Former Salisburian Jim Whitton Jr. talks about the battle against hunger

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 26, 2011

Center for the Environment
Jim Whitton Jr. describes his introduction to The Hunger Project as a “life-altering” experience that eventually would take him from the world of investment banking to some of the world’s poorest countries.
But he says the groundwork for that transformation was laid much earlier, during his formative years growing up in Greensboro and Salisbury, where he developed an appreciation for community, philanthropy and service to others.
Whitton, a native of Greensboro, moved to Salisbury with his parents, Chris and Jim Whitton, in 1974. He worked for Chase Manhattan Bank in New York before joining The Hunger Project, where he’s currently a regional director, based in Texas.
Whitton recently visited Salisbury with THP Executive Vice President John Coonrod for a program at the Center for the Environment at Catawba College. (You can find a previously published Q&A with Coonrod at
Before the program here, Whitton spoke to Juanita Teschner, the center’s director of communications, about his days in Salisbury and his work with the Hunger project. This is an edited transcript of that interview.
Q: When did you join The Hunger Project?
A: My first contact with the organization, which was really life-altering, was 1982. I was working in New York for a large international bank, and someone invited me to a presentation called “The Ending Hunger Briefing.” It essentially made the case that we are alive at a time when the worst of chronic, persistent hunger — which is very different from famine emergencies and represents more than 90 percent of hunger in the world — could be ended. There is no external reason for its persistence — no shortage of money, no shortage of food, no shortage of know-how. But somehow we as a human family had grown to tolerate, at that point in time, more than 40,000 people dying each and every day as a consequence of this chronic hunger.
This presentation was making the case that the primary obstacle — the key missing ingredient — was this mindset that hunger was inevitable. One comes at the problem in a significantly different way if you are aiming to resolve it versus thinking it’s unresolvable and we just need to help out and alleviate suffering.
The actions that follow that shift in mindset are substantial. So that was my introduction, and it changed my worldview. This whole issue was not on my radar. I had gone to a great boarding school; I’d had an exchange year in Europe; I had gone to a good liberal arts college in New England (Middlebury College in Vermont); I was reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal daily. But The Hunger Project painted a picture of our world that somehow I had completely missed in all my education.
Q: So at that time a big part of The Hunger Project’s mission was to help people make that shift?
A: Yes. From 1977 to 1990 the whole thrust of The Hunger Project work was around this large-scale education and awareness campaign in developed countries — North America, Europe, Australia, Japan — trying to alter that mindset. Nobody was going around saying hunger was inevitable, but it was an unexamined, probably unconscious, attitude. The Hunger Project took on the job of shining the light on it and then attempting to transform that mindset toward one that recognizes we as a human family have an opportunity to end it once and for all — at least the most severe aspects around the world.
So I began to volunteer as someone who led that presentation while I was still working at the bank. Then it sort of grew from there. I didn’t actually join the staff of The Hunger Project until 2002.
Q: As you look back, do you think living in Salisbury with the parents you had, who were very community oriented, influenced you to eventually pursue this path?
A: Absolutely. The example they set was key — just that sense of responsibility to provide a combination of leadership and service in our communities. What happened with the Hunger Project is that it redefined what my community was. Now the world was my community. I understand what Warren Buffett means when he speaks of the “lucky womb.” He knew if he had been born in a village in Bangladesh, he wouldn’t have done quite so well. I knew I could take no credit for being born in the place and the time and with the parents that I had, but I really saw that the world was getting smaller and smaller, and I think what The Hunger Project awakened in me was this sense of global citizenship. No one was not my neighbor.
Q: What other role models did you have?
A: My grandfather, A.G. Peeler Jr., whose father started Bamby Bakery in Salisbury, was similarly dedicated to civic responsibility and leading campaigns to raise money. I actually got to watch him when he contributed his money. What I got to see was a kind of joy in giving. You could hear it in his voice. You could see it in his face. That was also a huge influence. I think it has really shaped my own philanthropy.
