Hunger Is Not a Place

Hunger Is Not a Place

It’s not true that only the rich can help the poor. We must work to empower nations like Bangladesh that are addressing the problem of hunger by creating networks of schools, health training and micro-loans.


“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.

Sadly, the biggest story of our time gets hidden by this dominant frame. It is a revolution in human dignity in which citizens are moving beyond protest to problem solving, risking their lives to remove the power of wealth from the political system and to infuse the power of democratic values into the economic system. The new frame they are creating I call living democracy.

With a living democracy frame for understanding hunger, it’s possible to grasp at least some of the reasons Bangladesh is making faster progress in saving lives than is India, despite its greater hunger and deeper income poverty: Citizen action networks have spread to almost 80 percent of Bangladesh’s villages, providing basic health training, schools and capital. Through the two biggest, the largely self-financing Grameen Bank and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, peer-backed micro-loans have gone to about 9 million poor people, mainly women, enabling many to birth their own village-level enterprises. Grameen reports that more than half of the families of its borrowers–the vast majority of the bank’s owners–have “crossed the poverty line.” Assuming BRAC’s comparable impact, these rural Bangladeshis’ self-directed enterprises have freed more than twice as many from poverty as the number employed in export garment factories. There, insecure jobs offer wages of 8 to 18 cents an hour. Yet the dominant frame doesn’t differentiate these two paths; to Sachs, both place Bangladeshis on the economic “ladder.”

In India hunger is being uprooted as well, but the real story isn’t high-tech progress, so far creating only a million jobs in a country of a billion. The most meaningful breakthroughs are less flashy. In Kerala hunger is being conquered by participatory approaches that have achieved fairer access to land and education. And the People’s Campaign of Decentralized Planning has trained hundreds of thousands of Kerala’s citizens in budgeting and planning to create rural improvements. Throughout India women have built a network of cooperative dairies that in only three decades has lifted the incomes of more than 11 million households and benefited more than 100 million.

Similarly, Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement has secured legal title to more than 20 million acres for a quarter of a million formerly landless families, creating self-governing communities whose enterprises and farms serve community-sustaining values. Infant mortality has fallen, and wages for members are many times higher than their former day-labor pay.

Hunger is caused by scarcity, that part of the dominant frame is true, but it is the scarcity of living democracy–the active engagement of citizens creating accountable institutions. Within this frame, the question becomes not Sachs’s–“Will the rich world act to help save the poor” by assisting them onto the economic growth “ladder”?–but rather, How do we empower those movements here and abroad that are removing the power of private wealth from public governance and infusing the power of democratic values into economic life?

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