Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

17 posts from May 2010

TED Talk: Handwritten Letters Really Work

I admit I've become kind of addicted to watching TED talks. TED is a great forum to introduce and discuss ideas that make life better and more fun. The basic idea is that people with a specific set of knowledge get to pitch an innovative idea that may shift the way you think about various aspects of our world. 

Here's an interesting talk by Omar Ahmad, a city council member in San Carlos, CA, on why handwritten letters are more effective than other forms of constituent communication. This corroborates research done by the Congressional Management Foundation.

It's a six-minute talk, and I daresay it's entertaining as well as educational. Disclaimer: There's some brief, mild profanity. Not that you've ever heard anything like that before.

Some initial thoughts: I do think he may understate the importance of phone calls, especially when something urgent is happening such as a vote or a deadline for a "Dear Colleague" letter. And I also think he may overstate how difficult it is to get a face-to-face meeting with the right staffer. And some offices are better than others about processing and responding to email (though if you do send email, do yourself a favor and personalize it!). 

But in terms of the effectiveness of handwritten letters, he's spot on. 

Matt Newell-Ching is Bread's western regional organizer. He gives a hat tip to Bread's southeast field organizer Greg Sims for alerting him to Ahmad's talk.

Top Hunger Headlines: Record Number on Food Stamps

Food Stamp Tally Nears 40 million, Sets Record. Nearly 40 million Americans received food stamps--the latest in an ever-higher string of record enrollment that dates from December 2008 and the U.S. recession, according to a government update. [Reuters]

U.S. Unemployment Rises but More Jobs Created. The U.S. unemployment rate rose in April, even though more jobs were created than in any month in the past four years. [BBC]

Suburbs Losing Young Whites To Cities. White flight? In a reversal, America's suburbs are now more likely to be home to minorities, the poor, and a rapidly growing older population as many younger, educated whites move to cities for jobs and shorter commutes. [Huffington Post]

EU Ministers Offer 750 Billion Euro Plan to Support Currency
. Emergency measures worth 750 billion euros have been agreed to prevent the Greek debt crisis from affecting other eurozone countries. [BBC] 

A Look at Costs of Afghan War to U.S. Taxpayers. When Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets lawmakers this week as part of his four-day trip to Washington, they will want reassurances from him that he is committed to tackling corruption and ensuring U.S. taxpayer funds are not wasted. [Reuters]

Latinos Sending Money Home: Essential to Latin America. Remittances, the funds sent by foreign-based Latin American workers to their families back home ... represent one of the major economic trends shaping Latin America’s recent development. [EnerPub]

Bono Interviews Obama for the African Century Edition. After a recent chat, the U2 front man followed up with these e-mailed questions … [The Globe and Mail]

Climate Change/Environment
Nature Loss 'To Hurt Economies.'
The Earth's ongoing nature losses may soon begin to hit national economies, a major U.N. report has warned. [BBC]AFRICA: Changing Technologies to Keep Up with Climate Change. Technological innovation is key to helping African farmers cope with the increasing challenges posed by climate change, say specialists. [AlertNet]

Liberals Still Think Climate Bill Can Pass. Despite losing key backers in the misguided effort for a "climate bill," liberals still think they have a chance. [examiner.com]

221 Congressional Members Support Child Nutrition Programs

Thanks to your efforts, 221 members of Congress have signed a letter supporting the reauthorization of child nutrition programs, which they sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday.

In the letter, members asked Speaker Pelosi to find ways to fund the $1 billion in increases President Obama requested for these programs—which include school lunches, school breakfasts, summer feeding programs, and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

“Poverty exacerbates children’s risk of unhealthy weight gain, but poor nutrition affects children’s health and well-being across all income levels,” reads the letter. “Today, nearly one-third of all children are overweight or obese.  These challenges to children’s health are present in every district across the country and are recognized as critical public health concerns.”

Reps. Jim McGovern (D-MA), Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO), and Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) led the effort. McGovern and Emerson are co-chairs of the House Hunger Caucus.

These programs are critical. As we’ve written, kids who are hungry have a hard time learning and developing properly. Plus, more money for these programs will help reach more kids.

Urgent Reminders from Niger

Niger The looming famine in Niger is a gripping reminder of the urgency of the task at hand: ending hunger through agriculture development.

Niger is one of the least developed countries in the world, and its impoverished agriculture sector is exhibit A. The country and various development agencies are struggling to hold back the relentless encroachment of the desert with simple, innovative efforts to re-green the Sahel, while also working to increase production and enhance the nutritional quality of staple foods grown in the few arable zones.

