June 16, 2017

Roger Thurow Testifies on the Causes and Consequences of Famine

On Thursday, June 15, Roger Thurow testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations on the individual, societal, and economic costs of malnutrition and famine. Watch the hearing or read his oral testimony below.

 

Thank you, Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Bass, and distinguished Members of the Committee for inviting me to testify today on this this very important and very timely topic. Thank you for your steadfast support of agricultural development efforts, and for raising the clamor about famine in your resolution. And thank you for this opportunity to testify about the causes and consequences of famine. That this medieval suffering continues now into the second decade of the 21st century is, I believe, the biggest stain on the world’s conscience.

I have witnessed famine and hunger crises, unfortunately, many times in my four decades as a journalist—first as a foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal and now as a senior fellow for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of three books on hunger and malnutrition in the 21st Century.

My first travels in the hunger zones of Africa came during the Ethiopian famine of 2003, when 14 million people were on the doorstep of starvation. It was the first great hunger catastrophe of our grand new Millennium. On my first day in Addis Ababa, the capital, I met with World Food Programme workers who were scrambling to provide relief as the hunger spread. One of them gave me this piece of advice, which to me sounded like an ominous warning: “Looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul. For what you see is that nobody should have to die of hunger.”

Certainly, not now, not in the 21st century when so many scientific and technological achievements are literally at our finger tips. The next day, I stepped into an emergency feeding tent filled with dozens of starving children and their parents—and I looked into their empty, lifeless eyes. What I saw did indeed infect my soul, like a disease. In addition to the immense human suffering, I saw resignation and defeat of the farmers who had lost everything. I saw families on the move—abandoning homes and hope. I saw communities shattered, an entire generation, the children, vanishing in their parents’ arms. From the women, I saw that the deepest form of misery was to be a mother unable to stop the crying of a hungry child.

For me, it was impossible to see and not act. Thus, as a journalist, an author and senior fellow at the Council I continue to write and write and write about hunger and malnutrition. I believe that those of you who recently traveled to South Sudan and Uganda also looked into the eyes of the hungry. And thus, with similarly diseased souls, I imagine you too feel compelled to act about hunger and malnutrition.

What propels my writing—and, I’m sure, your action—is the firm conviction that things don’t have to be this way. Yes, droughts will occur. Conflicts will rage. Corruption will complicate relief efforts. But starvation and famine can be avoided. Timely humanitarian response with food aid, and water, and shelter, and medical assistance, is absolutely necessary to reduce the suffering and save lives. I’ve seen it happen, heroically, with American leadership.

Emergency responses and food aid are crucial action now, but it alone won’t prevent the next famine. This we must acknowledge and remember. The next famine will only be prevented by long-term agricultural development investments—the investments that give farmers, particularly small-scale farmers, and their families resiliency against climate and economic shocks, that provide food security, that reduce conflict, that promote economic prosperity, that spread hope of better futures. The kind of investments we’ve seen under Feed the Future, made possible by the Global Food Security Act—which the Chairman staunchly championed and continues to do. Thanks to the long arc of American leadership in the post-World War II era, progress has been made on reducing hunger and malnutrition and stunting—and the 114th Congress can now add its name to that long and storied list after passing the global food security act. Now is not time to retreat. Exactly seventy years ago this month, with hunger looming in Europe after the war, the Marshall Plan was launched and now the EU is our largest trading partner. Today, famine and hunger on a scale rarely seen in Africa and the Middle East call us to act.

We know these investments in agricultural development work. The programs that have been in play on the ground in Ethiopia since the 2003 famine have created a resiliency that has the country better prepared to combat the current drought, better than its neighbors. According to new USAID evidence, Ethiopian households reached by US agricultural development programs were far more resilient than their neighbors, both within Ethiopia and in surrounding countries, to maintain their food security in the face of an historic drought

I have seen the benefits of agricultural development investments myself. In my books, I have followed farmers and their families over time. As harvests improve, as surpluses grow, the hunger season wanes. Malnutrition disappears. Children stay in school longer—I have seen families celebrate high school and even college graduations because of increased prosperity from agricultural advancement. The farmers become more entrepreneurial, eagerly expanding their operations to feed not only their own families but their communities and their countries as well. They no longer strive merely to survive, but to robustly thrive.

Ending hunger wherever it may be is certainly the right thing to do—and that should motivate us all. We’re told by the World Food Programme that today about 5.4 million children are dangerously malnourished and more than one million are at risk of starvation during the current famines raging in Africa and the Middle East, and that without sufficient and timely relief, up to 600,000 children are at imminent risk of death in the coming months. That’s shocking and unconscionable.

Doing what we can to prevent those deaths and end that suffering is also the smart thing to do. For famine isn’t just something that happens “over there” somewhere. Famine impacts all of us. The economic ripples of hunger and malnutrition are powerful and long-lasting—they roll over time and space. Even though a famine may end, the costs continue to accumulate. The most pernicious impact of any hunger crisis—along with the lives lost—is what becomes of those who survive.

