January 14, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

Why Not Hunger?

 Given the carnage of the first decade of the 21st Century, the humanitarian front would seem an unlikely source for a beacon of light.  But here it is, shining through the gloom:

Where grassroots clamor is raised, wonders follow.

Amid the financial wreckage of the past decade stands the monument of debt relief for the poorest countries of the world.  Amid the rampant human suffering from wars and swindles are great advancements in the treatment of AIDS.  Amid so many divisions, the world at least gathered together to confront the challenge of climate change, even if the results fell short of the ambition.

On the hunger front, the last decade was one of great outrage.  We shamefully brought hunger with us into the 21st Century after the Green Revolution was one of the great scientific achievements of the 20th Century.  And not only have we brought hunger into the new century and new millennium, we brought it with us in ever-increasing numbers.  The food crisis of 2008 exposed the decades-long negligence of agriculture development investment and the hypocrisy of policies like structural adjustment and farm subsidies that punished small farmers of the developing world, particularly in Africa.  By the end of the decade, the roll-call of the world’s chronically hungry had lengthened dramatically, soaring past one billion people.  That, the folks who do the counting tell us, is the highest absolute number in history.

But the past decade also provided inspiration.  The progress on debt relief and AIDS, and the attention showered on climate change, should have us shouting:

Why not hunger?

Let this be our New Decade’s Resolution: Raise the clamor.

Raise the clamor to ignite the political will in the U.S. and other rich nations to make good on their pledges to increase spending on agriculture development in the poorest nations.

Raise the clamor to catalyze the work on agriculture development already being carried out by philanthropists, humanitarians, religious communities, universities and corporations.

Raise the clamor to make ending hunger through agriculture development the great populist cause – and the singular achievement — of the 2010s.  And it will be a decade’s work, requiring a sustained commitment in order for the Obama administration’s nascent global food security initiative to show progress in the fields and markets of Africa.

The last decade put precedence on our side.  As clamor was raised on those other humanitarian issues, we saw policies change, great sums of money raised, millions of lives saved.

The Jubilee 2000 campaigners, rising out of British church pews, barged into international politics and put the issue of debt relief for the poorest nations on the front burner.  The cold hearts of bean counters in world capitals and international lending institutions melted, and billions of dollars in debt was forgiven, wiped off the books.

When the Jubilee campaigners first came to the United States, where the purse strings of global finance resided, they faced deep skepticism that debt relief would do nothing more than encourage further fiscal indiscipline in the developing world.  Besides, members of Congress told the campaigners, they were hearing no clamor back home in their constituencies.

The campaigners huddled and defiantly concluded, “They want clamor, we’ll give them clamor.”  And so the clamor grew from church basements and pot-luck dinners to on-line petitions and Congressional testimony, amplified by organizations like Bread for the World and what would become the ONE Campaign.

Debt relief, a most arcane subject, was suddenly sexy.  Finance committee meetings in Washington began rendering tears instead of snores.  The hushed silence in those chambers wasn’t from the tedium of monetary policy minutiae but from spell-binding stories of how onerous debt levels were preventing mothers from feeding their children.  The skeptics scoffed that the Jubilee campaigners were hopelessly quixotic, that debt forgiveness would never happen.  But it did.

Why not hunger?

A multitude of activists, many of them emboldened by the Jubilee campaign, raised the clamor on the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, pleading for action to make affordable treatment more available in Africa.  Again the skeptics roared, “It’ll never happen.”  But a global fund was created and it was soon filled with billions of dollars.  As the clamor rose, President Bush launched a $15 billion initiative to combat AIDS, and Congress approved.  AIDS drugs rushed into Africa to try and corral that scourge.

Why not hunger?

Environmental activists, galvanized by the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” raised the clamor on global warming and elevated climate change to a top position on the world agenda.

Why not hunger?

In the final months of 2009, two global gatherings were scheduled: a world food summit in Rome and a world climate change summit in Copenhagen.  Very few world leaders made the pilgrimage to Rome.  But almost all of them flocked to Norway, tripping over each other on the way to the cameras and microphones.

Why not hunger?

For this is the wider Inconvenient Truth: Without ending hunger, which is the common enemy to all development efforts, none of the campaigners on these other issues can truly claim success.

What will debt forgiveness have accomplished if hunger and malnourishment remain unforgiving?

What good does the AIDS medicine do in hungry, starving bodies?  There’s a very pointed African saying: Giving such drugs to a hungry person is like washing your hands and then drying them in the dirt.  After all, what does our medicine commonly say?  Take with food!

What will any climate change treaty achieve if it doesn’t ensure that those who would likely be the most impacted by global warming – the small farmers in Africa around the equator and the Sahel – can adapt and still feed their families?

So, why not hunger?

It’s 2010, and the world is woefully behind on the Millennium Development Goal to cut hunger and poverty in half by 2015.

It’s time at last to raise the clamor and spread the outrage and ignite the change.

My own outrage was sparked by the Ethiopian famine of 2003, when 14 million people were on the doorstep of starvation.  The markets had failed before the weather did, sapping farmer incentive.  The years of neglect of agriculture development spending were made cruelly manifest.  The uneven plowing fields in global agriculture trade had tilted, once again, to famine.  The starving didn’t have to happen.

On my first day in Addis Ababa in 2003, Volli Carucci of the World Food Program gave me this piece of advice, a warning of sorts:

“Looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul.  You see that nobody should have to die of hunger.”

A disease of the soul.  Now that’s one infection we need to spread far and wide.

It has led me to personally take up the New Decade’s Resolution.  After 30 years at The Wall Street Journal, I began 2010 committed to raising the clamor on hunger.  My new perch at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs as senior fellow of global agriculture and food policy provides the opportunity to write and speak from a variety of platforms about hunger and the rising movement to spark an agriculture transformation.

It is our ambition that this blog, Global Food for Thought, and this inaugural column will outrage and inspire and amplify the clamor.  For nobody should have to die of hunger.


| By Roger Thurow

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1,000 Days and Migrant Stress

The first 1,000 days of a child's life is a critical time for development, where nutrition--and stability--lay the foundation for a lifetime. 

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Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 




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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