Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Hunger Crisis and the need for a religious response

While Nation's leaders were meeting in New York for the U.N. Summit on the Millennium Development Goals, religious leaders gathered at the Interfaith Consultation on the Global Hunger Crisis where more than 50 leaders gathered for prayer and discernment of the role of religious communities in responding to the crisis, which threatens to reverse the progress made toward the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)  "Heads of Communion," and President/CEO's of relief and development organizations, from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions attended.

photo Robin Holland

On Wednesday, September 24, 2008, David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, delivered the following speech on the hunger crisis and the response needed by the religious community.

I am grateful to all of each of you for your leadership and for taking time out of your busy schedule to reflect together on the global hunger crisis.

I am honored to have this opportunity to introduce the problem and some ideas about how we should respond.

Let me begin with the good news.  We are meeting in conjunction with the U.N. Summit on the Millennium Development Goals.  The first goal is to cut poverty and hunger in half between 1990 and 2015.

The United Nations thinks we are still on track to cut in half the number of people living in absolute poverty.

The proportion of children under five who are undernourished dropped from 33 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2006.

Most developing countries are not on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, but most countries have made real progress on some of the goals.

In this country, we have not made sustained progress against poverty and hunger.  We have reduced poverty at a couple times in our recent history and neglected poverty in other periods.  So most Americans have come to believe that substantially and permanently reducing poverty is impossible. 

But in fact, our period of history is a time of extraordinary progress against hunger, poverty, and disease.

Right now, we are in the midst of a major setback.  In our own country, unemployment is 6% and rising, and food banks across the country are besieged with requests for emergency help.

But the global hunger crisis is even more severe, because the poverty is much more severe to start with, and because poor people in developing countries typically spend two-thirds of their total income on some basic commodity – rice, wheat, corn or sorghum.  The prices for those commodities have doubled over the last two years.



So more families in Haiti are filling the stomachs of their children with cookies made from mud.  The widow in Mauritania who used to eat two meals of sorghum a day now eats one meal of sorghum soup. 

Several Bread for the World staff just came back from Ethiopia.  Ethiopia has been making progress.  Over the last two decades, school enrollment has tripled; the percentage of the population with access to clean water has doubled; child mortality has been cut in half.  But over the last two years, Ethiopia has been hit with high food and fuel prices and also by drought.

My colleagues spent several weeks traveling through Ethiopia.  In one slum, they visited a young mother.  Her name is Terefech.  She cannot feed her two little children.  So they have very little energy, and the three of them mostly just sit in the dark room that is their home. 

Terefech and her husband migrated to the city four years ago because they couldn’t make a living in agriculture.  Her husband does odd jobs, but jobs are hard to come by in Ethiopia now, so he is away from his family most of the time.

    The children get food from a U.S. charity.  The baby girl is so malnourished she qualifies for Plumpynut.  Plumpynut is a fortified food that can sometimes bring severely malnourished children back to health.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture announced this week that they now estimate that the global hunger crisis has raised the number of undernourished people in the world from 850 million to 925 million.  Terefech is one of 75 million additional people who have fallen into hunger during the global hunger crisis.

    The world’s affluent countries were slow to respond, and our response has not been anywhere near commensurate with the need.

The United States has provided an additional $2 billion, mostly food aid.  Altogether, well-off countries have certainly provided less than $5 billion in new resources. 

$2 billion is a lot of money.  But low-income countries are spending $270 billion more on their food imports now than they did in 2006.  Our response is not anywhere near commensurate with their need.

We are starting to see a string of humanitarian and political emergencies rooted in the global hunger crisis.  Famine has now struck much of Ethiopia and Somalia.  Within the last month, there have been violent food riots in Egypt and several other countries.

Our government provided $300 billion in military aid to President Musharef in Pakistan.  But he’s gone now, partly because of increased food prices. 

