tribute to the victims of the famine. Tufts University along with the Freidman School of Nutrition Science and Policy offered to host the Boston centre. John Hammock, who was head of Oxfam US at the time, was asked to take on the director's role and do the initial institution building. The primary aim of the centre, which was set up in January 1997, is to bridge the gap between practice and theory/ practitioners and academics. Inherent in the ethos of the centre is a moral commitment to put findings into action.

Peter explained how the centre has grown from one person in 1997, to 21 in 2003, with an annual budget of 3 million dollars. Staff are based as far afield as Kabul, Nairobi, London and Boston. The centre's work focuses on marginalised communities who could easily descend into famine conditions, e.g. pastoralists and those living in highly vulnerable areas of the world, like Afghanistan and Africa.

Sue Lautze has been working in the centre since the very beginning. Her main area of work has been 'livelihoods in complex emergencies.' She is currently working with Angela Raven Roberts, Director of Academic and Training Programmes, on changing the livelihoods framework and making it more appropriate to complex emergencies. Sue recounted how John Hammock's original conception was that the famine centre would be involved in a lot of advocacy, and spend much time with the 'movers and shakers in Washington.' However, research has become a far stronger component of the centre's work than originally envisaged. In Sue's words, "it quickly outgrew its original focus and started to attract people at the top of their profession, especially those with a livelihoods focus to their work."

Peter described how the work of the centre is best conceptualised in terms of a 'three legged stool.' The first leg is research and publications. There is currently a wide span of research activities encompassing areas such as the relationship between livelihoods programming and nutrition, veterinary services, and structural aid (anatomy of the aid business). The second leg is academic education. The famine centre aims to plough research findings back into education and training. The centre currently offers a one year Master of Arts on Humanitarian Assistance (MAHA). This is targeted at mid-career staff who have already got 'their feet wet,' i.e. have overseas experience. The Masters students take eight courses, ranging from emergency nutrition to human rights. The course units are also made available to students enrolled in the MSc on Food Policy and Nutrition at Tufts Nutrition School, as well as the MA in Law and Diplomacy. There is a commitment within the centre to take the degree in an appropriate form to Africa (South Africa, Mozambique and Sudan). However, as Peter, Sue and Helen independently commented - "this is a slow process."

A couple of friends, met during fieldwork in Ethiopia.

The final 'leg of the stool' is commitment to institutional change. As Peter stated, "without this, it is like doing a marathon and giving up a mile before the end". Examples of this commitment can be found in the centre's veterinary work in east Africa, where community veterinary systems evolved into working with ministries to develop educational curricula and government policies. Another example can be seen in Afghanistan, where the centre has seconded a nutritionist (Annalies Borrel) "to be embedded in the Ministry of Health." Her work involves building up a public nutrition department, including national policies, applied research and training programmes.

Helen Young became involved in the famine centre in 1998. She joined to help develop the public nutrition component of the centre's work. As Helen commented, "existing members were not nutritionists and there was a need to develop a nutrition component that linked with, and built upon, other components of the centres work, e.g. livelihoods, livelihood programming around livestock, refugees, gender and children". Tufts held a workshop in 1999, which laid the groundwork for 'the public nutrition in emergencies' work of the centre. This led to a special issue of the Disasters journal, which laid out the centre's framework for public nutrition activities "over and above the academic programme."

Over the years, Helen has helped develop the Masters programme, particularly the nutrition in emergencies component. Annalies Borrel came on board in 1999 as a guest lecturer, and became senior food security and nutrition advisor - employed by Tufts but seconded to UNICEF for ten months of the year. Helen described how the various strands of work (academic, research and publication, capacity building, training and technical assistance) "all overlap like a Venn diagram"- academic work involves supervising students, research and publications involves writing text books, while capacity building involves learning about how to effect institutional change.

Helen is part funded by the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), as part of the livelihoods initiative with Sue Lautze and others. Recent work has included a review of risk and vulnerability during the Ethiopian drought-related emergency. The public nutrition programme is also involved in capacity building within UNICEF (in collaboration with CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) and Columbia University), where three partner institutions have established emergency related training in public health, nutrition, water and environmental health. As well as setting up and running four regional training courses, they have helped lay the foundation for longer-term strategies in UNICEF. Her team are trying to institutionalise lessons and thinking at a country level. For example, in Ethiopia, Helen has been involved in conducting a participatory review of the UNICEF emergency response, which, according to Helen "was very brave, with openness and self-criticism based on trust towards Famine Centre staff."

Helen explained that since much of her salary comes from organisations like UNICEF and OFDA, there are no rigid requirements (like there are in UK universities, for example) to produce a set number of publications every year. However, the public nutrition programme does regularly publish in a range of journals and there are demands to write text-books and produce training material. Helen says that she was initially attracted to the centre by the 'NGO culture' of the place, i.e. emphasis on the practical challenges of programme implementation, capacity building, and a participatory, as well as multi-disciplinary, approach to problem solving. She also feels that the work/life balance is good - the fact that she is allowed to reside in the UK is a big plus. The famine centre seem incredibly flexible in this regard - "they have a diaspora in Nairobi, Kabul and the UK."

As Director of the centre, fundraising is a large part of Peter's workload. Originally the centre's main research funding came from institutions that supported research for knowledge sake, i.e. curiosity rather than product driven. Hence philanthropist foundations, like the Mellon Foundation, were key funders. However, following the crash, many foundations lost 25-30% of their equity, which led to big cutbacks. Foundations became "more specific about what they funded and humanitarian work was not a top priority." The Famine Centre, therefore, had to go the donor agency route to get research funding, e.g. DfID/USAID. This meant the centre has had to walk more of a tightrope in terms of surviving on both directed and un-earmarked funding. The trouble is that lending by the donor agencies is becoming increasingly impact driven, so that the centre has less autonomy to pursue research that they wish to.

Peter finished by sharing the challenges currently facing the Famine Centre. First, they are faced with how to maintain the teaching component of the centres work, as they receive no funding for this. Management and communication are also a big issue since staff are located in many different countries, and there is a heavy reliance on email.
The centre must also work to maintain profile and influence within the rest of the school - Famine Centre staff travel extensively, which contributes to the perception of 'outsiders' that the centre is a separate entity. His final challenge is how to maximise freedom for research, rather than impact-driven projects.

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Interview by Jeremy Shoham (). Feinstein International Famine Centre. Field Exchange 21, March 2004. p25.



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