Jeff Marzilli ’80
Senior regional program advisor, U.N. World Food Program
Major at Wooster: Economics
Jeff Marzilli began his career 30 years ago, when famines and humanitarian disasters in developing countries always seemed to take the world by surprise. He has seen tectonic shifts in understandings, strategies, and realities.
As he talks about the early years, it is possible to detect some wistfulness. He remembers his first overseas assignment in Sierra Leone, when he motorcycled among 25 villages, organizing farmers’ oxen cooperatives. An economics major, he has analyzed information on the ground, designed tools, and tested methodologies. In 1987, he authored the first food needs assessment in Ethiopia for the U.S. Government. He moved seamlessly to the role of socioeconomist, as he turned information into informed decisions, and then to leadership, as he managed the UN’s network of food security analysts across 45 countries, recruiting and training personnel, administering budgets, and responding to the constant information needs of the UN system.
He was part of a shift in focus, as members of his profession began to understand that food insecurity was about more than just crop failure. He saw the importance of satellite technology flourish and wane, as understanding grew that the brown crops so easily detected by satellite were only one part of a more complex picture that also involves food prices, income opportunities, gender issues, access to social safety nets, and vulnerability to diseases such as HIV.
“The food security field is dynamic; global economic shocks, civil unrest, urbanization, climate change, and improvements in medical science mean that we must continually refocus our attention,” says Marzilli. “The newest development these days is our growing understanding that poor infant nutrition in the first 1000 days of life causes irreversible damage.”
Marzilli’s experience as a subject matter generalist with the WFP means that his responsibilities and duty stations change every two to four years. His operational base has included Rome (where the food division of the UN is headquartered), Mozambique, Kenya, and Pakistan. His current location is Bangkok, where he serves 14 countries, from Afghanistan to East Timor. Constant learning and re-training is essential. “It’s the Wooster experience writ large,” he says.
An additional role for Marzilli is serving as WFP’s regional gender advocate in Asia. “This clearly goes back to my Wooster days, when I lived in Myers House—a gender awareness program. I joined Myers merely because I wanted to live in coed housing,” he says. “The women there quickly straightened me out.
“What I learned in Myers House I have always carried with me. I'm now the senior male in WFP serving as a gender advocate. It is a thankless post for which I willingly volunteered and I thoroughly enjoy. This is a big Wooster carryover—not just the subject content, but also the fact that it is an unpopular job on an uncomfortable subject that deserves to see the light of day. Wooster taught me to embrace justice issues and to champion them, not to shy away from them.”
The hardest part of his job, says Marzilli, is trying to affect food security in regions torn by what he describes as “gang civil wars, driven not by ideology but by struggle over booty.” Another challenge, he says, is the politicized nature of the UN, where member countries’ foreign aid contributions are often driven by political expediency rather than by the most desperate humanitarian needs. “When a village elder looks at you and says, ‘You don’t give us money because we don’t kill each other,’ you have to admit that he’s right.”
How does he counter discouragement and fatigue? “The attitudes, energy, and enthusiasm of people immediately affected by disaster are far from discouraging. Even in the midst of disaster, children still play, people still sing, neighbors help neighbors, communities come together in remarkable ways, and even the poorest of households find small ways to contribute to the relief and recovery of those even poorer than themselves.
“Their energy and optimism keep us all going.”
[A version of this profile first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Wooster magazine.]