Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

12 posts from April 2008

Are International Food Prices related to Hunger?

Robert Paarlberg, author of a recent article in the International Herald Tribune and a professor at Wellesley College, says they are not. According to Paarlberg, international prices of rice, wheat, and corn have risen sharply setting off urban protests in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. However, he argues that these food prices are not related to real hunger crises because most of the world's hungry people do not use international food markets, and most of those who use these markets are not hungry. In fact, international food markets are used by those who are more prosperous, not those who face starvation. The biggest importers for corn, for example, are Japan, the European Union, and South Korea, where citizens are generally well-fed despite rising food prices. In contrast, in the poorest developing countries of Asia, imports supply only 4% of total consumption. Similarly, in sub-Saharan Africa, only 16% of grains are imported, and even these go to more prosperous cities rather than the impoverished countryside, with part arriving in the form of donated food aid rather than commercial purchases at world prices. Instead, Paarlberg argues that Africa's food crisis is the result of the low productivity of the 60 percent of all Africans who plant crops and graze animals for a living. This is because

the average African smallholder farmer is a woman who has no improved seeds, no nitrogen fertilizers, no irrigation and no veterinary medicine for her animals. Her crop yields are only one third as high as in the developing countries of Asia, and her average income is only $1 a day.

Thus, he argues that the long-term solution to such problems is not lower international prices or more food aid, but larger investments in the productivity of farmers in Africa. He then blames the international donor community for their resistance to support agricultural modernization in the developing world. For example, he cites the fact that over the past two decades the U.S. Agency for International Development has cut its support for agricultural science in Africa by 75 percent.

Though I think Paarlberg makes valid points, I am a little wary of his emphasis on increased investment in agriculture in the form of "improved seeds and nitrogen fertilizers." Though it is important to invest in rural farmers, I will be cautious to advocate for increased reliance on biotechnology because of the undue harm that can be caused to the environment. Paarlberg himself even states that "because of the added burden of climate change, the number of undernourished people in Africa is now expected to triple by 2080, whatever the level of prices on the world market." Researchers have shown that many aspects of modernized agriculture, including GM crops can actually be very harmful to the environment, leading to the creation of superpests, superweeds, and reducing biodiversity. Such harm to the environment will ultimately hurt the plight of the small farmer even more since his very livelihood depends on the environment. Vandana Shiva has also made the connection between biotechnology and biopiracy. It can be very problematic if small farmers in developing countries begin buying "improved seeds" from major corporations like Monsanto. Monsanto has argued that farmers should not be allowed to save their seeds because GM seeds have been patented and thus the property of Monsanto. If this happens, farmers will need to buy new seeds from Monsanto every year, which they may not even be able to afford. This will ultimately lead to greater poverty and hunger. I also wonder if higher prices for imported foods might actually benefit small farmers who have been struggling to compete with these prices that have been too low for years. My point is, that though increased productivity for rural farmers is important, there is no easy quick-fix solution. The causes and effects of any policy change must first be examined carefully to make sure that no undue harm occurs and that we understand how best to address hunger before making hasty policy decisions.

Reforming Foreign Aid

On April 23, the House  Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing to discuss reforming foreign assistance. This is important because of the extensive criticism that currently exists about US foreign aid and its inefficacy in reaching those people who need it most. For example, after the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2004, the US responded quickly, but perhaps not most effectively. Villagers in Thailand received unsolicited boats from the U.S. government and other aid agencies. However, according to one villager, “We got too many boats and there are not enough people or fishing spots to go to...I think there are more boats than fish.” According to OXFAM, much of the problems with US foreign aid arise from the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. This act is 1500 pages long with 33 goals and 247 directives, many of which conflict with each other. According to Brookings, the US system is simply too outdated and convoluted with red tape. They report that there are 50 separate units that share responsibility for aid planning and delivery in the executive branch, with different objectives ranging from narcotics eradication to biodiversity preservation. Clearly, with so many different agencies with different goals, it is impossible for them to coordinate and act effectively. Instead of modernizing the very infrastructure of aid, we have responded by creating even more organizations - the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the President's Malaria Initiative (PMI), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and the State/F bureau. Meanwhile, though funding for aid programs have increased, "the number of civilians with the training and experience to direct and implement assistance programs effectively has diminished sharply."  Brookings proposes to reform the current system by replacing the 50 offices currently managing aid with one agency with the authority and operational capability to carry out its missions effectively. They also suggest 5 strategic aid priorities: to Elevate Development and Diplomacy, Invest in Operational Civilian Capabilities, Support Country Ownership, Achieve Coherence among Policies, and to Rationalize Agencies and Clarify Missions.

