On the table

November 06, 2006

There's enough food in the world. So why is there hunger? Why are 850 million people worldwide malnourished?

The answer is simple: They live in societies that can't provide them with the means of support. The best cure for hunger is prosperity - providing it's well managed. During the 1990s, China reduced the number of undernourished people by 43 million, not because of aid programs but because of a booming economy. India is on the same track - but it's an uneven one because parts of the country are hobbled by corruption, caste prejudice, the AIDS epidemic and a lack of schooling.

The rest of the world, according to a report just issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, presents a mixed picture: some progress against hunger, especially in Asia but also in parts of Africa; other countries elsewhere in Africa losing ground. They don't need food assistance so much as better economic conditions and relatively efficient administration. Poor soil in much of Africa is a problem, but not as big a problem as agricultural subsidies to U.S. and European farmers, which make it difficult for Africans to compete even at home.

The Nobel Peace Prize this year went to Muhammad Yunus for promoting a system of microcredits in Bangladesh that has been much copied elsewhere. Often all it takes is a little bit of cash for people in the poorest areas to get started, and for a local economy to begin stirring. And the village councils set up to disperse microcredits are by and large fairer and smarter and less corrupt than the village governments they parallel. The prize committee made a smart choice.

A good system, in other words, will beat hunger in the long run - though of course disaster in the form of war or tsunami or drought or epidemic can require emergency help. But the best way the world's richest nations can go about cutting hunger in half by 2015, to meet a pledge made in Rome in 1996, is by supporting good government and fair trade around the globe.

And what about hunger closer to home? Nearly 360,000 people receive emergency food aid annually in Maryland. Sometimes it's because of a personal disaster - illness or the loss of a job - but the majority are chronically undernourished because they're chronically poor. The U.S., clearly, is prosperous enough to take care of its own. But the key, just as in Africa and the rest of the world, is to get people on their feet. It's better for them and it's better for their society. All it takes is the will to do it, and the competence to do it right.

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