Starved for Attention

As the aftermath of September 11 prompts questioning about anti-Western
rage, a good starting point is a statistic: 800 million. That's the number of
people in the developing countries who lack "food security"--who don't have
enough food to perform the basic tasks of daily living. Of course, every American
knows that there are millions of starving people in the world, but hunger has
been such a constant and apparently insoluble fact of life for so long that few
of us realize we have the means to end it--and have had for some time.

Nearly 30 years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a promise
to the first World Food Conference: "Within a decade, no child will go to bed
hungry." No one has made good on Kissinger's promise, but he was correct that it
was possible. We had the means; we lacked the motivation. After September 11, we
have both. If moral concern alone is not enough to impel serious U.S. action on
reducing world hunger, our national interest--and national security--certainly
ought to be. Happily, national interest and moral responsibility coincide here.
As a primary beneficiary of economic globalization and one of its principal
rule-makers, the United States has a special responsibility to build a world
market that works against hunger. And while it is clear that the multimillionaire
Osama bin Laden was not even pretending to act on behalf of the poor and hungry,
the surprising outpouring of anti-American bile we've seen from parts of the
third world these last few months surely owes much to the problems of poverty and
hunger. It is easy to hate a nation where food is wasted and more than 60 percent
of the people are officially overweight (as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control) when its leaders will not take significant steps to help the hungry.

So far, American policy makers have been too preoccupied with defending the
homeland and stimulating the economy to begin the process of thinking differently
about how to approach food security. But our changed understanding of the
American place in the world--our inescapable interdependence with and
vulnerability to the rest of humanity--makes the problem of world hunger more
urgent. Hunger is not new, but the worldwide flow of communications, ideas,
capital, labor, and opportunity provides policy makers with ways to help poor
people generate income in formerly remote areas. If we use the tools at our
disposal to fight world hunger seriously, the benefits will redound to all of
us--in the West and in the developing world--politically, economically, and

Global Trade and World Hunger

The last decade was the richest in world history, so it
seems reasonable that the proportion of people in developing countries who are
undernourished dropped from 20 percent to 17 percent; that's 40 million fewer
hungry people worldwide in 2000 than in 1990. But China alone accounted for 76
million fewer people going hungry--which means that in most other developing
nations, hunger actually increased. Regionally, sub-Saharan Africa has the
hardest time feeding itself, with 34 percent of the population, or 194 million
people, going hungry. While "only" 16 percent of those in the Asia and Pacific
regions are hungry, that's almost 500 million people. In Latin America, there are
53.6 million hungry people (11 percent of the population); in North Africa and
the Middle East, 32.5 million (9 percent).

Power relationships tell us who is likely to be hungry. Three-fourths of
the world's hungry are politically marginalized people who live in rural areas.
Within the family, women and children are the most likely to go hungry. Studies
have found that educating women is the most significant step in reducing hunger.
Thus, in poor countries, any government like the Taliban that bans the education
of women virtually guarantees child hunger.

Expanding trade has improved food security in countries that have been able to
take advantage of it. Economists at the International Food Policy Research
Institute (IFPRI) measure a country's food security in a combination of ways:
domestic production, nutritional status of the most vulnerable, education levels,
and the percentage of export earnings that a country uses to import food. Before
the explosion of the global food market in the early 1970s, this export/import
percentage was fairly uniform across countries, ranging between 15 and 20
percent. By 1998 the average had dropped substantially, to 6 percent--but for the
least developed countries, where growth in exports has been substantially slower
than the aggregate growth of trade, the percentage is up, closer to 23 percent.

Any number of reasons can account for why poorer countries have to spend so
much of their export money on food, but unfair trade practices imposed by
first-world countries is a big one. Many poor nations face market barriers to
their goods abroad--on everything from textiles to sugar--while their farmers at
home must compete with highly subsidized food and agricultural goods from the
world's richest nations in North America and Europe.