Though I agree with the work these organizations are doing, and that it is important for aid to be delivered more effectively, there is one thing Brookings overlooks. Brookings argues that

In a world where remote threats can rapidly metastasize into immediate emergencies, the fight against global poverty has become a fight of necessity—because national security demands it no less than personal morality...Helping the poor gain access to shelter, medicine, sustenance, education, and opportunity does more than make Americans feel good: it makes the world feel good about America....When the United States leads in helping lift the lives of the poor, we enhance our own influence and authority in the world community – building support for U.S. interests in other areas. We need a national security strategy that deploys foreign aid as a key instrument of American soft power and a key determinant of the face of America seen around the world.

Though all of these things may be both true and important, I think these comments reflect another fundamental flaw with US foreign aid. The goal of these reforms and the goal of foreign aid in general is still to benefit the United States. By delivering foreign aid, we are "making Americans feel good and making the world feel good about America." We are also "enhancing our influence" as the dominant world power, and using foreign aid as an important national security strategy. I think that with this sort of mentality that continues to focus first on US interests, it will be difficult to enact any type of foreign aid structure that genuinely benefits the people. If our intentions are not genuine, this will inevitably be reflected in the work we do. I believe that with more honest intentions, it will be much easier for an effective foreign aid structure to be created - for its foundations will be built upon the interests of those who need aid most.

Painting the Picture

Thought it might be helpful to provide some articles appearing this week that relate directly to the content of the calls we're urging you to make by noon tomorrow (Friday, April 25th, see post below this).

All of these articles really bring home the broad scope (and gravity) of the issues that are directly (negatively) affecting small farmers and poor and hungry people here and abroad right now.  So if you were looking for more context, understanding or empathy on all this craziness, these are a few from the many helpful articles that are featuring prominently these past few weeks.  And then make sure you call - Your representatives and senators can do something dramatic and meaningful about it!
Across Globe, Empty Bellies Bring Rising Anger

His eyes downcast, his own stomach empty, the unemployed father said forlornly, “They look at me and say, ‘Papa, I’m hungry,’ and I have to look away. It’s humiliating and it makes you angry.”

That anger is palpable across the globe. The food crisis is not only being felt among the poor but is also eroding the gains of the working and middle classes, sowing volatile levels of discontent and putting new pressures on fragile governments."


Food Crisis is Depicted as 'Silent Tsunami'

""Hunger is a moral challenge to each one of us as global citizens, but it is also a threat to the political and economic stability of poor nations around the world," Brown said, adding that 25,000 people a day are dying of conditions linked to hunger.

"With one child dying every five seconds from hunger-related causes, the time to act is now," Brown said, pledging $60 million in emergency aid to help the WFP feed the poor in Africa and Asia, where in some nations the prices of many food staples have doubled in the past six months.

Brown said the "vast" food crisis was threatening to reverse years of progress to create stronger middle classes around the world and lift millions of people out of poverty."


Farm Income Up, but Subsidies Stay

"In other words, Congress seems oblivious. And longstanding critics of American policy are piling on.

“It really is astounding,” said Representative Ron Kind, Democrat of Wisconsin, who has pushed for broad changes in farm subsidy programs. “It’s as if this farm bill is being negotiated in a vacuum.”"