Chronic hunger stalks the land, exacerbated at regular intervals by drought and shifting market conditions (currently, staple food prices are high and the market price for cattle, an important source of household income, is low). The government of Niger says the rate of severe food insecurity in the country has tripled since last year. According to humanitarian agency Action Against Hunger, the government estimated that nearly 1 million children are moderately malnourished and another 200,000 have severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening condition. Even if those children survive, their physical and mental development will likely be as stunted as the nation’s. The government assessment showed that, at the beginning of the year, household foodstocks had already been depleted for about 20% of the population. It estimated some 7.8 million people (more than half the nation’s population) will be forced to cope without food reserves for at least six months before the October harvest.

The World Food Program has more than doubled the number of people it routinely feeds in Niger, providing food to 2.3 million people. Still, that leaves millions of others foraging on their own.

As the hunger spreads, the WFP says it is working against time to distribute its aid. It is buying most of the needed food from neighboring countries to shorten the lead time to deliver food to the West African country, which is normally about four months.

This provides a second reminder: local and regional purchase of food aid is a vital tool in relieving hunger emergencies.

The current Niger crisis adds to the growing body of evidence that the U.S. food aid policy – which mandates that assistance must be American-grown food shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels – needs to be reformed to also provide cash aid for such local purchases when famine flares.

“We need to move quickly,” says Thoma Yanga, WFP’s regional director for West Africa. (In addition to speed, local purchase also provides market incentive for African farmers to increase their production of food to feed fellow Africans.)

Yet, despite the mounting evidence, local purchase continues to be opposed by some in Congress and the agriculture industry, who insist on “keeping food in food aid,” as is their mantra.

The news from Niger of children on the verge of starvation brings a third reminder, this one more personal, of young lives cut short: This May is the third anniversary of the death of one remarkable girl, Anafghat Ayouba.

Anafghat, a slight twig of a girl, was smiling from a hospital bed in the capital city, Niamey, when I first met her in 2004. She was recovering from a large fistula in her bladder which had opened up during four days of labor in childbirth at the age of 15 (she was given into marriage at age 11). The fistula had been repaired by American doctors brought to Niger by the nonprofit International Organization for Women and Development Inc., founded by Barbara and Ira Margolies of New York.

As she recovered, Anafghat cheerfully told me she was eager to return to her village on the edge of the Sahara so she could go back to school. In Niger, particularly in the rural areas, girls are required to leave school when they marry, and many are given into marriage by their families by the time they are 15.

But that wouldn’t stop Anafghat, not after what she had been through. In the hospital, she turned to her father, a goat herder from the Sahara, and said, "Father, you must promise me that when we go home I can go to school. And you must promise that my sisters won't get married so early."

“I want to be a doctor,” she insisted, “and be an important woman.”

Several months after her surgery, Anafghat made good on her promise, returning to the third grade, where she had left off. She then set out to change the practice of early marriage and she became an example and advocate for girls’ education. She was preparing to take the tests to enter secondary school when she died suddenly from complications of an infection (cause unknown) on May 25, 2007.

I thought of Anafghat eagerly studying French and science in her family’s little mud-brick hut as I read a New York Times dispatch from Niger this week. Adam Nossiter reported that, “Thousands of children are being pulled out of schools because parents have left their villages to search for food, and a handful have closed.” And, for those children fortunate enough to still be in school, I know that many of them are suffering, too, as malnutrition saps their desire and ability to learn.

Anafghat would be concerned over the soaring child malnutrition. Above all, she would be distressed that it was interrupting education.

That thought prompts a fourth urgent reminder from Niger’s current crisis: hunger undermines all aspects of development. It undermines health. It subverts education. It drains the economy.

It’s a fundamental equation: Develop agriculture, end hunger, develop nations.

Roger Thurow’s blog post appears courtesy of the Global Food for Thought blog. Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, is a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

White House Strategy Elevates Development

Last year the White House launched a sweeping review of its development strategies and policies. A draft copy of this review, titled “A New Way Forward on Global Development,” was published online yesterday. While the document isn’t final, the changes it recommends could ultimately make U.S. foreign assistance more effective—a major goal not only of Bread’s 2009 Offering of Letters, but also of its three-year focus to reform U.S. foreign aid.

For all the Bread members and advocates who called their members of Congress, wrote letters, and visited them on Capitol Hill to push for improvements in the way the United States delivers foreign assistance, this review is a giant step forward. The review’s strategy elevates development as a pillar of foreign policy; in other words, development is on equal terms with defense and diplomacy.

“Our investments in development—and the policies we pursue that support development,” reads the document, “can facilitate the stabilization of countries emerging from conflict, address the poverty that is a common denominator in the myriad challenges we face, foster increased global growth, and reinforce the universal values we aim to advance.”

Some of the document’s recommendations include creating a national strategy for global development that’s reviewed every four years; helping recipient countries assume ownership, responsibility, and accountability on development; and bolstering the way we measure and account for U.S. foreign assistance investments—and demanding more of both from implementers and recipients.

