Bainbridge Island resident Richard Ragan, a senior staff member for the United Nations, has spent years traveling the world through humanitarian efforts and his work with the U.S. government.
One of his current efforts is with the World Food Programme, where he is the representative of Bangladesh. He is one part of the equation that led to WFP earning the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in food assistance around the globe, a continual crisis that has been even more affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ragan’s background is extensive, but some of his notable occupations include director of the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration, a deputy assistant administrator in the U.S. Agency for International Development, and in Congress as a Foreign Policy Advisor for Congressman Les Aspin.
He has also spent time in the private sector as a senior director with Vulcan, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s company.
Along with Bangladesh, in his 20 years with the WFP he has also represented Tanzania, Nepal, North Korea, Zambia,and helped reopen the Libya office in 2018. One of his greatest achievements was managing operations as part of the UN Secretary General’s Ebola Emergency Response Mission and serving as Emergency Co-ordinator for the 2015 Nepal earthquake response.
And, Ragan was the first White House official to visit North Korea in 1995 during the height of their famine. His family was with him, marking the only U.S. family to have ever officially lived there. Ragan is the last American to have officially lived there after leaving in 2005.
The Bainbridge Island Review recently caught up with Ragan to talk about his experiences:
What drove you toward humanitarian efforts worldwide?
I got my start, like many other Americans that gravitate toward this work, as a Peace Corps volunteer. What motivated me to do that was not really so much to help but rather the adventure of going to live in a totally alien place for several years. I tried to convince the Peace Corps to send me to Nepal but landed instead (in) the Philippines, where I ended up living in the Sierra Madre mountains with a group of semi-nomadic hunter-gathers called the Ilongots, who coincidentally happened to be the last ritual head-hunting tribe in the country. The experience was transformative. I ended up staying an extra nine months so (I) was there nearly three years and came away with a knowledge that I could basically land almost anywhere on earth and survive. I did eventually make it to Nepal, but only on the way home from the Philippines, and ended being there for nearly a year, spending the fall and spring climbing seasons there.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I was in charge of the U.N.’s Ebola Mission in Liberia and helping Liberia become Ebola-free was a big deal. Being able to keep life-saving assistance moving to the Rohingya Refugee Camps during the COVID-19 pandemic was/is also a big one. I also designed something called the Humanitarian Daily Ration, which is a ready-to-eat food that can be airdropped into a conflict zone. I was recently in a meeting with some U.N. colleagues ,and one of them was from Kosovo, and she described how HDRs kept her alive during the conflict, of course not knowing that I helped create them. I’ve also tried to find interesting ways to empower young women. In Nepal, we sponsored a female expedition on Mount Everest that went on to become the most successful female expedition in its history, and also among them was at the time the youngest person to summit the mountain. In Bangladesh, we run (a) program that supports young surfers, particularly women, with education and nutrition assistance.
When did you get involved with the World Food Program?
When I worked in the White House I was also responsible for managing our relationship with the U.N. and learned about WFP’s work then. While it wasn’t the most widely recognized of the U.N. agencies at the time, the mission was the most interesting. Because it’s the U.N. frontline food agency, WFP was always the first on the ground in conflicts, natural disasters and emergencies. And to deliver food they had to be good with logistics so that meant air operations, port operations,and emergency communications. WFP seemed to function with the most discipline, sort of like a military operation, which was appealing. And, like what drove me to the Peace Corps, it was the sense of the unknown.
Talk about WFP winning the Nobel Peace Prize
I’ve been with WFP now for 22 years, moving my family around the globe and fighting for this cause so I’m deeply humbled not just for me but also for my wife, Marcela, and three children Zoey, Emma and Carter. They’ve also contributed to this honor and lived through all the things I’ve lived through so this validates everything they’ve given to me and my profession. It also puts food security front and center on the world’s agenda. There is no reason anyone should go to bed hungry; the world produces enough food. We’ve known for years that hunger is a weapon, and I think the Nobel Committee recognized the importance of our role in fighting this battle. But we don’t do this alone; there are so many great partners we have and so many others that have fought the battle against food insecurity and this is in recognition of their work as well.
Has serving people this year been more vital given the pandemic?
I believe the pandemic will go down in history as having the same level of impact as a 3rd World War. The mortality rate hopefully won’t be as great but the economic consequences are catastrophic. We estimate in Bangladesh, with a population of 165 million, that already has 40 million people living below the poverty line, that another 20 to 30 million could be added to that number. During the West Africa Ebola crisis, WFP became much more involved in responding to health emergencies, largely through our logistical muscle. During COVID we’ve been purchasing emergency medical supplies, building COVID treatment centers and running commercial air services. Because we’re the world’s largest humanitarian agency, we’ve been doing lots of things that are above and beyond what the U.N.’s front-line food agency normally does.
How much longer do you want to do humanitarian efforts?
I love the work but desperately miss my family. This is the first duty station where we haven’t been together, and this was largely because of the kids and school. Balancing a family with this sort of work is probably the most challenging aspect of the lifestyle. I think more than anything my children were happy about the Nobel Peace Prize because the rest of the world is recognizing what their father does and in effect what they do.
What is your connection to Bainbridge?
We have a house and live on Bainbridge Island. I took a short leave from the U.N. and came to the area about four years ago to run Paul Allen’s philanthropy work at Vulcan. We wanted our children to study in the U.S. so the opportunity was a good one. We’re all climbers, snowboarders and surfers so having access to all that just out your front door was a big draw.