NOW - MAKE THOSE CALLS!  And let us know how it went in the comment section - thank you!

URGENT Action Needed! The Farm Bill is Nearing Final Passage. Call Congress by FRIDAY at NOON.

FarmerphoneWe need you to take action right away to ensure the gains we've fought so hard for over the past year and half are not lost.

Please call your representative and senators by noon Eastern time Friday, April 25, at 1-800-826-3688.

Tell them we must pass a new farm bill now, and must not lose the nutrition increases and food aid changes already passed.  At a time of sharply rising food prices, these increases are especially critical.  Modest commodity reform could pay for these increases without resorting to tax increases or other cuts.

Read the talking points below.

[Note:  This toll-free number will connect you to the Capitol switchboard, where you will ask to be connected to your representative's office in order to leave your message.  Unsure who your members of Congress are?  Click Here ]


In this time of rising food prices, your statement of support for nutrition funding in the farm bill is especially critical!  Modest reforms to make commodity programs more equitable could provide funds without risking a presidential veto. Please show your support for finishing the farm bill with the strongest nutrition title to help make great strides against hunger and poverty.


    * Over 35 million Americans--including more that 12 million children--struggle to put food on the table.

    * With skyrocketing food prices, food stamp households need assistance now more than ever.

    * Failure to pass a new farm bill or extension of the current bill would mean that millions of low-income people will miss out on food stamp benefit increases on offer under the current conference proposals.

    * Modest reform of commodity programs could produce savings to redirect to low-income families through the food stamp program.

    * The Congress will miss a huge opportunity if they pass this Farm Bill without addressing the inefficiencies of our current food aid program. The local and regional purchase pilot program passed by the Senate should be retained in the final bill.

CALLS NEED TO BE COMPLETED BY:  12 noon (EST), April 25.

More background info is in the comment section.  If you called, let us know how it went and encourage others to do the same in the comments!

Speaker Pelosi on the Jubilee Act

Brevity is magic.

Post by Fran Quigly

Fran is on the leadership team of Bread for the World – Indiana.  Fran served as a news editor at NUVO Weekly and executive director of the Indiana ACLU before coming to the Indiana University School of Medicine's Kenya Partnership as Director of Development and Operations. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and three children.


Panel participants Shannon Williams, Laura McPhee and Dennis Ryerson

"Brevity is magic. Connect your letter with a recent news story. Be persistent."

That was the advice for submitting a letter to the editor given by three Indiana news editors who joined a panel discussion at the Bread for the World statewide conference in Indiana in late March. The editors were: 

•    Dennis Ryerson, editor of The Indianapolis Star--by far the largest newspaper in the state
•    Shannon Williams, editor of The Indianapolis Recorder--the largest and oldest African American newspaper in the state, and
•    Laura McPhee, news editor for NUVO Newsweekly, our alternative weekly.

Together, these publications reach nearly a half-million central Indiana residents and are followed closely by elected officials. I used to work in politics and found that elected officials paid more attention to media than any group of people I have ever known. Remember, they are professional popularity contest winners and want to know what the voters are reading and hearing. If we are serious about helping the millions of hungry people in the world, connecting with the media is a must!

As part of the panel discussion, two Indiana Bread members read aloud proposed letters to the editor, including a stinging rebuke of The Star for placing a wire services story about people in Haiti being forced to eat dirt right next to a large ad for bariatric bypass surgery. Ryerson of The Star said he definitely would have published that letter, noting that letters directed at the newspaper’s coverage are among the highest priority for publication.

With tighter budgets on reporting staff, getting media to cover a story on hunger and poverty issues is at least as challenging as getting a letter to the editor printed. But the Indiana editors said that stories with local angles, interesting characters and compelling facts (and what is more compelling than hunger?) will always be a priority. So we activists should never hesitate to push for coverage.

We believed them, since they put their ink where their mouths were. The Star and NUVO both published advance pieces about our conference!

