Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

An enlightening way to spend an afternoon in the Mile High city

By Megan Marsh
Bread for the World activist
Colorado Springs

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) held a week-long series for International Leaders during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Co. I love that it was held at the Performing Arts Complex, giving access to thousands of people who would have been unable to attend events at the Pepsi Center due to security. "The International Leaders Forum gives political leaders from around the world a unique opportunity to observe American democracy first-hand while hearing from a wide range of experts from the U.S. and abroad," said former Secretary of State and NDI Chairman Madeline Albright.

I was able to attend Wednesday afternoon's panel discussion Combating Global Poverty, a program organized with the 2008 Rocky Mountain Roundtable, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver in collaboration with ONE Vote '08.

Part of me was a bit overwhelmed at the quality of panelists. I'm becoming a huge Tom Daschle fan, and though I never really thought much about Madeline Albright, she completely won me over. Then of course there was John Danilovich, CEO of the Millennium Challenge Account; Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development; Hernando de Soto, president of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy as well as the co-chair of the Commission on Legal Empowerment for the Poor; Obiageli "Oby" Ezekwesili, vice president for the African region of the World Bank; Donald Payne, New Jersey US Representative; Tim Wirth, CEO of the United Nations Foundation; and James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank. Oh yeah, Ben Affleck was there too. The moderator was Gayle Smith, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Megans_photo Mark Nathanson, the chairman for the NDI opened it up with an introduction saying that the issues surrounding global poverty are connected to stability and security in foreign policy and the spread of democracy, a theme that surfaced through much of the discussion. He said global poverty should "engage and enrage all of us - Democrat, Republican, independent," making a case that poverty knows no political affiliation and that there is only one side in the fight to end poverty.

Gayle, our moderator, began the discussion by asking those on the panel what they thought Americans wanted to see in the U.S. response to global poverty. Or, what does the rest of the world want to see out of U.S. policy?

Don Payne said that when he went to Africa, he didn't get many people asking for a hand out, for medical supplies, money or anything like that. Rather, they asked about things like investing in their children, setting up schools, partnering with them to educate their youth. This is a common response we at Compassion International often hear from the poor. When asked where they would like us to invest our time and aid, they say: the children.

Oby responded to the question by saying "indominatable leadership in erradicating poverty", "rallying everyone to say 'we must do this.'" This is something I've discovered with my work with Bread for the World and the ONE Campaign -- that when the U.S. takes the lead in fighting poverty, the rest of the world follows. Oby returned to this point later on saying that if we fail to lead on this, other countries (such as China or India, who have the fastest growing economies) will step in. She asked us if that is really what we want? It means missed opportunites for the U.S.

Senator Daschle piggybacked on Oby's response by saying we need to set the example as leaders, create a fabric of social justice and that once we've done that, it's about individual empowerment through health, education, and economic opportunity.

Nancy gave a brilliant answer saying simply "trade and technology". The developing nations don't necessarily want our aid. They would so much rather have access to our markets. Wouldn't it be wonderful, she said, to take fifteen of the poorest countries and guarantee them access to our markets with no barriers and let them lift themselves out of poverty? With technology, we should honor the USA's tradition of innovation, think about exporting clean, cheap solar and wind energy, create a vaccine to Malaria, and think about creating a pan-African highway and road system so that trade within Africa becomes that much easier.

Ben Affleck spoke about his recent trip to Africa with the ONE campaign and said, "these countries are our friends". We have opportunities to make an impact. He said one of the most important things we can do is pay attention, become invested in the issues. He also spoke about trade saying, we've all heard the proverb about teaching a man to fish, Africans "know how to fish. They need a pond to fish in".

Gayle switched to the other side of the panel, noting that ten years ago we would not be sitting here with all these people having this conversation. There seems to be a momentum in the country for addressing these issues but where should we go with that momentum?

Madeline Albright said we need to focus on deliverables, something that is "do-able". She spoke of legal empowerment for property rights, labor rights, etc.

Hernando de Soto agreed with that and said that in America's history, it is largely undocumented about how the West rose out of poverty. He said it was the destruction of feudalism (the king no longer owning the pond) and widespread legal reform which allowed us to begin to develop to where we are now. We've been largely unsucessful at passing that on to other nations (with the exception of Japan, Korea and a couple other places).

Even though we were at a forum discussing Global Poverty, I felt so encouraged as I left. I felt like the entire two hours were spent talking about the incredible opportunities that exist, and that is what it is all about. Too often we have a picture of Africa in our heads as the "dark continent" full of disease and dispair. Its not true. Africa is a well of opportunites waiting to be tapped, developed and enriched.

There were lots of other great remarks during the panel, and I will be frantically searching for a podcast to download of the entire series.


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"Oby returned to this point later on saying that if we fail to lead on this, other countries (such as China or India, who have the fastest growing economies) will step in. She asked us if that is really what we want? It means missed opportunites for the U.S."

Ummm ... wouldn't it be a good thing if other countries get involved to reduce global poverty regardless of who "leads?" Or is she more interested enhancing the reputation of the US?

Speaking as a non-American to an audience of Americans, she was pointing out the great opportunity that will be missed if the U.S. fails to lead. She was not talking about excluding other nations from becoming involved, but capitalizing on the fact that America leads and other nations follow. Personally, I don't believe these issues can wait for new leadership to emerge.

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