The Common Good

Why I am Joining the Fast: Global Hunger is Getting Worse

After my teenage granddaughter returned recently from a service experience in Uganda, sponsored by American Jewish World Service, she remarked that she would never again say she's "starving" on her way to the fridge. In Uganda, she had the chance to meet people living on a few dollars a day if they were fortunate. These are people who routinely go to bed at night hungry and without any idea how they'll feed their children the next day.

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Sadly, global hunger is getting worse not better. And it seems that the fate of more than 1 billion people living in poverty could take a backseat to opportunistic politics on Capitol Hill, where a cynical group of ideologues have used deficit reduction as an excuse to propose draconian cuts to humanitarian aid. I am so appalled that I have decided to join a group of activists for a week-long fast.

The federal budget cuts currently on the table include a 41 percent reduction in direct food aid, and a 30 percent reduction in development assistance, which includes the United States' contribution to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme (GAFSP), a fund established by the G-8 to invest in agricultural development in the Global South. The timing could not be worse. According to the World Bank, food prices have risen 15 percent since October, with maize now costing 75 percent more than it did a few months ago.

This increase is due to a number of factors, including drought conditions and the fast rising price of oil. Regardless, it is not hard to imagine the dire consequences of such a sudden price increase in countries such as Uganda, where it is not uncommon for a family to spend nearly 75 percent of its income on food. Determined not to let facts obscure a good argument, some have asserted that the federal deficit has placed our long-term economic security in such peril that we have no choice but to batten down the hatches on spending. I won't argue that our deficit is not a matter of serious concern, but foreign aid comprises a meager 1 percent of our federal budget -- a drop in the bucket. So really there's a value judgment at play: For some, it seems to be more important to protect tax cuts for millionaires than to ensure food security in the Global South. It is really that simple.

Not only is it profoundly unjust to cut food aid and our contribution to GAFSP, but it is shortsighted vis-à-vis our own national interests. The lack of hope for a better future in the developing world is a factor leading people to embrace violence and terror. Conversely nations with growing middle classes have become better long-term partners in security and trade. Viewed in this prism, a small investment in food security should be a slam dunk. We cannot predict droughts, and anybody who drives a car knows how quickly a global oil shock can occur. Communities in the Global South must be able to produce their own food in order to insulate themselves from sudden price spikes, and we must support their efforts by helping to fund long-term projects that nurture local economies through sustainable agriculture. However, we are in the midst of an immediate crisis, and we have no moral choice but to do whatever we can in the moment to prevent mass starvation in the developing world.

This means taking cuts in both food aid and cuts in funding for agricultural development off the table. The Jewish tradition teaches that to save one life is to save the world. Unless we speak up now, Congress is poised to turn its back on both short-term and long-term food security in the Global South. We cannot allow that to happen.

[This blog post first appeared at a growing movement of those committed to fasting, prayer, and reflection to protect vulnerable people from budget cuts that lack conscience.]

Ruth W. Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a faith-based international human rights organization that works to alleviate poverty, hunger, and disease in the developing world. In addition to its grantmaking to over 400 grassroots projects around the world, AJWS works within the American Jewish community to promote global citizenship and social justice through activism, volunteer service, and education.

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