The U.S. financial crisis of the last couple weeks will probably provoke a contraction of the global economy.  That means additional hardship to struggling families in this country and an additional shock to most developing countries.  The global hunger crisis is likely to become part of an even more extensive setback in the world’s progress against hunger, poverty and disease.

So what should we, as religious leaders, do?

Let me talk first about things we can do in the realm of politics.  Many religious people will give sacrificially to help people in need directly. But the hunger crisis is massive and requires that we take action to get the U.S. government to do its part.  I then also want to talk about specifically religious responses to the crisis, because the problems we now face are, in fact, too big for the U.S. government too.  We clearly need help from God.

On the political front, the crucial time is right now.  The election that takes place 42 days from today will set a new direction for our nation and the world.

Senator Obama and Senator McCain propose very different approaches hunger and poverty.  The two political parties are vying for control of Congress, so the outcome of congressional races will make a big difference for hungry and poor people in this country and around the world.

Devout and moral people will come to different conclusions about their vote.  But it is incumbent on religious leaders to remind your people to reflect on the things that most concern God as well as their own interests.  And one of God’s concerns is the desperation of mothers who cannot feed their children – Terefech in Ethiopia and the millions of mothers in this country who run out of food at just about this time of month, every month.

If you have a web site or magazine through which you can communicate with your people, you can tell them about your participation in this event – and use that as an opportunity to urge people to think about hungry people when they vote.

You could also suggest that your congregations observe one of the hunger-related events that have been scheduled for October – World Food Day, the Millennium Campaign’s Stand Up event, or Bread for the World Sunday.  Bread for the World Sunday materials will remind everybody in church – just a couple weeks before the election – that there are connections among faith, hunger and citizenship, and we are encouraging people to fast and pray about the global hunger crisis.   

The new president and Congress will have a lot to do next year.  But people of faith need to insist that they be especially attentive to people in need.  The government will spend $2 trillion plus another $1 trillion commitment to financial institutions.  With those resources on the table, it is just not true that we cannot afford to spend money on programs that reduce hunger and poverty in our country and worldwide.

Bread for the World will be inviting churches across the country to participate in an offering of letters to Congress in support of foreign aid reform, so that we get more bang for the buck for poor people from our foreign aid dollars.  We think the new president, whether Obama or McCain, will want a fresh foreign policy but have limited resources.  So next year may be an exceptional opportunity to make U.S. foreign aid more effective for poor people.

Bread for the World will also be pushing for more and better programs of food and agriculture assistance in poor countries and for improvements in child nutrition programs in this country. 

As we reflect on how religious bodies can work together, I also want to flag four gatherings that have already been planned – Christian Churches Together in January, Ecumenical Advocacy Days in March, Sojourners in April, and Bread for the World and the Alliance to End Hunger in June.

    You are religious leaders, not political leaders, and while God cares about our politics, God cares even more about our souls. 

Economic contraction is likely to lead to spiritual contraction.  We will become even more preoccupied with our own problems. Hunger and poverty are on the increase.  But we will feel less inclined to help people in need in their own communities, let alone on the other side of the world.

The antidote to this spiritual contraction is God’s goodness and mercy.

We have different understandings of God, but we all worship the God of Abraham. So we know that God is with us in difficult situations.  God will take care of us.  God will bring good out of evil.

We can rely on God, relax and be generous.  Thanks be to God.

Some of us have already encouraged people to observe this as a time of fasting and prayer.  Fasting is not meant to make us sad, but to lighten our hearts through deeper reliance on God.  Tony Hall has suggested that some religious leaders might want to join together in calling on the nation to fast and pray.

Finally, leaders of faith communities can sound a message of hope.  We all believe that God is taking us to that Day when there will be hunger no more, and I think we should teach our people to thank God that the world has been making progress against hunger, poverty and disease in our time. 

This is the saving God moving in our own history.  It’s the great exodus of our time, and the global hunger crisis is one of many frustrations in our wanderings toward the promised land.

I am absolutely sure that God hears the prayers of Terefech and that God invites  people of faith in this country to be agents of divine hope.

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