Every night, 821 million people in the world go to bed on an empty stomach, and three times as many suffer from some form of malnutrition. In the fight against world hunger, Varya Meruzhanyan is investing her extensive knowledge and frontline experience in the field of international development to fulfill the most basic of human needs. The irony is that something so fundamental is incredibly complicated.
As a Strategic Partnerships Officer in the World Food Programme Headquarters in Rome, Italy, Meruzhanyan is focused on analyzing complex systemic failures and identifying the nuances that could develop into long-term durable solutions addressing food insecurity and malnutrition. One such nuance she always considers is the resilience of the people affected by failed public policy.
Growing up in Armenia during the years of early independence, Meruzhanyan recalls the decade’s darkness, the political turmoil, energy blockades, and food shortages. “I remember how we would all come together in the one flat that had electricity, cramped in a room, but still having lively conversations,” she says. “To this day, I ask myself: how do we bring out the best of the worst experiences to strive further?”
In her role at WFP, she acknowledges that responding to humanitarian crises with emergency relief—saving lives—is only one part of the story. “We are also committed to changing lives by addressing the root causes of hunger and helping individuals and communities develop sustainable solutions to end hunger.”As the food-assistance branch of the UN, the WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization focused on food security, providing assistance to 91.4 million people in 83 countries each year. Joining the organization in 2018 in the Strategic Partnerships Division, Meruzhanyan pores over concept notes and policy papers, navigating a complex network of global partners in the ceaseless pursuit of eradicating world hunger. She studies patterns of food insecurity from every corner of the world, focused on Goal 2 of 17 of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Zero Hunger.
Meruzhanyan’s journey in sustainable development began in an unlikely place. Born in Yerevan, Armenia, she was awarded a scholarship to study in the United States for a year during high school. The little steel town of Coatesville, Pennsylvania would become her home and though it provided a slice of typical American life, it was just exotic enough for Meruzhanyan to get a taste for the cultures of the world. “I came back with a broadened mind,” she says, “with the intention of pursuing a career that would not only benefit Armenia, but impact the world.”
Soon after she returned to Armenia, Meruzhanyan began exploring the ways in which Armenia performs on the global stage. Working at both USAID and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE ODIHR), she sought to contextualize her experience in the country within a global narrative. Supported by the UK government as a Chevening Scholar, she pursued an MS in Social Policy and Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Meruzhanyan’s experience at LSE officially launched her career in international development and set the stage for her pioneering work in Armenia. From her experience with the USAID-supported Academy for Educational Development to her work with the Eurasia Partnership Foundation, where she coordinated cross-borderinitiatives between Armenia and Turkey, Meruzhanyan delved headfirst into Armenia’s complex tapestry of development through policy. She transitioned into working for UNICEF in 2013, ultimately becoming the Head of the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator, where she was actively providing political advice to the most senior UN official in Armenia.
Ceaselessly embracing the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, Meruzhanyan co-designed the concept of a Sustainable Development Goals Innovation Lab in the Armenian government. These labs now create forums in which diverse teams of analysts, academics and entrepreneurs present research that affects policymaking, introducing “ready to scale” solutions to societal, environmental and economic challenges. Whether incorporating artificial intelligence into Armenia’s agricultural sector, or researching how participatory budgeting can reduce tax evasion, each project emphasizes one or more of the 17 goals. Since the establishment of these SDG Innovation labs, the model has been embraced by the UN globally as an effective application of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
In a field as dynamic as development, where immediate response to urgent crises are just as integral to success as strategic and measured solutions, the answers are often nestled in the multitude of perspectives Meruzhanyan has cultivated. Keenly aware of this, she is always searching for opportunities to engage, adapt and challenge her expertise. “I had an experience of working in an NGO for a few years, and after that, in a large international organization,” she explains, “but then I thought: what would it look like to drive development efforts from the other side, as a civil servant, working from the perspective of a government institution?” In order to answer this question for herself, Meruzhanyan became a Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, studying public administration with the support of an AGBU scholarship.
Now, Meruzhanyan is uniquely positioned to see what it takes for her native Armenia to continue to thrive, something she has remained committed to since her time in Coatesville. “Whenever I travel, whether it be for business or pleasure, I still look around and try to catch elements of development that I would like to see in Armenia,” she admits.
In Armenia, one in every four people live in poverty, and 15% of the population is food insecure. No stranger to her native country’s development challenges, Meruzhanyan has recently been tasked with supporting WFP’s policy in the country. Feeding hot nutritious meals to 100,000 children across ten regions daily since 2010, the organization, in partnership with the Armenian government, invests in human capital development. The WFP has recently embraced a new phase of program implementation in the country, as part of its five-year strategy for 2019-2024. Mindful of Armenia’s need to improve the availability, access and consumption of nutritious food by all, the organization has mobilized innovative interventions in areas of nutrition, food value chains and disaster risk reduction. For instance, just this past year, it implemented a snack pilot project, aimed at providing preschool-aged children with school snacks as a way of closing “ability to learn gaps” between children coming from less advantaged households and their peers.
“To work on your own country while you’re sitting in a global headquarters is inspiring,” she explains. “With a bird’s eye view, I can identify the challenges Armenia is facing from a different perspective, and, knowing them intimately on the ground, perhaps I can better identify the solutions.”
On the eve of a site trip to Armenia with WFP, Meruzhanyan is hopeful. As she quietly celebrates the impact of the work she has accomplished with the many teams she has been a part of, she also looks to a future in which organizations like the WFP are obsolete, food security is a non-issue and world hunger is but a chapter in history. Until then, she has more than enough to satisfy her appetite for solving humanity’s toughest challenges.
Banner photo: Meruzhanyan in the lobby of the World Food Programme Headquarters in Rome, Italy. Photo by Steve Bisgrove