This short but worthwhile book takes its title from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address. By the third freedom (after freedom of speech and freedom of worship), the president meant freedom from want. But as George McGovernformer senator and Democratic presidential nominee, and now U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations agencies for food and agriculture based in Romepoints out, not only do we live in a world afflicted by want in the form of hunger, we have the capability of ending it if sufficient political will were brought to bear. So far, unfortunately, this will has been lacking, both in the United States and in other countries.
Some progress has been made. When Mr. McGovern ran for president in the early 1970’s, 35 percent of the world’s population suffered from hunger. By 1996, that figure had dropped to 17 percent. But especially here in the richest of all countries, we have little to be proud of. As he puts it, we are the only industrial nation that permits millions of its poor to go without adequate food. Although economic growth here reached unparalleled heights in the 1990’s, the benefits have gone primarily to the wealthiest segments of the population.
Mr. McGovern has only scorn for periodic government exhortations that churches and other religious groups take it upon themselves to make up for the cutbacks in food assistance that began here in the 1980’s. Such an undertaking would be impossible. To compensate fully for reductions in government food programs, he estimates, each of the country’s 350,000 churches would have to contribute annually an average of $150,000a sum more than the yearly budgets of the majority of them. In line with the thinking of the highly respected anti-hunger group, Bread for the World, he advocates an enlargement of the food stamp program and a modest rise in the minimum wage. If adequately expanded, these two measures could go a long way toward eliminating hunger at home. Yes, it would involve some additional government expenditure; but the high costs resulting from illnesses to which malnutrition contributes are already costing us far morea classic case of being penny wise and pound foolish.
Looking at the international scene, the author devotes a whole chapter to the issue of women and girls in developing countries. Young girls are at particular risk of hunger because of discriminatory customs that favor boys in the distribution of food in poor families. One of the great ironies in this situation is that while women and girls are the ones who produce most of the household food, it is they who especially suffer from the effects of malnutrition. In a few countries, United Nations programs are reaching out to girls. Mr. McGovern mentions Benin and Niger, where the World Food Program has begun an initiative whereby girls who do attend school are not only fed there, but are also given food to take home to their families. But, alas, girls in poor countries are far less likely than boys to attend school at all. Not surprisingly, girls and women account for 70 percent of the world’s illiterate people.
War, too, enters the picture as a major cause of world hunger. Some of the most severe hunger emergencies in recent yearsas in Kosovo, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudanwere the result of ethnic strife. Conflicts lead war-afflicted countries to spend disproportionate amounts of their scarce resources on military equipment and training, rather than on desperately needed food, medical care and education. In this matter, too, the United States scores badly. As the world’s largest supplier of weapons, much of the military equipment used in these life-rending conflicts comes from our own arms industry. One of the most important steps we could take in reducing world hunger, McGovern therefore argues, would be to make a serious effort to curtail the international arms trade. Just as he quoted a former president in choosing the title for his book, so does Mr. McGovern quote another, Dwight Eisenhower, toward the conclusion. Eisenhower clearly saw the relationship between war and hunger in the aftermath of World War II: Every gun that is made...every rocket fired, signifies...a theft from those who hunger and are not fed.
On the very last page, Mr. McGovern modestly calls his book an essay on world hunger, and so it is. But for all its brevity, it serves as a needed reminder that the third freedom is still denied to many of the world’s most vulnerable populations.