Hopefully, the policies outlined in “A New Way Forward on Global Development” will translate into updated legislation—specifically, a rewrite of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which would modernize and better coordinate our foreign assistance efforts.

More Signatures Mean More Support

Last week we asked you to urge your members of Congress to fund the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act at an additional $1 billion per year. We needed 218 representatives to sign a letter circulating through Congress that supports increased funding for programs such as school lunches, school breakfasts, summer feeding programs, and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

Good news: We needed 218 signatures and we have 219!

But more signatures mean more support for kids at risk of hunger. If your representative hasn’t signed the letter, call him or her by noon on Wednesday, May 5, and ask that they do so. Use this special toll-free number, 1-800-826-3688, and ask the Capitol switchboard to connect you to your representative’s office.

Thanks for your support!

Fighting Hunger: Law of the Land

From across the pond, amid the sniping and bickering of the current election season in the United Kingdom, comes a worthy idea: enshrining in law the nation’s commitment to provide a certain level of foreign development aid.

In a rare flash of agreement, the contentious leaders of the three main parties—Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Labour, David Cameron of the Conservatives, and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg—have all pledged to provide foreign aid equal to 0.7% of gross national income each year beginning in 2013. (That level has long been the rhetorical goal of rich countries, going back more than four decades. Most countries have fallen short; Britain is just up to 0.52%.)

Election promises go up in smoke in the U.K. as they do in the U.S. But this one looks like it might indeed be etched in legislative stone. A draft law published earlier this year, before the electioneering began, would require the U.K. to spend at least 0.7% on development aid annually. Even the queen is for it.

What makes this a good idea is that it ensures that Britain would continue to live up to its pledges on the development front no matter the party in power, the makeup of parliament, or the ups and downs of the economy. It would be part of the national character.

“Nobody would want to be the party that cuts that level,” says Liz Wilson, one of the lead researchers of the Africa and Europe Partnership in Food and Farming project of the Imperial College of London. “If any party would go back on it when in office, they’d have to have a very good argument. None would back out of it lightly.”

Although some aid organizations in the U.K. worry about what kind of aid will be delivered since that won’t be specified in the bill, they generally praise the measure for guaranteeing that the government will live up to its long-standing pledges.

In a government-prepared analysis of the bill, Prime Minister Brown is quoted as saying the measure “would make (the U.K.) the first country in the world to give a permanent guarantee we will reach and maintain the United Nations aid target of 0.7%.” The report also says the legislation “will help the U.K. to influence other major donors to increase their aid levels and achieve the 0.7% target.”

Here’s one possible sphere of influence in the U.S.:

Legislation that would embed President Obama’s global hunger and food security initiative as part of America’s national mission. It would ensure that no matter who occupies the oval office or which party controls Congress, the push to reduce hunger and poverty through agriculture development would receive funding and political support.

There is precedent for this. President George W. Bush’s program to attack the AIDS epidemic in Africa—known as PEPFAR—was embedded in foreign aid policy through legislation. A Republican idea, it now receives support and funding from a Democratic administration and Congress. The program transcends partisan politics—rare is a voice raised against it—and unites executive and legislative will. It is the right thing for America to do.

The hunger and food security initiative—known as Feed the Future—is the same. American leadership is crucial to reversing the neglect of agriculture development in the poorest countries over the past couple of decades. It also needs to be placed above partisanship.

The Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act could make that happen. The Senate bill—created by Republican Dick Lugar and Democrat Bob Casey—seeks to reorient U.S. development assistance to focus on hunger and poverty alleviation with resources invested in long-term rural development and agriculture. It also aims to revitalize higher education for agriculture and extension services in places like Africa, establish a special coordinator for global food security, and improve the U.S. emergency rapid response to food crises.

The Senate bill has been merged with a similar one in the House brought by Betty McCollum to provide congressional consensus. It also incorporates several elements of the Roadmap to End Hunger drawn up by a coalition of humanitarian agencies last year. And it proposes three-year funding authorization (rising from $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2013).

Embedding global food security as an official part of U.S. development policy to secure long-term support and funding is necessary because agriculture and food systems are built over time through investments across many sectors of a country’s economy. There are no quick fixes that can be covered by funding for a year or two. Once started, we need to follow through. Even after the current president and senators and members of Congress are no longer in office, their drive to end hunger through agriculture development must live on.

“Authorizing legislation is the key to the long-term success of U.S. investments in agricultural development,” former agriculture secretary Dan Glickman said in testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last week. (Glickman is also co-chair, with Catherine Bertini, of the Chicago Council’s Global Agriculture Development Initiative.) He maintained that this commitment must be sustained for a minimum of 10 years.

Yes, 10 years, at least. That fits the timeframe of our New Decade’s Resolution: Let’s make ending hunger the singular achievement of this decade.

Roger Thurow’s blog post appears courtesy of the Global Food for Thought blog. Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, is a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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