January 28, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

A Hunger Czar Talks… and Talks

Dublin, Ireland

His travels may take him to Ethiopia, Malawi, Lesotho or to the far corners of Ireland.  His meetings may be with heads of state, parliamentarians, budgetary bean counters or with farmers and school children.  His missions may range from promoting new conservation tilling techniques to considering the role of breast pumps in improving infant nutrition in Africa.

“All in a day’s work of the hunger envoy,” says Kevin Farrell, special envoy for hunger in the Irish government.

Beyond Ireland, few countries, if any, have a hunger envoy.  Then again, few countries can match Ireland’s relationship to hunger.  Stories of the Great Famine of the 19th century are passed down through most every family.  Humble and haunting monuments to starvation, death or emigration abound across the countryside.  When hunger calamities arise anywhere else in the world, like most recently in Haiti following the earthquake, calls for donations echo on every street corner.  The rattling of coins in the collection cans provides the rhythm for Saturday shoppers, who reach into their pockets with the generous refrain, “Ah, sure, we know what it was like to be poor and hungry.”

The hunger envoy’s job is to make sure no one forgets.  And to remind everyone that there is plenty of work yet to be done to end the chronic hunger that burdens one billion people in the world today.  Every country should have a hunger envoy.

“You need someone who can talk about hunger at the drop of a hat,” Farrell says over a pint of Guinness at the Bleeding Horse pub in Dublin.  “Somebody who’s trumpeting three or four messages at every opportunity.”

The hunger envoy emerged from the Irish Hunger Task Force, which is seeking to put Ireland at the vanguard of the international assault on hunger.  Farrell, who spent years on the front lines of global hunger with the World Food Program, has been stressing collaboration between governments to hold the world’s focus on hunger following the food crisis of 2008 and to concentrate the firepower of their development aid.

He echoes the vision of Tom Arnold, the chief of Concern Worldwide, Ireland’s leading aid agency: Ireland can be to hunger as Norway is to peace.  Incubator of ideas, rattler of consciences, keeper of promises.

“In Ireland, we’re in a better position to help influence policy, as opposed to other countries who are seen to have a special agenda,” Farrell says.  “This can be the role for Ireland, we can maintain the ability to influence.”

The hunger envoy has also been coordinating the hunger-fighting activities of what he calls “Ireland Inc.” – the government, relief agencies, universities and the private sector.

“I’m struck by the vast multiplicity of projects we develop,” Farrell says.  “How many have we started in last 40 to 50 years and how many are still operating?  I sometimes think we’re dealing with a series of experiments.  We don’t spend time learning what works and doesn’t work, what we can scale up to really make an impact.”

In the U.S., a hunger envoy – a hunger czar! – would train a spotlight on the Obama administration’s nascent global food security initiative, which aims to reduce hunger and boost food production in the poorest nations through increased agriculture development. Such a position was proposed in the Roadmap to End Global Hunger unveiled by a coalition of humanitarian aid groups and U.S. politicians one year ago.  It called on the administration to create a White House office on global hunger and appoint a Hunger Coordinator.

So far, the National Security Council has been leading the interagency hunger effort involving, among others, the State, Agriculture, Treasury and Defense Departments.   A hunger czar would push to keep the effort a top priority, and ensure that the intention of the President to “make farms flourish…to nourish starved bodies”, as he pledged in his inaugural address, doesn’t get diminished in the daily crush of issues clamoring for political attention.

And, as Farrell has done, a hunger czar would carry the campaign beyond the halls of government to humanitarian agencies, religious gatherings, philanthropic foundations, universities and corporations.  The goal: create the grassroots support needed to drive the work in Washington.

Farrell, agreeing with the Roadmap authors, says any hunger czar should be embedded in the White House and empowered to take on tough political issues like farm subsidies and reforming the American food aid system.

“The higher the profile, the closer to center of power, the better to champion the issue,” he says.  “What the role demands is somebody who is on every chat show on television and radio.”

In America, the hunger czar would need to take up a megaphone to spread the word amid the din of the country’s screeching political discourse.  But in Ireland, a nation full of hunger envoys, all that is usually needed is a microphone, or a pad of paper and a pen.

“We have a lot of spokespeople about hunger,” Farrell says, pointing out how Irish rockers Bob Geldof and Bono have long been leading the chorus on hunger and poverty.  “Here, everybody has something to say.”

Even the schoolchildren.

“Dear Mr. President,” wrote 14-year-old Eoghan Curran to Barack Obama shortly after the president’s inauguration.  He had history on his mind.  “Back in 1963, a predecessor of yours, John F. Kennedy, set himself two goals: firstly that a human being would walk on the moon and secondly, that world hunger would be a thing of the past by the end of the decade.  The first was achieved almost 40 years ago, the second goal remains as distant as ever.”

He offered several suggestions for bringing that goal nearer: continue efforts to reduce the debt burdens of the poorest countries; engineer a reduction of global military spending, shifting resources from arms to farms; work with European governments to control spending on agriculture subsidies that put non-subsidized farmers in the developing world at a disadvantage in world trade.

“Issues such as these need great world leaders to show example to everyone else,” Eoghan wrote.  “You are inspiring a new generation of young people, you have the power and I believe you have the will, please help the poorest in our world.”

Eoghan’s essay won first place in the junior category of Concern’s 2009 writing competition: “Dear President Obama.”  More than 100 of those letters have been compiled in a book of the same name.

Eoin Ferry, 15, shared second place honors:

“Dear President Obama,” he wrote.  “Are you hungry?  I wouldn’t think so.  Neither am I.  And however much we might complain of being ‘starving,’ we cannot begin to comprehend the true horror of continually having empty stomachs.”  He then let the president in on an old Irish saying: “The well-fed do not understand the hungry when their own stomachs are full.”

As a good hunger envoy, Eoin then reminded the president of his inaugural pledge to make farms flourish and nourish starved bodies.  And he added these words of encouragement:

“As I am sure you are well aware, if you can fulfill this promise, and considerably reduce world starvation, you will be deemed one of the greatest American presidents ever, a title which I am certain you are determined to strive to achieve.”


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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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