The impact is greatest on women and children, particularly in the first 1,000 days—the time from the beginning of a mother’s pregnancy to the second birthday of her child. Any lack of food, any bout of malnutrition, often leads to stunting—physically and cognitively. Stunting is a life sentence of underachievement and underperformance. Currently, in our world today, one in every four children under the age of five is stunted. One in four children. Think about that.

The toll on the individual, the family, the community are profound in the loss of education and labor productivity over time—for a stunted child becomes a stunted adult. Collectively, the problem weakens our trading partners, limits global opportunities. Childhood malnutrition and stunting can cost individual countries 8-10-12% of their annual GDP according to the World Bank. The World Bank also estimates the costs to the global economy at $3.5 trillion annually in lost productivity, higher health care costs, and lessened trade—that is “trillion” with a “T.”

Those are big numbers. But perhaps the greatest cost of childhood malnutrition and stunting are immeasurable: A poem not written. A gadget not invented. A horizon not explored. An idea not formed. An innovation not nurtured. A cure not discovered. What might a child have contributed to the world if he or she hadn’t been stunted? You see, a stunted child anywhere becomes a stunted child everywhere.

In closing, I’ll return briefly to Ethiopia. During the 2003 famine, the first eyes of a starving child I looked into belonged to a 5-year-old boy named Hagirso. He had withered away to skin and bones, the doctors and nurses worried that he might not survive. What I saw that day continued to haunt me. I often wondered whatever happened to Hagirso? Ten years later I returned to the scene of that awful famine. I was delighted to find that Hagirso had survived. But he clearly wasn’t thriving—he was severely stunted, physically and cognitively. At 15 years old, he only came up to the bottom of my rib cage. And he had just begun attending first grade classes, learning the alphabet.

For me, he is the embodiment of what is at stake when we allow famines to continue. What might this child have accomplished were he not stunted? A lost chance at greatness for one child is a lost chance for us all.

That is what compels us to act today. The American imperative to lead the way to the end of hunger and malnutrition and stunting abides, stronger than ever. 

Archive

| By Roger Thurow

Remembering the Post-9/11 Promises to Raise Foreign Aid

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is bringing back a rush of memories and emotions.  Everyone it seems is recalling, with respect for the victims, where they were on that day when they heard or watched the horrific news.

| By Roger Thurow

Coping with Drought

With drought devastating farms from the Horn of Africa to the Panhandle of Texas, I journeyed to one of the frontlines of climate change to “chew the news,” as the Maasai say.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger – Part 2

At 6:30 this morning, as the sun was coming up, Sanet Biketi walked out of his small house made of mud and sticks.  Carrying a machete at his side, he headed straight to the edge of his maize field and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of harvest day.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger

Two scenes from the great African paradox of surplus and shortage – feast and famine – in the same country.

| By Roger Thurow

Empty Promises, Empty Stomachs

The promises made by the leaders of the rich world in L’Aquila, Italy, two years ago were supposed to stop what is now happening in the Horn of Africa. But those pledges haven’t been kept, and starvation is raging once again.

| By Roger Thurow

Rowing in the Same Direction

Vision.  Strategy.  Tactics.

These were the priorities that emerged at my table during a discussion about the role of U.S. universities, government agencies, NGOs, foundations and the African diplomatic community in advancing African development.  

| By Roger Thurow

Political Will

The Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, tells an acerbic joke to illustrate the importance of good leadership.

| By Roger Thurow

Countering Drought

This growing season in south-central Kenya has been a good test for the new drought tolerant maize varieties being bred in Africa.  This is a semi-arid area, but this year they can drop the semi.  Farmers report only three short periods of rain since the February planting time.

| By Roger Thurow

Cool Beans

For some farmers in western Kenya, the hunger season I wrote about last week is coming to a mercifully early end.  A new variety of bean is ready for harvest.


| By Roger Thurow

Big Brains on Little Brains

Little brains were on the minds of some pretty big brains in the fight against hunger at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security this week.

| By Roger Thurow

The Importance of Innovation

Bill Gates came to the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security with a confession.  “I’ve never been a farmer,” he said.  “Until recently, I rarely set foot on farm.”

| By Roger Thurow

Public Policy Matters

I enjoyed the great privilege of giving my first commencement speech on Sunday, to the graduating class of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.  I had eagerly anticipated the ceremony, knowing that the passion to shape a more just world inspires young policy makers as mightily as it fuels journalists.

| By Roger Thurow

Something to Cut

With many words in this column, we have discussed what not to cut from the federal budget.  Namely, administration requests to fund agriculture development, especially in Africa, under the Feed the Future initiative and the Global Agriculture Food Security Program.

| By Roger Thurow

Yin and Yang of Foreign Aid

Here is the Yin and the Yang of development aid spending: In the U.S., it is on the chopping block, threatened by budget cutters sharpening their knives; in China it is on an expansion course, favored by a government seeking to accumulate influence and riches in the developing world, particularly Africa.

Multimedia

Videos


 


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.

» Learn more.
» Order your copy of the book.

Books

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.

Learn more »

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?

Learn more »

EnoughEnough

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.

Learn more »