For years, they helped each other provide emergency food around the globe. Now, they want to work together to prevent such needs — or reestablish self-sufficiency quickly in areas hurt by war and climate change-caused drought and floods.
The head of the United Nations’ World Food Programme and high-level officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints huddled in Salt Lake City on Monday to discuss how to keep problems triggered by conflict and climate change from escalating into emergencies — and how to help heal them when they occur.
“If you take the old approach of just handing out food, you would be there for 30 or 40 years” in suffering areas, said David Beasley, executive director of the U.N. food program and a former South Carolina governor. “Our goal is to have an exit strategy in every place that we go. In other words, how do we put the World Food Programme out of business?”
Much of that involves helping to rehabilitate land (the U.N. restored a half-million acres last year). It also involves better seeds and crop rotation or helping people in fragile areas to store food before disasters or build water systems and roads that they need to take care of themselves.
After a tour of the Utah-based faith’s Welfare Square and Bishops’ Central Storehouse, Beasley said, “Here, the church’s desire is for people to be self-sustainable. That fits right in with what we believe. So how do we partner to take advantage of each other’s expertise for communities of people in these fragile environments?”
Sharon Eubank, head of Latter-day Saint Charities and first counselor in the faith’s Relief Society general presidency, said the United Nations and the church have realized they each have plenty to offer the other — not just to handle emergencies but also to prevent them.
“We had very interesting discussions on other kinds of things that we could do before it gets to the emergency,” she said. That includes extending to others the church’s longtime teaching and practice to have some reserve of food.
“Teaching that self-reliance principle,” Eubank said, “gives them a little bit of resilience and buys them a little bit of time” in disasters and emergencies.
W. Christopher Waddell — second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, which oversees the faith’s real estate, investment, financial and humanitarian efforts — said the church and the United Nations essentially are trying to figure out how to put a fence at the top of a cliff, instead of funding an ambulance at the bottom.
“It might help and assist people to have the resources at home," he said, "so that ... you don’t have … the 70 million-plus refugees” now displaced around the world.
Beasley explained that refuges “don’t want to migrate. People are migrating today primarily because of necessity: lack of food and needs.”
Food security, he said, would weaken terrorist groups that take advantage of shortages.
“I could tell you that mother after mother said, ‘Mr. Beasley, my husband didn’t want to join ISIS. But we hadn’t fed our little girl in two weeks. What were we supposed to do?” he said. “If we can come in and create food security, then the families don’t join ISIS. The families are secure and can live life by their own dreams.”
Beasley added, “People don’t realize there are more people on the verge of starvation than at any time” — mostly because of wars, with climate change as the second-biggest problem.
While polls have shown that large numbers of Utahns still question climate change, Eubank and Waddell said the church sees its effects and wants to help alleviate the suffering it causes.
“The Relief Society pays attention to that because it’s mothers and fathers with the children that notice the effects of climate change first of all,” she said. “You lose that harvest … then it dominoes.”
Waddell said the church sees areas that suffer from cycles of flooding and droughts caused by climate change. He praised U.N. efforts “to gather the water from the floods to get you through the drought times.”
Even more than the church’s willingness to help with food and money, Beasley said he is impressed by its desire to help others worldwide who are not of its faith.
“That was probably the biggest takeaway,” he said. There are “a lot of people around here that are looking out for others. ... There is a passion for helping not just those of your own church but for people who are suffering — all of God’s children.”
Beasley noted that donations from many governments to his organization come with strict rules and limits, and often don’t provide the flexibility needed in emergencies. He said the LDS Church is not that way.
“The flexibility we get with the church is really quite remarkable,” he said. “That’s very needed in a complex environment.”
Since 1985, Latter-day Saint Charities has aided millions of people in nearly 200 countries, according to a church news release. Last year, the agency worked in 141 countries and territories on 2,885 projects with more than 1,900 partners.