Nearly four decades ago, Brenda Barton (Advertising and Public Relations, '81) was interested in pursuing a career in advertising. She had no idea that, by the end of 2020, she would be leading a team in Sri Lanka as part of her 30-year career with a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization.
After graduating from then-Grant MacEwan Community College, Barton obtained a business degree from Arizona State University and worked with Northlands in Edmonton in her first professional communications job. In 1992, she moved to Italy, where she began working with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
According to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, WFP was recognized for "its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict."
In the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, WFP stated that 2020 has been a difficult year for the organization as the COVID-19 pandemic has further added to the number of people affected by hunger. But WFP has intensified its efforts, saying, "Until the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos."
WFP predicts that by the end of 2020, the number of acutely food insecure people could increase by 80 per cent — from 149 million to 270 million in 79 of the 88 countries it serves. Addressing the "rising tide of hunger" is proving to be the largest humanitarian operation in the organization's 59-year history.
"Now with COVID, nutrition is closely linked to the importance of our immune systems," says Barton, who is the WFP country director for Sri Lanka. "We are working hard to advocate and strengthen the need for social protection programs that in Canada, for example, we take for granted — like important care programs for mothers and children or the systems that kick in when people suddenly lose their jobs. We call them ‘safety nets’ and for good reason as so many people don’t have them and are falling through the holes."
A passion for humanitarian work
Brought on initially at WFP’s Rome headquarters as a communications/public relations consultant, Barton then found herself in Nairobi, Kenya, during the height of the Horn of Africa famine of 1992 as the organization’s first field-based public information officer.
"Those were very challenging years, when war in Somalia and conflicts similar to what we are now seeing in Ethiopia and Sudan were flooding the headlines," recalls Barton, who, at the time, was WFP’s chief spokesperson. "It didn’t stop there nor did my role, as the Great Lakes crisis erupted, including the Rwanda genocide in 1994 with one million refugees flooding over the border overnight into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)."
Barton says she has drawn a lot from the education she received at MacEwan as a foundation for a career that has taken her around the world. (In January, she will relocate to the Philippines to begin her new role there as country director.) Applying basic communications principles, sharpening her writing skills and even leaning on past public speaking courses have been constants for her over the years. When she became the global deputy director of communications from Rome HQ (2003 to 2011), she drew on what she had learned about advertising — putting it to use on creative campaigns and public service announcements that featured the likes of Sean Connery and Leonardo DiCaprio.
After five years in South Africa as WFP’s deputy regional director for southern Africa, Barton (now as the country director for Sri Lanka) works on school meals and nutrition programs to help nourish families alongside projects that bolster the lives of smallholder farmers, all the while preparing for cyclones like the one last week, "which fortunately just brushed the island."
“Receiving the Nobel Peace Prize is truly a proud and humbling moment to be part of the WFP team.” —Brenda Barton
She describes her role as running the "Sri Lanka franchise of WFP," and admits that the humanitarian work is challenging – getting food to those who need it, ensuring staff members are paid and managing remote working conditions due to COVID-19.
She's not alone. With people in Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and DRC struggling with famine, Barton's WFP colleagues are working around the clock and living in makeshift accommodations, while venturing out on dangerous routes to deliver food to communities in need.
"The biggest challenge we face is hard to define. Broadly it is reaching populations in need who are cut off due to war especially when food is used as a political weapon, or getting quickly to the scene of natural catastrophes, which requires flying in staff from all over the world overnight as surge support," she says. "The logistics needed to mobilize funds and food to feed thousands of people from one day to the next is enormous. It is an unseen part of the unsung heroes in WFP worldwide who have to come together as an enormous machine to save lives, time and time again. And we don’t have a big pot of money just sitting ready to pull from, as WFP is a 100 per cent voluntarily funded UN agency."
Though her work is highly stressful, Barton sees helping people as a privilege. She is inspired by the courage and fortitude of the people she serves, and by her own support system in what she calls the "WFP family," among them dear colleagues who have sadly lost their lives during their humanitarian efforts.
"Everyone feels a part of this recognition, including WFP retirees, government partners, NGOs and others who have been part of our journey over the years," says Barton. "Receiving the Nobel Peace Prize is truly a proud and humbling moment to be part of the WFP team."
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