For Robert Oliver, M.A./IDSC ’00, the secret to having an impact has always been to remain humble. It’s an approach to life and career that has helped him lead successful campaigns against worldwide food insecurity at the United Nations World Food Program, whose important work was recognized with the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize.
“I think whether it was Ethiopia, Guinea, or any place I’ve served, I’ve tried to come in with ease and not push any hidden agendas. Along the way, people open up, and you build trust,” Oliver says. “What interests me most about this career are those relationships.”
Oliver today directs global efforts for the Joint Resilience Project — a collaboration between the World Food Programme, UNICEF, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to help marginalized people in conflict-stricken areas strengthen their livelihoods. By working with vulnerable households — particularly those led by females — the project is helping create more resilient communities with greater gender equity and improved social cohesion.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Oliver has lived and worked for the past three years, the project is especially critical. Despite having some of the most fertile land in the world, the DRC is experiencing the worst hunger crisis on Earth — fueled by armed conflict, large-scale population displacements, and disease.
“There’s a great need for resources to help those people who are indigent, who are victims of armed conflict and natural disasters. To top it all off, we recently had Ebola,” he explains, noting that he was part of two Ebola response initiatives. “In both instances, it was key for WFP to distribute food to Ebola victims and their contacts under incredibly challenging circumstances.”
Oliver and his team make an impact by focusing on four pillars of food insecurity — availability, access, utilization, and stability. The Nobel Peace Prize honored the World Food Program’s efforts to combat hunger and to prevent its use as a weapon of war and conflict.
“We all play a part collectively,” Oliver says. “It’s recognition of what the agency has done for so long.”
Oliver began working for WFP two decades ago as a Mickey Leland Hunger Fellow, managed by the Congressional Hunger Center based in Washington, D.C. From there, he set out to Ethiopia, where he gained field experience with the school meals unit. Subsequent assignments took him across the globe to Guinea, Mali, El Salvador, and Zambia, among other stops — but it was in Worcester where he got his start combating food insecurity.
As a Clark graduate student studying international development and social change, Oliver took a part-time job at the Worcester County Food Bank. There, he met Rep. Jim McGovern, who helped ignite his passion for change on a global scale.
“You can really sense his energy, and as I got to know him, I realized that he was not only interested in the constituents in Worcester County, but he was interested at the national and international levels,” Oliver recalls.
At Clark, a librarian connected him with an alum who worked at the World Food Program’s headquarters in Rome. Oliver made a trip to Rome and McGovern arranged for him to meet with officials at USAID and FAO there. McGovern’s reference was a key factor in helping him land the Leland fellowship.
Since then, he’s been able to make a difference across the globe by fostering productive dialogues with government and civic leaders, who can become change-making partners. “I’ve been lucky — that approach has gained me direct contact to a number of ministers in almost every place I’ve worked.”
In El Salvador, Oliver leveraged a personal relationship he’d formed with the owner of a supermarket chain to launch a voucher program that allowed the families of coffee farmers whose crops were devastated by disease to shop at small grocery stores. More recently, when Mali accused Guinea of not taking the right border precautions to screen people during the Ebola epidemic, Oliver organized a summit between authorities in the Guinean Ministry of Health and the Malian Minister of Transportation to arrive at an acceptable resolution.
“A lot of these issues that I see internationally are the same issues happening in the United States,” he says. “The work experience I had back home is still very relevant to what I do today.”