Tue, 04 Feb 2003

War against famine: What we can do

Krishen Mehta, Co-founder, MSSRF Foundation for Sustainable Development, The Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo

Each day is taking its toll on the world's conscience. Hunger is killing eight times as many people as died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Today, 24,000 people will die of hunger globally. Tomorrow will be the same.

According to the World Food Program, the number of people requiring food aid in southern Africa alone has risen to 14.4 million. In parts of Central America and Southeast Asia, famine continues to dominate many lives.

Why must this be so? The starving have everything in common with the rest of humankind. A modern global society cannot turn away from millions of hungry people. But what can be done?

Over half a century ago, when U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt envisioned a world of shared prosperity, he spoke of the Four Freedoms, which included Freedom from Want. Echoing these words, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, recently challenged the world not only to combat weapons of mass destruction, but also to mobilize the weapons of mass salvation: Life-saving vaccines, emergency food aid, medical support, and the transfer of farming technologies that could avert millions of deaths each year from disease, drought, and famine.

Global problems require global solutions, and I want to highlight here several approaches.

First is "a return to basics." Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution that saved millions from starvation in the late 1960s, is -- despite his 88 years-working toward a second green revolution. He is developing several million demonstration plots in 10 African countries, using a simple formula: Combining high yield corn and wheat seeds with methodical fertilizer and herbicide use.

The Carter Center and Japan's Sasakawa Foundation are supporting his work, providing farmers loans for seeds and fertilizer. Borlaug's goal is that crops should produce enough to fund the next cycle of purchases.

The second involves land reform. Giving people the right to the land they are living on is very important. Here all developing countries could learn from China's experimentation. Although the state owns all land, the authorities are currently granting 30-year contracts to China's 210 million rural families, or 850 million people. The plan creates both the incentive to succeed and the stability needed for long-term investment.

The third point involves subsidies to farmers in rich countries that stymie production in poor countries. In 2001 alone, industrialized countries spent US$311 billion (37.3 trillion yen) on farming subsidies. The subsidies not only protect European and American growers from low world market prices, they also depress global prices by encouraging overproduction.

The World Bank estimates that without Western subsidies, rural income in low and middle income nations would jump by $60 billion annually. As it is, world grain prices have fallen over 50 percent during the past two decades, helping undercut African and Asian farming.

Fourth is the need to address the HIV epidemic that affects many developing countries. In Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, over half those infected are involved in farming. Starvation combined with AIDS has become a lethal combination. Antiretroviral therapy to fight AIDS is available through generic drugs, and companies must reflect carefully on their role in this regard.

On a related note, health is a basic precondition to livelihood and to a decent income. Some pharmaceutical companies are already doing their share in alleviating illness and disease. The River Blindness Partnership virtually eliminated that disease from West Africa after Merck donated 250 million Ivermectin tablets.

SmithKline Beecham and other companies are working hard to develop a vaccine for malaria, an illness that kills many in Africa and Asia. And the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI) is immunizing children against a host of diseases.

Fifth, we must increase micro-credit loans in both rural and urban areas in Africa, Asia, and Central America. These loans can help provide people with opportunities for farming, raising livestock and making products for sale or trade. Access to capital is important for people to have a reasonable chance to escape poverty. In regions that have suffered natural calamities like drought or crop failure, access to funds remains critical for change and perhaps the hope of a better life.

Sixth, the world must unite in any situation where food is withheld to further political ends. The politically driven effort to seize land from white farmers in parts of Africa has resulted in a huge fall in crop production -- leaving almost half the population needing emergency aid.

Food distribution then becomes politicized, with one group trying to crush its rivals by denying them food. The United Nations recently suspended operations in Insita, Zimbabwe, protesting "the misuse of its resources for political ends."

My final point involves the need for continued exchange of people and skills through groups like the Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders, and Vista, among others. The world is changing every day, and it is volunteers from groups like these who inform us about events. Both the problems (terrorism, hunger and poverty) and the solutions (education, understanding and empathy) find their way into our lives through these ambassadors. In that sense, the legacy of President John F. Kennedy, who founded the Peace Corps, remains with us.

We need to continue to increase our awareness of what is happening around the world, and to view ourselves as a part- however small-of the solution. We need to be informed before we can be engaged.

There is no denial of the fact that we have a moral obligation to be concerned with the problems and solutions of our global society. A story from Auschwitz is instructive. One person turns to another and asks: "Where is God?" The other replies: "Where is man?"

The writer is also a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Tokyo.