In a major address on world hunger, Pope Francis denounced the fact that “arms circulate with brazen and virtually absolute freedom in many parts of the world,” and “as a result, wars are fed, not persons.”
Speaking in Spanish to the annual meeting of the World Food Program, the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting world hunger, on June 13, he called for “denaturalizing and de-bureaucratizing the poverty and hunger of our brothers and sisters.”
He said this dual task requires intervention “on different scales and levels, focusing on real people who are suffering and starving, while drawing upon an abundance of enthusiasm and potential that we need to help exploit.”
Francis recalled that “the great goal” of the W.F.P. is to achieve “zero hunger” in the world. Though he did not mention it, W.F.P. statistics show that noble goal is far off. There are 795 million undernourished people in the world today; one in nine people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life.
On his arrival at the W.F.P. headquarters, the U.N. agency’s Chicago-born executive director, Ertharin Cousin, welcomed him saying, “You are the hero of the poor and the hungry.”
After thanking her for her kind words, Francis, in splendid form, spoke frankly to his distinguished audience, which included the foreign ministers and/or ambassadors from its member states, including his own Argentina.
He told them that due to “an information overload” we have gradually come to see the “naturalization” of extreme poverty.
Little by little we are growing immune to other people’s tragedies, seeing them as something natural. We are bombarded by so many images that we see pain but do not touch it; we hear weeping but do not comfort it; we see thirst but do not satisfy it. All those human lives turn into one more news story.
“The headlines may change, but the pain, the hunger and the thirst remain; they do not go away,” he stated.
He emphasized the need to “de-naturalize” extreme poverty, to stop seeing it as a statistic rather than a reality because “poverty has a face! It has the face of a child; it has the face of a family; it has the face of people, young and old.”
It also has “the face of widespread unemployment and lack of opportunity” and “the face of forced migrations, and of empty or destroyed homes.”
He insisted that “we cannot ‘naturalize’ the fact that so many people are starving. We cannot simply say that their situation is the result of blind fate and that nothing can be done about it.”
But, he said: “Without faces and stories, human lives become statistics and we run the risk of bureaucratizing the sufferings of others. Bureaucracies shuffle papers; compassion deals with people.”
Addressing the need to “de-naturalize” extreme poverty, Francis said we are faced with the paradox that “while there is enough food for everyone, yet not everyone can eat, even as we witness waste, excessive consumption and the use of food for other purposes.”
While “food shortage is not something natural,” he said, the fact remains that in the 21st century “so many people suffer from this scourge is due to a selfish and wrong distribution of resources, to the ‘merchandizing’ of food.” Moreover, he said, “We have made the fruits of the earth—a gift to humanity—commodities for a few, thus engendering exclusion.”
He called for reflection on “the problem of unused and wasted food” and for the identification of “ways and means, which, by taking this problem seriously, can serve as a vehicle of solidarity and sharing with those most in need.”
Then, in the most incisive part of his talk, Francis highlighted the urgent need to “de-bureaucratize” hunger. Because of the great instability in today's world, he said, the threat of war has gained center stage and “arms seem to have gained unprecedented importance, completely sidelining other ways of resolving the issues at hand.”
He asserted that this approach to problems “prevents food supplies from being distributed in war zones, in violation of the most fundamental and age-old principles and rules of international law.”
Moreover, “whereas forms of aid and development projects are obstructed by involved and incomprehensible political decisions, skewed ideological visions and impenetrable customs barriers, weaponry is not,” he stated.
Indeed, he said:
It makes no difference where arms come from; they circulate with brazen and virtually absolute freedom in many parts of the world. As a result, wars are fed, not persons. In some cases, hunger itself is used as a weapon of war.
He said, “The death count multiplies because the number of people dying of hunger and thirst is added to that of battlefield casualties and the civilian victims of conflicts and attacks.”
“We are fully aware of this, yet we allow our conscience to be anesthetized,” Francis said. “We become desensitized. Force then becomes our one way of acting, and power becomes our only goal.”
As a result of all this, he said, “Those who are most vulnerable not only suffer the effects of war but also see obstacles placed in the way of help.”
He underlined the “urgent” need “to de-bureaucratize everything that keeps humanitarian assistance projects from being realized.” He said the W.F.P. plays a fundamental role here because “we need true heroes capable of blazing trails, building bridges, opening channels concerned primarily with the faces of those who suffer.”
He drew an ovation when he told them: “Take the luxury to dream. We need dreamers who can push forward solutions.”
Francis explained that “it is not a question of harmonizing interests that remain linked to narrow national interests or shameful forms of selfishness. Rather, it is a matter of the member states decisively increasing their commitment to cooperate with the World Food Program.”
He said the W.F.P. “has shown that it is possible to coordinate scientific knowledge, technical decisions and practical actions with efforts aimed at obtaining resources and distributing them impartially.”
He hailed the W.F.P. as “an excellent example of how one can work throughout the world to eradicate hunger through a better allotment of human and material resources, strengthening the local community.”
He encouraged the 13,500 employees of the W.F.P., many of whom he greeted afterwards in the garden, “to move forward” and “not grow weary or let problems dissuade you,” and said, “believe in what you are doing and pursue it enthusiastically.”
He assured them of “the complete support and encouragement” of the Catholic Church in implementing the urgent goal of “zero hunger.”