Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger
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Our Africa: The U.S. Moral Obligation to Address Global Hunger

By Rev. Derrick Boykin and Bishop Charles E. Blake on October 18, 2011
© Black Commentator

We’ve heard it said before, “Yes, I know people in poor countries have a lot of needs. But so do many people in this country, and we should take care of them first.” The speakers are rarely people who are unconcerned about poverty and hunger. On the contrary, they are paying attention - and reacting - to the needs they see around them and the more general problems facing Americans. However, they fail to acknowledge that problems overseas also impact us in the United States.

Any particular economic event - say, sharply rising food prices - has very different consequences for people in the United States than it does for people in developing countries. In this country, people may lose their jobs, lose their homes, have to move in with relatives, struggle to put food - especially healthy food - on the table, and face many other hardships. But in the Horn of Africa, people are walking hundreds of miles in search of any available food, with many children and elders dying on the way. Drought and conflict have already killed tens of thousands from southern Somalia alone, while more than 12 million people in the region are at risk.

Outside of the Horn of Africa, even in non-emergency areas, the human toll from hunger, poverty, and lack of access to basic health care is enormous in developing countries. Poor families spend up to 80 percent of their entire incomes on food. So they can’t cope with rising food prices by buying only what’s on sale or eating frozen vegetables instead of fresh. Instead, people simply eat less, period. They reduce portion sizes, eat just a staple grain and nothing else, or skip meals altogether. Children younger than 2 suffer irreversible effects from malnutrition, and both they and their slightly older siblings, up to age 5, are at far greater risk of death than healthy children - whether from starvation, or from diseases such as measles that are often fatal in malnourished children.

The most immediate needs in the Horn of Africa include improving food access and solving urgent health and nutrition problems. Emergency aid is vital right now, but we must also think beyond the current crisis. It is much more cost-effective - in terms of both dollars and human suffering - to invest in building agriculture systems that are sustainable in the long run. The tragedy in Somalia was compounded by a failure to target scarce resources to programs that help families build resilience to disasters such as drought.

The Horn of Africa crisis could have been much worse without programs such as Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program, which helps small farmers diversify their crops, broaden their income sources, create local markets, better manage their water resources, and increase the nutritional content of their families’ diets. Such “country-led” programs were models for Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global program to promote sustainable agriculture, food security, and nutrition. This approach makes the argument that it is preferable to invest a few dollars per person per year to help people become more food secure and resilient in the face of disaster, than to invest hundreds of dollars per person to deliver emergency relief that only lasts three to four months.

Unfortunately, U.S. funding for both longer-term agriculture and nutrition programs and emergency food aid is at risk. Ironically, U.S. foreign aid accounts for less than 1 percent of the budget. Balancing the federal budget will take more than cuts to programs like these.

The Bible tells us to uplift - not demoralize - the “least of these.” We are incredulous that some of our nation’s leaders, including people from the “Bible Belt,” are taking positions on the federal budget without understanding how their decisions impact vulnerable people. We urge our lawmakers to focus instead on protecting assistance programs for hungry and poor people around the world.

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