Thanksgiving will be for many in the United States an occasion to gather around tables groaning under the weight of food in celebration of this quintessentially American holiday. But as we give thanks, we also pray for those who are hungry. Not only does hunger remain a primary cause of mortality in the world; it is actually increasing. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the number of hungry people is rising at the rate of five million per year.
The highest rates of hunger exist in the developing nations, particularly in the southern areas of Africa. There and in other of the world’s poorest countries, women and children are at especially high risk of damage from inadequate nutrition. Child-bearing women enduring chronic hunger are more likely to bear underweight babies; close to a third of the children in Africa are born underweight.
The low status of women aggravates the situation and can lead some into high-risk behaviors like prostitution in order to survive. Such behaviors increase the incidence of AIDS, which interacts with hunger to deadly effect. Because it weakens people, hunger renders them more vulnerable to H.I.V. and other diseases like tuberculosis. Once weakened by these infections, they become unable to grow food or to work.
Further aggravating the situation are Africa’s civil wars. The longest-running conflict is in Sudan. As militias lay waste to villages and crops in the western part of the country as part of the current ethnic cleansing in Darfur, new crops cannot be planted. Tens of thousands have already died of hunger, and the situation is likely to worsen.
Apart from droughts, wars and AIDS, other factors contribute to world hungerfactors for which the rich nations bear much responsibility. Among these are farm subsidies in the United States and Europe. Advocacy organizations like Bread for the World point out that developed countries protect their own agricultural industries by paying their farmers $300 billion yearly in subsidies for basic crops like wheat, cotton and corn. Because of these subsidies, the United States can export these products at below-production costs; this makes it impossible for poor farmers to compete even in their own local markets. Mexico offers a classic example. Small Mexican farmers who raise corn cannot sell what they grow, because giant corn producers in the United States can inundate Mexican markets with corn at lower prices. Unable to sell their own corn, they fall deeper into poverty.
The beneficiaries of our subsidies are not primarily small U.S. farmers, but large corporate farms, which can export their surplus at 20 percent below production costs. But as the U.S. bishops noted in their pastoral statement For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food (11/03), our farm policies should not be a means for developed countries to dispose of surplus commodities...[and thereby] displace local food production in poor nations. The bishops consequently urged that subsidies for industrial-level farms be substantially reduced. Import quotas on products like peanuts and sugar have also been harmful, impoverishing still further poor farmers who cannot export their products.
Reducing farm subsidies would be a major step toward helping agriculture in the developing world. Other steps include more direct aid. A move in this direction is the so-called Millennium Challenge Account, established by Congress this year. Congress places funds in this account that are then allocated to poor nations that have shown themselves likely to use them in responsible ways. But no country has yet received funds, and Congress has been chipping away at the already modest amount the administration is requesting.
James McDonald, Bread for the World’s vice president for policy and development, told America that the original sum proposed by President Bush at the Conference on Reducing Global Poverty held in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2002 would have totaled $10 billion over three years. That sum has already shrunk, making our eventual contribution toward ending world hunger far less than what was intended. Mr. Bush should step forward to lobby for the full amount for this important move that could help reduce povertythe primary source of hungeramong some of the world’s poorest populations.
In the meantime, obesity remains a major health concern here in the richest country in the worlda problem that can hardly be imagined by the hungry people of developing countries.