Jubilee Act passed in the House!

On April 16th, the House of Representatives passed the Jubilee Act for Responsible Lending and Expanded Debt Cancellation of 2008. This bill pushes the Bush Administration to begin negotiations for an agreement with the IMF, World Bank, and the Paris Club of bilateral creditors to allow up to 24 additional low-income countries to qualify for international debt relief.

Debt cancellation is important because it is a tested and proven tool for releasing resources to fight poverty and injustice. For example, savings from debt cancellation in 2005 have enabled Zambia to hire 4,500 new teachers and eliminate fees for rural health care. Similarly Uganda used its $57.9 million in savings from debt relief in 2006 to invest in energy infrastructure, primary education, malaria control, health care, and water infrastructure. In fact, the bill requires that countries receiving debt relief use their savings for poverty reduction efforts. To ensure accountability, the Jubilee Act also requires countries to

  • Foster transparent and participatory policies to achieve poverty reduction through economic growth;
  • Ensure sound budget procedures, good governance, and effective anti-corruption measures; and
  • Produce and disclose to the public an annual report disclosing how the savings from debt cancellation will be used.

The bill also includes measures that ensures that countries benefiting from debt cancellation will not fall back into unsustainable debt.

In addition to being a useful tool for reducing global poverty, debt cancellation is also important because of the unfair ways by which debt has accumulated for most countries. According to the Jubilee USA Network, debt:

  • Is already paid - nations have already paid back their debts time and again. Debt continues to accumulate only because of skyrocketing interest rates and compound interests making repayment impossible. For example, from 1970-2002, Africa received some $540 billion in loans and paid back $550 billion in principal and interest. Yet Africa remains today with a debt stock of $295 billion.
  • Hurts the poor - Loans are given with conditions that require countries to limit government spending. This leads to a reduction in spending on essential human services, like primary health and education, and access to safe water.
  • Isn't really owed - Much of the debt is a result of "bad faith" lending including: the practice of pushing loans on developing nations because banks had too much money and had to lend it, knowingly lending to corrupt governments for political purposes, and lending with conditions ensuring profits return to the creditors.

Thanks to your advocacy efforts, the Jubilee Act passed the House on April 16 by a vote of 285 to 132. But it's not over yet! For the bill to become law, it must pass the Senate! To find out more information on how to call your state senator, visit: Jubilee USA Network

"there are things to be done"


Just a quick note to make sure you all saw Bread for the World's President David Beckmann second interview with Bill Moyers, aired last Friday, April 11th on PBS.  In the entire program they cover (and uncover) hunger issues in America, and the interview is that much more relevant given the food crises and riots rocking developing countries the past several weeks.

Watch the interview here and that link will also have shortcuts to the rest of the vital, potent program.

Furthermore, the Moyers Journal also generously provided Beckmann with guest blogger status on their blog and he has some excellent and timely follow up thoughts on where the farm bill needs to be especially to meet the needs of those suffering the effects of the food crises the most and farmers and hungry families in America. 

Read "A Chance to Help Those Who Need it Most" and check out/join the already very vibrant and long discussion going in their comment section!


Take action and learn more here.

Rising food costs, recession and the farm bill


On Friday, Bill Moyers aired two segments about hunger in America and the Washington Post coverage of farm subsidies.  I was particularly moved by the segment about US hunger, which featured interviews of people who receive food stamps or boxes from a food bank.

With the rising food prices, sub-prime lending and the looming recession, more and more people are struggling to put food on the table.  They rely on local food pantries to provide for their families.  This topic came up recently during a visit with some friends.  My friends expressed their frustration over "irresponsible" people who take out bad loans and rely on government programs to pick them.  It's so easy to blame others for being irresponsible without looking at the larger structures or policies that contribute to our current set of problems.  Why not blame the deregulation of our banking system?  Why not point fingers at the push to turn food into fuel?  This editorial cartoon probably makes the point better than I ever could:

This was a hard conversation to have.   