The Uruguay Round of trade negotiations from 1986 to 1994 was meant to lower
these rich-country subsidies; it largely failed. Wealthy countries--members of
the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)--have continued
to subsidize their domestic farmers' production at a rate of $365 billion a
year. (Total official development assistance, meanwhile, has been running at about
$55 billion yearly.) Buoyed by these subsidies, farm production in the United
States and other OECD countries has increased steadily, depressing world prices,
discouraging producers in developing countries, and putting valuable trade
earnings out of the reach of the poorest countries. The effect is that poor
countries get cheap food dumped on them from the subsidized farmers in the United
States and elsewhere. Little of this imported food gets to the hungry in the
countryside; most winds up with the urban elite. This is clearest in Africa,
where the better-off in the seaport capitals can be fed more cheaply by
subsidized U.S. and European grain than by food trucked hundreds of miles over
bad roads from the interior. Thus, the middle class in Dakar, Senegal, eat
baguettes made of wheat, while up-country farmers go broke and hungry for lack of

Of course, the United States has a duty to take care of its own small farmers.
But its agricultural subsidies go to only one-third of U.S. farmers, while
two-thirds of the money goes to the largest and richest 10 percent of those
eligible. Moreover, this puts the nation's agricultural policy, foreign policy,
and development policy at three-way cross-purposes. In October the United States
was following several contradictory courses simultaneously: trying to bring poor
Asian nations into its coalition against terror; participating in agenda drafting
for a new round of trade negotiations in Doha, Qatar, aimed largely at getting
rid of domestic farm subsidies; and working on legislating a farm bill that
called for $171 billion to be paid over the next 10 years to mainly wealthy
farmers (who in turn donate to the politicians who fight for their subsidies). The
aggregate effect of all these conflicting impulses is to make a hash of U.S.
food-security policy.

America's Flawed Food Policy

In 1948, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human
Rights proclaimed that access to food is a human right. The United States
agreed--until recently. At the 1996 World Food Summit, we changed our position on
this basic right, reportedly for fear of legal implications. Moreover, U.S. aid
to foreign countries is low compared with other OECD countries in terms of
percentage of gross domestic product--in fact, it is the lowest, at one-tenth of
1 percent of GDP--and most of the aid we do provide goes to a few better-off
countries, primarily Israel and Egypt. How can we be taken seriously when we say,
as we often do, that we want to work with partners to improve global food
security if we refuse to provide resources and are afraid to acknowledge food
security as a basic human right?

The primary U.S. international food-assistance program, Food for Peace, is
dramatically out of sync with the times. Since its inception in the 1950s, reform
compromises have left a bureaucratic nightmare--a Rube Goldberg device rigged
around and through a maze of politically tendentious government agencies,
including the Department of Agriculture, the State Department, USAID, the Office
of Management and Budget, the National Security Council, and even the Treasury.
With such a cumbersome and conflicted system, it is hardly surprising that after a
decision was made to provide emergency food relief for Afghanistan, delivery was
held up for days while U.S. government officials argued about whether the food
would be bought in the United States or in Pakistan.

Worse, the program's resources are still tilted toward moving U.S. farm
surpluses into export markets rather than feeding hungry people. Title I of Food
for Peace benefits American farmers by providing loans for the purchase of U.S.
agricultural commodities to be used as food aid. The program's budget was
increased by 50 percent in 1998--despite repeated reports from the General
Accounting Office and elsewhere that the effort is of little help in market
development or to the poor. Meanwhile, the budget for Title II--under which food
is given to nongovernmental organizations for humanitarian distribution--was
increased only marginally, after having been allowed in the past to fall below
the amount required by law. The budget of Title III, a government-to-government
program aimed at encouraging development, has fared even worse: It has shrunk
from $300 million in 1993 to $30 million in 2001.

To be fair, it should be noted that the United States is the biggest donor to
the UN World Food Program and that our contributions rise as our surpluses do.
This food is mostly for emergency relief, which is no bad thing. But we devote
insufficient food aid to the fight against chronic hunger. We refuse to recognize
the benefits we would reap if, as the world's richest superpower, we put a higher
political priority on assuring food security for the world's poor and less on the
demands of the farm lobby.

Lessons from China

As mentioned, China has reduced the number of its hungry by
76 million since 1990. Are there lessons from the Chinese example that could be
applied elsewhere--or is China unique?

