We must do more to fight the tyranny of hunger

February 18, 2005|By Ken Hackett

PRESIDENT BUSH has boldly called for freedom and liberty for people suppressed and oppressed by tyranny.

Tyranny has many expressions. They include poverty and hunger, facts of life in the developing world that obstruct the broader fulfillment of Mr. Bush's noble ambition.

Yet America's modest commitment to fight world poverty and hunger seems only to become more modest in comparison with the ambition to make the world a better, safer place. This trend seems to be perpetuated in the president's proposed fiscal year 2006 budget, which contains $1.185 billion for food aid.

Hunger is more onerous than any human tyrant. Hungry people are not liberated or free. They are slaves to the simple chore of finding food. They have little time to ponder the advantages of liberty and democracy. But they have the time and the reason to "simmer in resentment," one cause that Mr. Bush offered in his inaugural address as a source of the hatreds that pose a danger to America.

In his State of the Union address, Mr. Bush noted, "If whole regions of the world remain in despair and grow in hatred, they will be the recruiting grounds for terror, and that terror will stalk America and other free nations for decades."

Cognizant of these factors, the Bush administration made enormous commitments to reduce poverty, hunger and disease in the world.

But the administration has fallen woefully short on its commitment to a vital element of that goal. That is providing food aid as a part of critical development programs, a commitment that's been further eroded by the transfer of resources from development to emergencies such as Darfur in Sudan.

The president's fiscal 2006 budget transfers $300 million from development food aid to cover potential future disasters.

Even before the tsunami disaster in southern Asia, Catholic Relief Services estimated an $832 million shortfall in the 2005 appropriation for food aid, directly as a result of earlier emergencies such as the horrific events in Darfur. Following a release of grain from the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, the pre-tsunami net shortfall was reduced to $650 million.

The number of people potentially hurt by the loss of development aid because it was moved to emergency aid is as staggering in its own way as the tsunami casualty numbers.

CRS is one of the largest nongovernment distributors of U.S. food aid to developing countries. Unless supplemental funding of $1 billion for food aid and tsunami relief is made available - with the explicit instruction to restore the development programs - the adverse impact on CRS programs alone could be enormous.

It is possible that up to 1.2 million children from vulnerable households will not be given the opportunity for a well-rounded education. About 1.6 million orphans, disabled people and people affected by AIDS and other diseases may not receive food assistance. More than 1.2 million mothers and infants may not receive critical health and nutrition interventions. More than 1.5 million farmers may not receive support for programs to help them become food secure. That's just the potential impact from cuts in CRS programs in the current budget.

The Bush administration's recent supplemental budget request included about $150 million to make up the difference.

The magnitude and immediacy of this crisis require a comprehensive solution. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, including Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, have forcefully declared that shifting resources from development programs will not sustain U.S. commitments in the short term or the long term.

Neither will those shifts advance the collateral advantage of these programs, which is that populations that are not hungry, not poor and not plagued by disease are more likely to be stable and friendly.

In his inaugural address, Mr. Bush said, "Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill and would be dishonorable to abandon."

This obligation is not difficult to fulfill. Not fulfilling it would abandon millions of people America promised to help rescue from the tyranny of hunger, poverty and disease.

Ken Hackett is the president of Catholic Relief Services.

Columnist Clarence Page will return Tuesday.

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