MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — On his first visit to Afghanistan as chief executive of the World Food Program on Thursday, James T. Morris gazed intently at the barren mountainous land as his plane winged toward this northern city.
"It's a pretty harsh existence here; most of the Western world doesn't have a clue about the poverty that the rest of the world struggles with," said the Indiana native, who took the helm of the large United Nations program 10 weeks ago.
He faces a formidable task. Although the imminent disaster that threatened Afghanistan last year has eased with a break in the drought and an end to fighting, the country remains in dire need. About 9 million Afghans--about a third of the population--get their food each day from the World Food Program. Even with somewhat improved harvests, that will not change soon.
Morris must raise $285 million this year for Afghanistan alone to have food through winter. The United States and European countries have pledged roughly two-thirds of the money, but the rest must be drummed up in the next few weeks if the WFP is to enter into contracts to obtain and deliver food in time for winter.
Luckily, Morris likes raising money and has a lot of experience doing it. A businessman with a careful manner, he has been drawn repeatedly to work on charitable ventures, including a stint as the president of the Lilly Endowment, one of the largest charitable organizations in the United States.
In a whirlwind day of visits at different WFP projects, he appeared to be turning over in his mind strategies for getting more donors involved.
"We have a good story to tell," Morris said. "We've never tried very hard to raise money in the private sector. We have to be more creative with nontraditional donors.
"For instance, we have lots of countries willing to give us commodities, but they can't pay transport and support costs," he said. "We could take money from private donors to pay for that."
His daylong tour of Afghan provinces made a strong case for the continuing magnitude of the need. Refugees who fled the country during the last decade of war are returning in large numbers--more than 1 million people in the last 16 weeks alone. Most have no homes or jobs.
The food program gives them a starter kit of blankets, pots, plates and enough wheat for one to two months, depending on the size of the family.
In some cases, the WFP asks that people work in exchange for the help.
In Mazar-i-Sharif, men dig culverts, lay gravel on roads and level uneven ground to prepare it for new projects.
On Thursday, one such project looked like a human anthill. Scores of men in dusty local dress and goggles chopped away at the sun-hardened earth to level the site for a playground.
Most had left their homes elsewhere in Afghanistan because of fighting, a lack of work or both. In most cases, they cannot go back, because they have no way to support their families.
Food is given outright to children. The program has bakeries that produce nutrient-fortified bread to be handed out at schools. Parents who send their children to school are rewarded with cooking oil. Teachers also receive an additional food ration.
Morris is adamant about the importance of feeding children and keeping them healthy. More than 10 years ago, he became involved in a major effort to reduce infant mortality in Indiana. As a member of the business community, he was able to persuade insurance companies, hospitals, nurses and others to join the fight to reduce the magnitude of the problem.
"A lot of our work is related to infant mortality, so thinking back on that experience, it was prophetic," he said.
"If there's one thing that people around the world agree with," he said, "it's that children should not be hungry, especially when they are in situations that are not of their own making."