On average, over 22,000 children die each day from preventable, hunger-related causes. This fact that receives so little media attention should be among our most urgent priorities.
Over half of these deaths occur on the African continent, so as the World Cup turned attentions there, I sought answers to why the tragedy of hunger persists so cruelly and what can be done about it. My reading included Richard Stearns’ The Hole in Our Gospel and Thurow and Kilman’s Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. Taken together, these provided a well-rounded mix: the heart and perspective of a luxury goods CEO turned children’s champion, and pragmatic detail from on-the-ground Wall Street Journal correspondents.
Thurow and Kilman describe the structural problems that give rise to African hunger. Bad policy decisions by governments, the World Bank, USAID, agricultural councils, and other groups lock many African nations into a cycle of dependency. US crops that are dumped on the world market at heavily-subsidized prices undercut African farmers, driving them out of business. Insistence on food-only aid exacerbates this problem; for example, during the 2003 Ethiopian famine, international aid trucks drove their loads of US grain past warehouses that were overflowing with the same unsold, unused staples grown by local farmers. Approachable infrastructure problems lie festering. More recently, subsidized Ethanol production diverted food to fuel, driving grain prices out of reach of the world’s poor. As a result, the Green Revolution which decades ago lifted Asia out of hunger and poverty still evades Africa.
Richard Stearns decribes how it’s a spiritual problem. He reminds us of our scriptural obligations (such as Matthew 25 and Isaiah 58) to provide for the poor and feed the hungry. A gospel with a hole in it is one that accepts personal salvation but ignores the parables of the Good Samaritan, Lazarus, the Sheep and the Goats, and the 2,100 other Bible passages about caring for the poor. Stearns describes how that conviction led him to leave a life of luxury and head World Vision.
Spiritual and structural. They’re both right. And the solutions are well within reach.
Modifying food aid programs to allow local purchase may reduce US farm subsidies, but it will help African farmers become self-sufficient. Providing African farmers the same financial security measures (such as futures and crop insurance) that farmers in developed nations enjoy will help shoulder their risks and smooth out the boom and bust cycles. Relatively small investments in infrastructure (dams, irrigation, higher-yield seeds, and road improvements) can dramatically improve farming productivity. Simple treatments and immunizations can very effectively prevent and confront the crises of malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS. Small yet powerful innovations like Plumpy’nut and the KickStart pump can be rapidly deployed. These proactive and preventative measures are not only affordable, they’re collectively less expensive than remedial aid has been.
Making a Difference
But most of us can’t hop on a plane tomorrow to go build a dam or start a futures exchange in Africa. So what can we do? As Mother Theresa has said, “we cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.”
For some quick encouragement and ideas, read Chapter 10 of Enough. If you don’t already support World Vision or a similar ministry, sponsor one or more children from their web site. I’ve seen first-hand the effectiveness of World Vision’s work in the developing world, and I highly recommend them. And if budgeting is an issue, consider your very prominent position on the Global Rich List; for example, if you make $35,000 annually, you’re richer than 95% of the world.
Global hunger is a large-scale, often overwhelming problem, but that’s no excuse for paralysis or inaction. It can be solved, one step at a time, one person at a time.