Ending Hunger

The scourge of hunger can be eradicated.
But there is much to be done.

One of the articles in Sustainability (IC#25)
Originally published in Late Spring 1990 on page 36
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Despite vast matrices of technological systems and inventions that some hoped would banish want forever, one in five people on Earth is still chronically hungry. Context Institute development officer Carla Cole – active in the hunger movement for ten years and former director of the Campaign To End Hunger – points out here that we’ve made great progress in spreading awareness about hunger, but we still have a lot of work to do. The call to "feed everyone" has to be changed to policies, programs, and practices that allow people to feed themselves sustainably.

Prior to the national elections in November 1988, the school newspaper Weekly Reader invited young people in grades four through eight to send drawings and essays to the new president, giving their ideas about America’s most urgent goals. The number one issue listed was the elimination of poverty and hunger in the world.

Ten years ago, you could scarcely find the word "hunger" in the news. Now, many of us are deeply concerned about it. The White House mail room reported to me that when President Bush first assumed office, messages to him on the subject of hunger ranked second only to Social Security. A growing hunger movement is working to keep the dimensions and ramifications of extreme poverty in politics, in the media and on our minds.

The dimensions are horrific: 13 to 18 million human beings, the vast majority of them small children, die of hunger and hunger-related disease each year. These rough figures have not changed since the American hunger movement began in the mid-to-late 1970s (with the work of Frances Moore Lappé, Harry Chapin, and Keith Blume, among others).

The ramifications affect virtually everyone. Poor people, shoved onto marginal land, devastate their environments seeking food and fuel. They have many children, knowing that many will surely die. They are a restive, manipulable political non-force, the presence of which is frequently associated with war. Military experts at the Center for Defense Information, even before the demise of the Cold War, noted that an escalating conflict in the Third World was the most likely scenario for the use of nuclear weapons.

Yet, as one who placed public service announcements about hunger on national television for almost two years, and who had a toll-free line on which the public could respond, I am clear that the problem is widely misunderstood. And the organizations and individuals working to end hunger are by no means in agreement on solutions.

To report on what I believe are the humane and sustainable solutions to the chronic hunger that afflicts at least one billion human beings, I can do no better than to begin by quoting David Korten of The People-Centered Development Forum:

The critical [economic, social and political] development issue for the 1990s is not growth. It is transformation. Our collective future depends on achieving a transformation of our institutions, our technology, our values, and our behavior consistent with our ecological and social realities. This transformation must address three basic needs of our global society:

Justice. Current [economic growth-centered] development practice supports an imbalance between over- and under-consumers of the world’s resources and ecological support capability that is simply unacceptable by any standard of human values. The transformed society must give priority in the use of the earth’s natural resources to assuring a decent human existence for all people.

Sustainability. Current development practice supports increases in economic output that depend on the unsustainable depletion of the earth’s natural resource base and the life support capabilities of its eco-system. The transformed society must use the earth’s resources in ways that will assure sustainable benefits for future generations.

Inclusiveness. Current development practice systematically deprives substantial segments of the population of the opportunity to make recognized contributions to the improved well-being of the society. The transformed society must assure everyone an opportunity to be a recognized and respected contributor to family, community and society.

Ending hunger – sustainably – will require no less than this transformation. This means that the popular notion of not feeding North American grain to cattle (so that the surpluses can be sent to the Third World) does not serve – first, because these surpluses are flogged from our soils through unsustainable practices; and second, because this "solution" does not allow the poor people of the South to be included in the provision of their own necessities. The best efforts in ending hunger include support for localized food production, at least on a regional basis.

Even more fundamentally, the entire colonial and post-colonial structure of extraction of resources from the periphery for use at the centers of industrialization will have to be dismantled. Both North and South require more diversified economies that are both more earth-friendly and more participatory. The modernization of agriculture and manufacture does need to be increased to some extent in the South; but economic growth-centered development has been focused primarily on increasing output so that exports could raise foreign exchange to repay national debts. The realized potential of Debt-for-Development swaps – wherein debt owed to governments has been repaid in local currencies, which are then contributed to specific projects (irrigation, agro-forestry, textbooks, rural clinics, and the like) – needs to be explored for commercial loans as well.

Future loans could be made not to nations but to people. The "micro-enterprise" loan, pioneered by Mohammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, is a development tool which (thanks to the efforts of the hunger lobby, RESULTS) is now funded by the U.S. government. Private efforts, such as FINCA and ACCION, also use micro-enterprise lending – which replaces collateral with the mutual support of individuals – as their primary development tool.

Examples of foreign assistance programs that are working for authentic economic development – i.e., that are sustainable – are rare, however. Government has considerable difficulty supporting social innovations that challenge established interests – which serious social innovations usually do. Although it is almost imposible to find anyone who is "for" hunger, it is a mistake to assume that no one profits from it.

U.S. groups like The Center for Rural Affairs – which are primarily concerned with the well-being of American farmers (as opposed to absentee agri-businessmen and their allies in the grain trade) – do critical work in lobbying government. Pressing for policies which encourage ecologically sound agricultural practices and fair prices, these small farming organizations are in fact supporting an end to U.S. dumping (selling abroad below the cost of production) of agricultural surpluses. This dumping makes it impossible for farmers abroad to develop their ability to feed their own communities. They simply cannot compete.

I encourage people to participate with the hunger and small farm lobbies. I’ve worked with RESULTS as a volunteer for years, and although there is at present limited potential for foreign assistance to support much that meets my own criteria for ending hunger, the possibilties to touch and even transform individuals in government are infinite. Also, American trade policies which disadvantage the poor might give way before a concerted citizen lobbying effort.

Eating locally is another genuine contribution to the efforts of people all over the world to care for themselves. If, for example, we aren’t consuming bananas and sugar cane products and cocoa, the land on which they are growing may come to be available for food crops for local consumption.

The real beauty of the "hunger" movement is that it has found a way to talk about poverty in a way that is minimally threatening to those who are not poor. What is important now is that we continue to expand people’s awareness of the connections between poverty, ecological collapse and communal violence. The hunger movement, the environmental movement, and the peace movement should (and to some extent do) work hand in hand. Insofar as we continue to share and cooperate, our vision of a positive future will become reality, and the children of the world can find happier goals than merely staying alive.