The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded last Friday to the World Food Programme, where Stanlake J.T.M. Samkange ’82 serves as the Director of the Policy and Programme Division.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized the WFP with the honor in recognition of their work to combat world hunger and foster peace in conflict-affected areas.
“It’s something you never really expect,” Samkange said in an interview Tuesday. “But it’s a great recognition for the work that we do, but more importantly for the issues and the people that we’re trying to help. I think it's a real boost especially in the 75th anniversary year for the UN.”
Samkange oversees the WFP’s engagement with international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank, and other sub-regional banks. He also oversees the program's Beijing office and the WFP’s relationship with the African Union.
Former Minister of Agriculture of Liberia and Samkange’s colleague J. Chris Toe said Thursday that Samkange was instrumental in developing a strategic planning framework for the organization to improve conditions worldwide.
Nell Scovell ’82, an author and television writer, attended Newton South High School and the College with Samkange.
“If you would say, ‘who in the class of 1982 is going to be the first to win a Nobel Peace Prize?’ I absolutely, absolutely would have said Stanlake Samkange,” said Scovell, a former Crimson sports editor.
“Stanlake’s too humble to say this himself but you know, there's this guy who has degrees from Harvard, Oxford, Stanford Law, and then takes all that knowledge and uses it to try to figure out how to solve global hunger,” she added.
Much of Samkange’s work centers on the experiences of people living in areas where hunger and political conflict run high. During the decades-long conflict between the Colombian government and rebel groups, Samkange met a group of women refugees who traveled through areas controlled by rebels and militia groups to gain safety and education for their children.
“Almost inevitably, it's about the people, though,” Samkange said. “What really sticks with me are the people that I met and come across, and just their stories, that are really often heartbreaking stories of people who end up being refugees, and how they got there.”
In addition, Samkange said small farmers benefit from the WFP’s efforts: every year, the WFP buys $2 billion in food commodities to buy from local, smaller farmers to boost local economies. These interpersonal connections fuel his work, Samkange said.
“Going and talking with people about what impact that's had, how it's helped to change their lives, how they're able to, without additional income, send kids to school, have a better house – this also really sticks with you,” Samkange said. “It gives you that boost you need to keep doing the difficult work that we do.”
The number of people in extreme poverty has increased due to the coronavirus pandemic. According to Toe, the WFP has also directed attention towards transporting medical supplies on behalf of the World Health Organization.
The WFP combats hunger and food insecurity directly for those in need of emergency assistance and develops long term sustainable goals, such as improving nutrition and sustainable agriculture.
“Everywhere you serve, the one constant is working on behalf of people who are in need of what we often take for granted,” Toe said.
With other WFP members, Samkange has returned in past years to the College, the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Harvard Business School to speak about the WFP’s work and mission.
At the College, Samkange lived in Leverett House, fenced, and studied History. He said he developed an academic foundation and met a diverse group of people during his time at Harvard.
“The exposure to people from everywhere, and a wide range of interests, I just found incredibly stimulating, so I enjoyed my time at Harvard very much,” Samkange said. “I look back on that as a very important period in my life, a very positive one.”
Samkange said he believes that students can get involved with sustainability and help reduce issues of inequity and hunger in a myriad of ways, starting with gaining and spreading awareness about these issues. The WFP often recruits interns and volunteers from the College and the University, according to Samkange.
“For me, I always feel that that's a very valuable investment for us,” Samkange said. “Because yes, we get somebody who can help do certain tasks at a particular time. But more importantly than that, we're getting somebody who is being educated about the issues, the challenges that we're facing, and hopefully will be somebody that carries that with them their whole life in whatever they do and hav[e] that spirit and that kind of engagement.”