Josette Sheeran: While we're fighting famine in Horn of Africa, we should think big
She says there will always be hungry people, but we can end chronic hunger
Innovative programs and technology can end boom-and-bust cycles, she says
Sheeran: World Bank says $10 billion a year would prevent more than 1.1 million child deaths
Editor's note: Josette Sheeran is the executive director of the U.N. World Food Programme, which provides food assistance to more than 105 million people in 75 countries. She spoke at the TED Global conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in July. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it distributes through its website.
(CNN) -- I will never forget holding my newborn baby in my arms watching a television report on the 1987 famine in Ethiopia -- hearing the haunting cries of babies whose hunger could not be met by their anguished mothers.
Tragically, today we are seeing similar images as the worst drought in 60 years again devastates the Horn of Africa, throwing as many as 13 million into desperate hunger.
With such images, it would be easy to be pessimistic about our chances of ending chronic hunger in our lifetime.
I have no pretenses about the magnitude of this challenge. There will no doubt always be hungry people. Weather, conflict or war can disrupt the lives of millions in seconds. We will always need to be prepared to respond to such emergencies and feed the hungry. And it is critical that we fully fund the humanitarian response to hunger emergencies, such as the one now in the Horn of Africa.
But I am optimistic that now is the time to solve chronic hunger -- the kind that traps generation after generation into a scourge of malnutrition, debilitation and premature death. A convergence of a number of factors -- innovative ideas, dedicated people, new-found resources and political resolve -- are taking root in countries, at the grass-roots level, which are transforming the challenge before us.
From enhanced nutritional products to "digital food" using electronic vouchers and mobile phones, the World Food Programme is leveraging the power of technology to provide nutritious food to the most vulnerable.
Recognizing the untapped potential of traditionally marginalized groups, the World Food Programme is helping set up community-led granaries to break the boom and bust cycles of hunger while empowering small holder farmers, many of whom are women, with training in improved production, post-harvest handling and other key agribusiness skills.
These solutions, and others discussed in my TED Talk, are not simply for humanitarians but for finance ministers and prime ministers. We have an economic imperative to act, as hunger and malnutrition reduce by half the earning potential of individuals and greatly diminish the human capital of nations.
Studies have found that malnutrition can cost nations an average of 6% of gross domestic product. Even more staggering than such losses is the return on investment to address malnutrition. The World Bank estimates that $10.3 billion a year in nutrition interventions in 36 countries with the highest burden of undernutrition would prevent more than 1.1 million child deaths and cut in half severe acute malnutrition.
But technology, innovation and even resources are not enough. Defeating hunger and malnutrition requires political resolve. It requires leaders who will stand up and say, "Not on my watch." The kind of leadership we are seeing now from the Group of 20 and the African Union, which have put food security at the top of their agenda.
Finally, the most important factor in ending chronic hunger is the power of the individual. We too often assume that the challenges are so vast that any solutions must be extraordinarily complex and expensive. The tragedy would be to allow cynicism, lack of imagination, lack of political will and most devastating, lack of hope, stand in our way. On the World Food Programme's website, we have outlined 10 things that anyone can do to help save lives, and I would encourage you to take a look.
I truly believe now is the time to dream big. This generation, equipped with online connectivity and technical solutions, has the chance to be transformational, a force multiplier to end chronic hunger.
Working together we can end the intergenerational curse of hunger once and for all so that no mother will ever again be unable to answer her child's desperate cry for food.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Josette Sheeran.