Committee on World Food Security

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28 Feb 2023

If you have followed the global food security and nutrition debate closely, then you definitely know Teresa Welsh. A Senior Reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C., Teresa mainly covers food systems and nutrition. Given Devex’s unique niche as an independent media platform for the global development community, her articles give members of Parliament, Congress, development agencies, philanthropists, researchers, multilateral banks, and NGOs the news they need to do their job.

Waiganjo Njoroge, our Head of Communications, spoke with her in this edition of TurnTables - a feature that tells stories through the eyes of journalists.

Yours is a household name in the development community for the kind of food security and nutrition stories you write. Have you always written about these issues?

Devex is actually my first job that’s solely focuses on development, humanitarian, food and agriculture issues. I was initially hired to specifically cover Latin America, but since our team is so small that everyone kind of ends up doing a little bit of everything, I took this beat up as I was always interested in food and agriculture. Besides my love for food, I like to think of it as the fundamental building block of development.

In addition,  everyone can relate to food. While not everyone knows the feeling of starvation, everybody knows the feeling of being hungry and can imagine what it is not to have food.

Being in  Washington DC, is also great as it allows me to write the food story, that no one here is writing.

The Devex model is interesting as you send out newsletters to a targeted audience

Yes, a few years back, Devex shifted its strategy to focus on developing audiences around specific issues and interest areas -  one of which was food systems which was an entirely new area. As a result, we had to build our audience from the scratch. Although this has not been easy, it means we have really good readership because everyone that’s on my list  has specifically signed up to be on it and is certainly interested in my stories.

The other great thing about this model is that we are able to generate audience analytics and can tell what our readers find interesting, what they care about and how it matters to their work.

You have written a number of stories on the ongoing food crisis that has been described as the worst in a generation. What is your assessment of the situation?

The situation is bad. The food price inflation is huge everywhere, hitting the poorest people hardest. They have the least amount of flexible income to spend, but still need to eat. What sacrifices are they making? Are they eating fewer meals? Are they eating less nutritious meals? Are girls and women in the house not eating?

Is the world doing enough to help the most affected people cope with the crisis?

Not enough. Attention is going to high-level stuff. For example, everyone is paying attention to grain coming out of Ukraine. While this is great, a lot of what we don’t hear about is the hidden hunger and those choices that families are making every day about what they’re going to do with dwindling resources.

In addition, there seems to be pre-occupation with visual stories with images of parched land, dying livestock, flooded cities, et cetera. As a result, stories that are not visually alarming get less attention. For example, I did a story on Honduras and was struck by the severity of the situation faced by farmers and a food-insecure population due to climate change yet  their struggles appear “invisible” and likely to be forgotten compared to places where you just to go and take photos of something that speaks for itself. This story is available here for further reading!

Is this affecting the kind of support regions that do not have seemingly obvious human tragedy receive?

Definitely. What the COVID-19 pandemic showed us is that there’s a limit to the amount of money the donors are going to pledge. For example, with the war in Ukraine, a lot of the big donors in Europe are all of a sudden spending money helping Ukrainian refugees and counting that as oversees development assistance (ODA) instead of actually spending money outside their countries.

And again, not that the Ukrainian refugees do not deserve attention, support and services, but we need to spread the resources all the more thinner or commit new monies to cover all the hotspots.

Is this neglect of certain regions because resources are finite or there are other factors triggering it?

I think we’ve gotten to this place where we can’t possibly cram all of the crises in at once. Although we don’t all need to care about all crises,  we need enough people caring about each one of them so that none of them are completely forgotten.

The other trigger is governments that have traditionally provided the resources to deal with such crises are facing some difficulty making an argument for foreign assistance when their own people are struggling with inflation at home.

That’s profound. Moving to more positive outlook, have you seenany exciting interventions and solutions that are likely to get us out of the woods?

Yeah. There’s amazing work being done but not at the right scale for impact. For example, there are lots of interventions that can help farmers adapt to climate change but you have to have the resources to take them to the farmers which is difficult with some many countries lacking extension services.  Truth is, it does not matter how well we do all kinds of little, piecemeal and disjointed things, interventions have to be at scale to effectively pull significantly large percentages of a population out of poverty.

The other part of the puzzle is that we seem not to do the things that we know should be done. For example, we know that ready-to-use therapeutic foods help children recover from malnutrition and wasting, and can be administered at the community level. But it’s still not happening!

How do we achieve scale?

I believe it will take innovative approaches to scale solutions as resources will always be limited.

The first part of this innovation will be acknowledging that the current system is not designed to solve the problem we are experiencing and should be changed. The 2021 Food Systems Summit generated great momentum for this transformation. As a result, we saw a very strong overlap of conversations between food systems, agriculture and climate meaning joint up solutions.

Another big part of fixing the systems is ensuring the international systems, mechanisms and initiatives are coordinated and designed to support local solutions.

You contribute to this transformation by writing stories that go directly to the inboxes of key decision makers.  What’s your mental journey when writing such stories and what’s the intended outcome, by who?

It depends on the type of story. Some stories are purely to inform people about important developments they might have missed. However, the majority of what I do is longer, more analysis, in-depth features enabling people to understand what’s happening so they can make decisions for their own business and their own jobs

For such pieces,  I like to think of the bigger picture and how I can be useful to people in their jobs by giving them information that they might not have. I also think of people in other sectors other than the one I am writing about. Can someone who works in health, for example, read my story on food systems and identify principles and ideas they can apply in their work?

Are there stories you have written that stand out for you because of their impact?

It’s really hard to single out individual stories. But I always find the most compelling stories to be those that combine policy and people angles. While the policy stories are important, we have to ask why the policy matters, whose lives does it effect? When these two angles are combined, you get people in decision making to care about these humans even if they don’t know them.

Overall, besides informing, equipping and educating people, I write to keep institutions and individuals accountable for commitments or pledges they have made.

Talking of holding people accountable, is there anything that I - and people like myself who are in in-house communications - can do to  better support you and other journalists?

That’s a good one. My blanket recommendation for comms people is to make sure the reporter actually covers the kind of story you’re pitching. I get lots of stories that are not relevant to my beat.

That said, communication is, ironically, the biggest thing. First, it always about relationships, having a two-way communication, so you feel comfortable telling me things on embargo or off the record or giving me a heads up when you have something interesting coming up. Building these relationships is beyond emails.

Second, when it comes to specific press requests or interview requests, my suggestion is to reply and say, “Yes, I’m working on this.” This way, I’ll know you’re working on it and won’t think that you’re completely not responding to me. You would be shocked at the amount of people that I’d send an email to requesting an interview but get no response until after some days when they have tracked down the expert, confirmed their availability and locked a day and time by which time I might have already moved on to other sources as I wasn’t sure they received my email.

Communication for communicators! As we conclude, do you think we are anywhere close to stopping the runaway hunger and malnutrition?

I have to say I’m not feeling particularly optimistic. This isn’t a great way probably to end the conversation but it just seems like there is one crisis after the next and I think we need to fundamentally change the system so that we’re equipped in an agile way to respond.

That said, I think we should all try to focus on the parts where we feel our work can make the biggest difference and have the biggest impact. Do what you’re good at and don’t be afraid to fail. The system has to be more agile so that when you recognize an intervention is not working, you can pivot to something else instead of just throwing a bunch of money away.

Finally, if you were to write one story that gets people to do the right thing, what would it be?

Oh wow! if I had that story, I would have written it already.