I wish my family could talk to people like Rosabelle Walker (pictured above), who was featured in the piece on hunger in America.  She says:

"I was a very independent woman. You couldn't get me to come stand in line to get no food free from nobody. Because I was always used to working and taking care of myself.

The first job I had was 16, I was the section hand on the railroad during the second world war. I worked in the steel mills in Pennsylvania. When I came to New York, I did housework 'cause that's all women got in New York was domestic day work.

I worked in the laundry. Then I managed the Laundromat. I'd work right now, even though I'm over 80, I'd go take care of somebody that's 75 or 80. And stay with them in their home, and get paid for it. I don't like lazy. But then I got to the place where I was retired. No money."

Watch or read the full segment here.

Continue reading "Rising food costs, recession and the farm bill" »

Give Back by Changing Structures of Poverty

Robin Stephenson is the Western Regional Field Organizer based in Portland, OR.  This is her inaugural post on Bread Blog.  Welcome, Robin!


Annie Lennox at Idol Gives Back photo by tconnerCST

As a huge fan of American Idol and a social activist for the hungry and poor, I was glued to my television to watch the glitterati focus on the needs of the poor this week, asking viewers to “give as much as they could.”  As of last night, over $60 million has been raised for six incredible charities that really make a difference on the ground for impoverished peoples who deserve the opportunity of life.  Charitable giving from our pocket books is necessary as it helps with immediate suffering, but it does not change the basic structures of poverty.  To change the structure of poverty - to eliminate suffering long term - we must also give back with our voices.

I was disappointed that the show did not also focus on this important tool of change.  Like I am sure many others did after watching Annie Lennox visit a family of AIDS orphans in South Africa, I pulled out my own credit card.  The life those boys were trying to eke out was devastating, the suffering unspeakable.  In tears I dialed the number and gave.  My money I believe will go to help these and other children both in the U.S. and globally.  The charities through which the monies are funneled all have records of responsible work.  The Children's Defense Fund, Children's Health Fund, The Global Fund, Make It Right, Malaria No More, and Save the Children.  But I am called to fight for a world where I don’t need to pull out a credit card in tears, and the only way to do that is to change those structures.

We are all overwhelmed with the worlds suffering, but there are complex structures in place that cause suffering and can only change through changing political will.  The Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) are an important start at building structures that create long term changes.  We cannot continue to undercut the local farmers in Mali trying to make a living through their own talents and hard work by unfair trade practices.  We can not continue to require responsible governments to pay back immoral and odious debts when they can’t afford to educate their children or offer health care services.  We can not allow another generation like those boys Annie Lennox met to grow up on their own with every family member dead from HIV, when those deaths can be prevented with life saving anti-retroviral drugs and effective prevention strategies.

One piece of legislation that would make positive inroads in developing such strategies is the Global Poverty Act. The Global Poverty Act would make MDG #1 (cutting hunger and extreme poverty in half by 2015) official US Policy.  It would require a strategy for fulfilling this goal, which may include better coordination of development aid instead of working at cross purposes like we have often done in the past. The Global Poverty Act has already passed in the House, and must now be passed in the Senate and signed into law by the President.  And the power of our voices has the ability to force our leaders to do so by calling them, emailing them, and holding them accountable for the decisions that they make.

We can also use our voices to “give back” by urging our leaders to put an additional $5 billion dollars in Poverty Focused Development Assistance (PFDA) for the Fiscal Year 2009 Budget.  Many of the programs like PEPFAR, Child Health and Survival, and The Global Fund for Malaria, TB, and AIDS are funded through PFDA which would account as only half a percent of our total budget.

We must do more than just throw money at the developing world, although that is an important step. We must also change those structures that have left four little boys in South Africa alone trying to survive in deplorable conditions.  No child should have to live like that ever again.  Join me and make a commitment to use your voice for the most powerful change of all – structural change!

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