The answer is mixed. On the one hand, China's example demonstrates that
independent government action can produce rapid results. On the other, few
developing countries duplicate China's precise set of circumstances: a strong
government, a commitment to improving small-scale farming and rural enterprise,
an entrepreneurial population, a decent infrastructure, and a high population
density that makes it easier to get food to markets--an advantage Africa notably
lacks. China, unlike Africa, was able to take advantage of "Green Revolution"
crops, mainly rice and wheat, and it has been developing its own biotech crops.
It opened food markets a bit, a step popular with farmers. And it relied not on
foreign capital but, rather, on the creation of credit domestically. (China now
has a savings rate of almost 40 percent of GDP, and the second-largest capital
reserves in the world.)

Globalization has also helped China--although its leaders have insisted on
defining the terms. In 1978, when the new regime opened its doors to the West, a
flood of scientific and political ideas came in, further stimulating an already
highly innovative population to produce more. But information now flows out of as
well as into China--and as the economist Amartya Sen has demonstrated, famine
does not occur where information travels freely. It is thus improbable that 30
million Chinese people will starve to death as they did in the 1958-1961 famines.

But China's refusal to bow to demands for globalization on Western terms will
not be easy for poorer countries, especially small ones, to emulate. China
controls its own currency, so it is not prey to global financial speculators and
the International Monetary Fund. And the country's mixture of authoritarian
government and market enterprise has allowed it to open itself up only to the
degree that Beijing judges beneficial. It's unlikely that this style of
authoritarian state capitalism could work elsewhere in the world.

Africa Still Starves

While most of the world's hungry live in Asia, hunger is
most intractable in Africa. More than three-fourths of Africans are farmers, and
three-fourths of these farmers are women, many of them struggling alone to
support their families, with husbands off trying to find work in the cities or
dead or dying of AIDS. Some 90 percent of Africa's hungry are rural; but since
the continent's political elite tend to live in port cities, the rural areas
suffer government neglect. As an aid worker remarked during the 1984-1985 African
famine: "Starve the city people and they riot; starve the rural people and they
die. If you were an African political leader, which would you choose?" Thus,
leaders skew policies toward city folk to the detriment of the vast majority of
their people. Droughts may trigger famines in Africa, but their deeper underlying
causes lie in the political choices of African governments and the slow response
to these emergencies by food-giving governments.

Ineffective or unjust governments also cause wars. According to IFPRI,
there have been 17 major armed conflicts in Africa over the past decade (in the
same period, the entire rest of the world had 10). The use of hunger as an active
weapon in these conflicts has left nearly 20 million people, most of them women
and children, in need of food and humanitarian assistance. For a continent
dependent on agricultural production for foreign exchange as well as sustenance,
the longer-term effects of these conflicts are even more severe. According to one
UN estimate, Africa lost almost one-third of its agricultural production because
of conflicts between 1970 and 1997. And globalization has not been much help to
countries that cannot attract investment.

Given that Africa's hungry are mainly small farmers working exhausted soil far
from markets, ending hunger there will depend largely on increasing crop
production on tiny farm lots. African farmers must acquire new techniques and
technologies that rely on heavier use of chemical fertilizer as well as organic
farming methods; most of Africa lacks sufficient natural material for an
organic-only route, and few farmers can afford a chemical-fertilizer-only
approach. The most effective technologies will be those that provide
drought-tolerance and resistance to specific pests and diseases yet are
inexpensive and tailored to African ecosystems.

