Interview by Amanda Stone
Sharon Lee Cowan is Project Manager of “The 1 Billion Hungry Project”, a worldwide petition project launched by the FAO and partner organizations dedicated to pushing chronic hunger as a priority on national and international political agendas.
What is the goal number of signatures?
Our initial goal was to collect one million signatures on the petition to end hunger, and to present these results to national leaders in late October. We felt that a million was significant to get people’s attention, to be an indicator that there IS popular demand for an end to hunger and also achievable in a short period of time between mid-May and late October. For logistical reasons the date for presentation to governments was later shifted to 29 November, so we will likely end up overshooting the original goal. We are already at well over 900,000 signatures.
How has participation in the petition progressed over the course of the campaign?
There was a huge burst of activity at the time of the project launch in mid-May, driven by all the media coverage around the world. Since then, we have seen steady activity on the online petition with spikes in different countries whenever we were able to negotiate free visibility in those markets. In the U.K. we got a huge spike during the three weeks when we had posters plastered throughout the London Underground. But some of the largest bursts of activity have come from live signing events organized in developing countries: we have had massive numbers of people signing the petition by hand in places like Bangladesh, Nepal, and Guatemala.
The project has multiple phases, correct? Why?
Our feeling is that all the interest, excitement, goodwill, support from individuals and organizations, visibility . . . all of these gains we’ve made during the first five months are too valuable to just let drop. So we have begun to look at the petition drive as Phase 1 of something much bigger and more enduring. After we share the results of the petition with government representatives on November 29th, we’ll move into a new phase where we offer people other ways of getting involved and making a difference. But it is important to us that action is well informed. So we will be watching developments in the different countries and at national level, and sharing the data with our members and followers. We’ll also be encouraging them to share information and participate in the global discussion of hunger, food, people and our planet.
What impact are you hoping to achieve when you submit the petition?
After the petition is submitted, we will be looking to countries to think twice before shoving hunger aside in favour of other issues. We want them to feel the force of public desire for change, and to do what’s needed to end hunger. Because the fact is, we already KNOW what works against hunger: new farming techniques and technologies, equal rights for women, fair trade, decent roads and markets. The problem is that most countries have just never made the elimination of hunger their top priority. That goes for wealthier countries, too, most of whom have never lived up to their promises when it comes to helping the others. “The 1billinhungry project” is not about handouts. We want people to be able to buy or grow the food they need, for themselves and their families. Isn’t that what we all want?
How did this initiative come about, and in this format?
It’s simple. Close to one billion people live with the pain and humiliation of not getting enough to eat every day. But these are not people who can hire lobbyists. These are not people who can buy full-page ads in the New York Times. Often they live in remote areas, and spend the bulk of their time just trying to survive. So the point of the worldwide petition drive is to make some noise on their behalf. Our symbol is the yellow whistle, and we are using it to “blow the whistle” on hunger.
It became clear early on that we needed to use a mix of communication channels if we wanted to reach people in all countries, rich and poor, in urban and rural settings, in different age groups. So we have worked with Facebook, Twitter and other social networking platforms, and we have used a special “viral impact” software to encourage people to spread the word to their friends via email or social media. But we have also organized big meetings, exhibits and displays with signing stations.
Have people taken action beyond signing the petition?
We’ve learned a lot in these past few months, and we have a lot more to learn. But one of the most interesting and heart-warming things has been to see what people can do on their own initiative. The way some people have worded their own personal appeals when they ask their Facebook friends to sign the petition — I’m telling you, some of them rival what a top-notch ad agency would produce! And let me give you another example. There’s a young ska band in Costa Rica that call themselves PERCANCE. These guys heard about the campaign and decided to make it their own cause. They started posting on the project’s Facebook wall, making short videos asking their fans to sign, and this week they even set up at a Costa Rican university for three days where they attracted crowds of young people to sign the petition.
I’ll say one last thing I’ve learned. Language is important to people. It can be a sensitive issue, connected with feelings of personal identity and national pride. But there also exists a strong desire to communicate across borders and barriers. A willingness to unite behind a cause and push for change. You can see it most strongly in the online discussion and among the young people. They come in and post in their own language, read the comments of others if they can, use online translation tools if they can’t, and often make the effort to use other languages to talk with one another. It’s amazing to see the different alphabets, even, as you scroll down the pages, and to imagine all the energy and potential for change behind those lines . . .
Check out this video to learn more about the project and click here to sign the petition.
Amanda Stone is the Communications Assistant for Nourishing the Planet.