How We Think About World Hunger Matters
The way people think about world hunger is the greatest obstacle to ending it. In our latest book World Hunger: 10 Myths, we encapsulate 40 years of learning and in-depth new research to reframe “myths” that often either lead us down blind alleys or simply aren’t true.
If you missed it, the first five myths can be found in 10 Myths About World Hunger (Part 1)
6. The Free Market Can End Hunger
A free-market-is-all-we-need formula blinds us from seeing that a well-functioning market is impossible without democratic government, and that food is more than a commodity. In fact, most nations have declared access to adequate food a human right; and the fulfillment of any right cannot logically be left entirely at the mercy of market exchange. Since food is both necessary to life and a market commodity, the only way this right can be realized is for governments to ensure that every able-bodied person has the means to secure enough healthy food, and, if unable to work, has access to dignified public support.
The market serves human freedom only on one condition: that people have purchasing power to express their values in the market. Thus, freedom expands as societies set rules ensuring that wealth circulates widely and fairly. Unfortunately, we’ve not protected our freedom from what Supreme Court Justice William Douglas called “the curse of bigness” that kills a fair market.
Oligopolies, almost as destructive as monopolies, exist when a handful of companies control a huge market share. From grain trade to the store shelf, that’s what we now see. Four companies control as much as 90 percent of the world’s grain trade. Such private monopoly power kills competition and generates hunger from plenty. Worst of all, concentrated private power usurps public decision-making so government policies increasingly benefit the elite minority. Thus, removing the power of private wealth in politics is not a separate concern. It is essential to ending hunger.
7. Free Trade Is The Answer
The notion that trade, freed from government meddling, will help reduce hunger is grounded in the theory that every country can benefit from its “comparative advantage”—each exporting what it can produce most cheaply and importing what it cannot. So countries with hunger and poverty can increase exports of commodities best suited to their geography. Then, with greater foreign exchange earnings, they can import food and other essentials to alleviate hunger and poverty.
But if such is the outcome of increasing exports, why in so many countries have exports boomed while hunger and poverty have continued or even worsened? One answer is simply that those profiting from exports typically are large growers, international trading companies, foreign investors, and others who have no incentive to use their profits to benefit hungry people. Plus, all too often export crops displace food crops, as well as small-scale farmers, who are the majority of hungry people worldwide. Only as all citizens achieve a more equitable voice in control of their nations’ resources can trade benefit the poor and hungry.
8. US Foreign Aid Is The Best Way We Can Help The Hungry
Ending hunger requires profound changes that enable people who have been made powerless to gain a voice in their own futures. But much of US government aid goes to nations whose economic and political elites are likely to feel threatened by such changes. Also making it difficult for US foreign aid to help the hungry is that, not surprisingly, it is a tool of foreign policy. “Remember that foreign assistance is not charity…It is a strategic imperative for America,” noted Secretary of State Kerry in 2013, echoing his predecessors. Thus, much depends on how policymakers choose to define the national interest.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the “Global War on Terror” has become the centerpiece of US foreign policy, reflected in the concentration of US country-specific economic aid: the top five recipients, garnering more than one third of such US aid, are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Jordan, and Iraq.
You might be thinking that, surely, one aspect of US assistance—food aid—helps the hungry. Since the program’s inception in 1954, US food aid has been predominantly “tied aid”—meaning the food must be grown, processed, and packaged in the United States and shipped overseas on US-flagged vessels. This “tying” of food aid thus benefits private US interests and makes food shipments more costly and much slower—hardly what’s needed in emergencies. European and other important donor nations have united their food aid.
There are, however, two especially powerful ways we can help: removing obstacles placed in the way of hungry people by policies of our governments and activities of multinational corporations; and seizing the power of positive example by democratizing our own societies to end hunger.
9. It’s Not Our problem
While the extent and severity of hunger differ greatly between the Global North and the Global South, there are powerful parallels and interconnections. Exploring them, we’ve come to see that our well-being and that of future generations depend on how deeply we grasp this commonality and whether we make choices based on that understanding.
The extent of hunger, poverty, and extreme inequalities in the US violates much of what Americans want to believe. Ranked by infant death rate, widely understood to reflect a society’s food insecurity and poverty, the US places 56th globally—just behind Serbia and Lithuania. Inequality in the US is even more extreme than in India, Liberia, and Yemen.
In the US, consumers are often told—sometimes not too subtly—that they benefit from imported goods made affordable by the very fact of lower wages “over there.” But this benefit is illusory, as we register the many thousands of good jobs lost here and the downward pressure on wages and benefits in the US that are hidden in the perception of “cheap” goods. Globalizing corporations, in effect, require workers to compete with their counterparts in countries that keep wages low by suppressing unions and failing to uphold safety and environmental standards.
Exploring the common challenges and needs of majorities in both North and South, it’s vitally important to weigh not just what one’s own society has achieved but also the direction it’s headed. So we must ask, are we moving toward assuring that everyone can enjoy the basic essentials for human dignity or are we moving toward the life-stunting conditions associated with “hungry countries”?
10. Power Is Too Concentrated For Real Change—It’s Too Late!
It’s certainly no myth that economic power is concentrated in the hands of a few, and that it translates into political power. Indeed, in the eyes of some, we’re returning to feudalism—but in corporate form. So let’s ask, how did feudalism end? People stopped believing in it! Could we be in such a moment in which people stop believing in the economic and political structures that make so many feel powerless?
Certainly, transformational change is under way, as regular people rethink their own power—more and more people are discovering that the capacity to act is not fixed. It grows and shrinks in response to our own creativity, insight, fortitude, knowledge, capacity to empathize, desire, connection to others, and more. Power is so much more than money and guns. Our own motivation is strengthened also by the realization that in an interconnected world we can be sure that our every act has power.
Grasping these truths, we realize it is simply not possible to know what’s possible. We can each count the numerous occasions in which what most people assumed to be impossible actually happened.
In such a time, courage is key. To be part of the solution means being willing to take risks, including challenging oneself and others to rethink ideas so taken for granted as to be like the air we breathe. We can seek out and draw lessons from the courage of those the world over—many who might appear powerless—together building democratic solutions to needless suffering and creating life-supporting societies.