Traditionally, many such advances have come from government-funded research
in U.S. universities and from the 16 international research centers whose donors
are coordinated by the World Bank. But budgets for research targeted at the needs
of poor farmers have been allowed to stagnate and decline. The total budget of
the 16 international centers is only a thousandth of what the OECD spends on farm
subsidies. Biotechnology could help; for instance, drought-resistant crops may be
just over the horizon. But most biotech research is moving away from such
public-interest goals and toward private-sector needs. In its aggressive push to
protect intellectual-property rights, the U.S. government provides patents for
new biotech crop varieties without regard to the importance of these crops to
poor countries or the deadening effect such policies have on locally tailored
innovation. And even universities patent their discoveries now, usually providing
exclusive licenses to the private sector rather than sharing them with other
public institutions. These new practices, combined with corporate fearfulness of
legal entanglements, have virtually halted the free flow of both the germ plasm
necessary for crop development and the information critical to research for the

Success in Bangladesh

History shows that U.S. intervention can make a huge
difference in a nation's ability to feed itself. Throughout the 1960s, stored
U.S. grain surpluses served as a food safety net for the entire world. But in
1972, the United States made its first major grain sale to Russia, sharply drawing
down its reserves and sending prices skyward. Bangladesh, fragile after flooding
and war, could no longer afford grain at market prices. With U.S. food aid
reduced, a crisis loomed. By 1974, on the eve of the first World Food Conference,
Bangladesh was lurching toward a major famine. In making the argument to deny
further aid, a high-ranking U.S. State Department official called the country "a
basket case." (It is fair to note that the case was complicated by the fact that
Bangladesh was trading with Cuba.)

Facing the outcry of the U.S. public and the international community, who
were learning about the effects of the approaching famine from the media,
Senators George McGovern and Dick Clark--in attendance at the Rome
conference--prevailed on Earl Butz, the reluctant secretary of agriculture, to
wire President Nixon asking him to reverse the U.S. policy and double aid to
Bangladesh. The United States did--but not before more than 200,000 people
starved to death.

The famine shocked the United States and its partners into action and the
"basket case" assessment was proved wrong: The international community mounted a
$30-billion broad-based effort at alleviating poverty and ensuring food security
in Bangladesh. Since then, the country has become largely self-sufficient in rice
and population growth rates have slowed. Though a third of the populace still
suffer from food insecurity, the famines of only a few decades ago no longer
threaten. If there is a lesson to be drawn from Bangladesh's example, it is that
the U.S. government vastly underestimates what public action can achieve if it is
broadly based, well provisioned, and organized around a clear and concrete goal
like ending hunger.

An Eight-Point Plan for Feeding the World

Ending world hunger requires that the United States and its
partners create a global marketplace in which producers from poor countries can
compete fairly against those in industrialized nations. If we continue to support
a market that favors the rich at the expense of the poor, we will continue to
breed tension and turmoil in developing countries--and anger against the United

Most of the positive steps that must be taken to achieve global food
security are well known. Most are political rather than technical, and many
require the United States to work with other nations. Here's what our government
must do.

  • Secure the commitment of other countries and set the shared goal of
    completely ridding the planet of hunger by 2015--not just cutting it in half, as
    governments at the 1996 World Food Summit pledged to do. Then take whatever
    steps are necessary to complete the task.
  • Agree that access to adequate food is a basic human right, so that
    broad-based international efforts by governments, nonprofits, and the business
    sector to build a safety net will have firm support. A global market needs a
    global safety net.
  • Reform the protocols and agreements that apply to early intervention
    by the global community when conditions that spread world hunger begin to build.
    This will require a long-term plan for providing food to people marooned in war
  • Separate food assistance and other developmental aid from "America
    First" principles and bureaucratic squabbling--and emphasize support for
    nutrition programs targeted to women and children.
  • Reduce the perverse subsidies to OECD-country farmers and remove
    trade barriers that hinder poor nations.
  • Lead the developed countries in creating intellectual-property-rights
    regimes and institutional frameworks that will ensure a robust intellectual
    common for agricultural science. This will involve facilitating the exchange of
    germ plasm with poor countries, protecting genetic resources, strengthening
    farmers' rights, preventing exclusive licensing of so-called enabling
    technologies, and helping to build scientific capacity in Africa.
  • Streamline the donor politics that surround the international
    research centers and increase the centers' resources so they can better support
    farmer-led innovation for the hungry in Africa.
  • Most important, give the problem of world hunger the priority and
    attention it deserves so that we will not just try to address hunger effectively
    but will actually succeed.

The poor of the world cannot afford to have us do less. And now it's clear
that the United States can't afford to do less either.