“Within a decade no man, woman or child will go to bed hungry,” declared Henry Kissinger.
That was three decades ago.
Since then hunger fighters have periodically reminded us of our failure–most recently Time magazine Person of the Year Bono, Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty) and the Make Poverty History campaign. Such impassioned calls again and again rally us to believe that, yes, we can end hunger. Yet sadly, they fail to challenge the very frame blinding us to solutions.
In that frame we in the industrial countries have the answer–what Sachs celebrates as the “dynamism of self-sustaining economic growth”–and our job is to help the poor get their “foot on the ladder.” But hunger is not a residual problem to fix “over there”–a place, mainly in Africa, left off this hunger-ending ladder. Rather, hunger is a global system that we’re all part of. This hunger-making system is alive in Africa, where one in three people goes hungry, but it is also alive in the United States, where hunger has grown by 43 percent over the past five years, and close to one young child in five lives in a family so poor he or she can’t count on getting needed nourishment. The system is very much alive in Asia and Latin America, too.
Yet our frame determines which pieces of this picture we can see. We applaud, for example, India’s high-tech boom and its poverty reduction. But we can’t register that nearly half of India’s children younger than 4 are still underweight, or that more hungry people live in India than in all of sub-Saharan Africa. We’re also blind to what is happening in Kerala, the state that has been India’s hunger-fighting champion–long before anyone heard of call centers or outsourcing. Kerala is invisible because it doesn’t fit the frame: With per-capita wealth only average for India, Kerala has reduced infant deaths to one-quarter the national rate. The frame also blinds us to progress in Bangladesh. With a per-capita GDP less than two-thirds of India’s, Bangladesh has a child death rate nearly one-fifth lower than India’s.
Clearly, we need a different frame to understand and solve the problem of hunger. Hunger is not about being left outside the dominant economic system. Hunger is actively created by that system–economic life divorced from democratic values and driven by a single rule: highest return to existing wealth. Because of it, 80 percent of the world’s people live in countries where inequality is worsening, and 691 billionaires have come to control as much wealth as half the world’s people earn in a year. While a decade ago poor coffee-producing countries, to pick just one example, retained 30 percent of coffee revenue, their share has shrunk to less than 10 percent today. The winners aren’t consumers but the Nestlés and Philip Morrises of the world, a narrowing group of global giants able to drain wealth from the poorest countries, kill the open market and consolidate power in so few hands that it inevitably corrupts political governance–whether it’s in the US Congress, the Kenyan Parliament or the WTO.