I think the other part is that Salisbury itself is an extraordinarily generous community — with Jimmy and Gerry Hurley and the Stanbacks and so many others. I grew up in that culture of people making significant gifts, taking some real responsibility for making life better for the wider community.
Q: The Hunger Project wants to end hunger and poverty by helping people become self-reliant as opposed to just giving them food. Why is that important?
A: At the heart of our work we regard those living in these conditions — as difficult as they are — as the key to the solution. We view them as resourceful, resilient, creative, committed individuals and families who simply, given the conditions where they live, can’t translate a full day’s work into meeting their basic needs like you and I can.
If we think of those living in the conditions of abject poverty as hopeless or helpless victims of circumstance, they will come to think of themselves that way, so a big part of our efforts in the first year or so of our work is what we call mobilizing a community for self-reliance. People are invited to consider what their vision is. What would a better life look like? It’s a matter of building a relationship with their own future and having folks come to understand the nature of commitment and what happens when you hit obstacles and hardship. Then there’s the action part — what can they do in the next 30-60-90 days with only locally available resources — nothing from outside their community. The whole intent is that over the course of that first year or so, you end up with a sufficient number of local community leaders who now have a kind of confidence because they have accomplished things on their own. That transformation is the key.
Q: Your organization seems to place a huge emphasis on empowering women. Talk to us about that.
A: We don’t think there is any more central, more important, more necessary issue to address than gender relations and the status of women and girls. We started working on this gender aspect directly back in 1997-98. Since that time the world community has developed a broad consensus about the causal relationship between gender relations and intractable poverty.
Almost everything in our work shifted when a study was issued called the Asian Enigma. It was sponsored by UNICEF and came out in 1996. Basically this group was given the task of finding out why rates of child malnutrition were so much higher in India and South Asia than in Africa. Because every other indicator would have said it’s the other way around – the economic situation, the infrastructure, education levels. India was exporting food for probably a decade or more at that point, and yet it had almost twice the rate of malnutrition for children under 5.
This group revealed something called “the cycle of malnutrition.” It really put the whole gender issue into stark relief because they found that parents particularly in South Asia pray not to have girl children. Sons are really like currency. When a girl is born, the worst case scenario is infanticide. But even when that doesn’t happen, the mother typically breast feeds the girl 6-8 weeks less than her brothers in hopes that she can get pregnant again sooner and have a son.
That compromises the little girl’s immune system for the rest of her life. As she is a toddler, she joins her mother and sisters in eating after the men and boys — and in a poverty-stricken area, that almost always means less food. When her brothers start school, she is typically held back to do chores or work in a field or look after siblings. If there is access to medical care, it goes first to the men and boys. She gets married young — in her early teens. Then she gets pregnant soon after, and because she has been malnourished her whole life, gives birth to a low-birth-weight child, and if it’s a girl, that cycle just continues.
Q: So how did this study change your approach?
A: We had been working in India since 1983. This is 1996-97 when we got engaged with this report. Now this was the best view of the deepest underlying cause — extreme discrimination against mothers and girls — and we wanted to know how we could possibly get some leverage at addressing it.
In 1999 we bet the farm on one particular opportunity that had arisen. In the early 1990s, thanks to an amendment to the constitution in India, a third of all the seats in the most decentralized elected village councils were to be reserved for women. In 1995 during the next round of elections, one million rural women were elected to local government.
The women were ill-equipped to participate in any sort of civic process. Most were illiterate. Most were under the thumb of their husband or father-in-law. They were just going to sit in the seats, and when it came time to vote on something, look over their shoulder and then, again, their husband or father-in-law would tell them which way to vote. End of story. Nothing changes.
But what we bet on was that we could be instrumental in having these women become able to engage and fulfill these new responsibilities. We put together an array of training and support that would empower and enable these women to do just that. We started in 2000 and it’s been remarkable. These are some of the most courageous women in the world. In many ways, it’s more like the civil rights movement than a charitable effort. It’s social change.
Q: You are obviously engaged in this mind, heart and soul.
A: Very much so. I think this is really my calling or my purpose. I feel very lucky to have come across this and to be alive at this time in history. It’s a very exciting time.
More information on The Hunger Project: