Take long-term approach to fighting global hunger

October 31, 2007|By Sean Callahan

As our children don their Halloween costumes and ready their bags for trick-or-treating, we Americans are preparing to dole out more than $1.5 billion worth of candy.

That figure from the National Retail Federation stands in stark contrast to the amount budgeted for food aid that the United States will send this year to the poorest and hungriest people in the world: about $300 million less than we'll spend for those Halloween treats.

The U.S. government is the largest donor of food aid to the world, and this should make Americans proud. Yet our generosity feeds less than 6 percent of the estimated 850 million chronically hungry people around the globe.

To feed more chronically hungry people, and to ensure that many of them are able to provide for themselves someday, we need to stop diverting funding from long-term development programs to meet emergency needs.

Catholic Relief Services and other humanitarian agencies reach out to the world's hungry through long-term development programs that enable impoverished people to eventually feed themselves and break out of the cycle of poverty and hunger. These programs teach farmers techniques that provide better yields and more marketable crops. They feed schoolchildren and provide an incentive to attend classes. They improve the health of mothers and young children, offering a chance for a better future.

We must remain committed to fighting chronic hunger instead of taking a "hot spot" approach that throws resources at the disaster of the month, depriving of resources the quieter school feeding, child health and natural resource management programs that work more effectively in the long term.

In recent years, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which administers food aid, has repeatedly diverted resources for these long-term development programs for use in emergencies. Although federal law stipulates that 75 percent of the food aid budget should be devoted to long-term development, this requirement has routinely been waived, and 75 percent of food aid instead has been used in emergencies. The result has been the closure of many important development programs that saved lives.

Catholic Relief Services and more than a dozen other international humanitarian agencies that distribute food aid are urging Congress to guarantee in the farm bill that at least half the current food aid budget - a minimum of $600 million - will be used exclusively for these long-term development programs.

Critics of our proposal say that protecting resources for long-term development would leave too few resources to respond to emergencies. But long-term food aid programs can help in disaster response by strengthening local social service agencies and nongovernmental organizations in poor communities to assist their own people during emergencies.

For example, Catholic Relief Services has operated food aid programs for many years in India. When earthquakes, cyclones and floods devastated communities, Catholic Relief Services, working alongside Caritas India, has been able to provide emergency food and other assistance within hours. After the Indian Ocean tsunami struck on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, we were able to feed survivors by lunchtime.

Conversely, the absence of a food aid program can slow disaster response. It took Catholic Relief Services and other humanitarian agencies several days to respond to tsunami survivors in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where the civil war had precluded our presence.

These development food aid programs have a profound effect on the lives of poor and hungry people around the world. They feed tens of millions of people each year - many of them children - and help their families feed themselves over the long term. Catholic Relief Services works firsthand with those suffering from chronic hunger as well as those afflicted by disaster. We must marshal our resources to respond to both. Protecting funding for long-term development by placing it in a safe box will guarantee that we don't lose the fight against chronic hunger, and can help us reduce emergency hunger needs when disaster strikes.

As you and I celebrate the wonderful American tradition of Halloween with our children, let us not forget those for whom hunger is a daily crisis.

Sean Callahan is executive vice president for overseas operations for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services. His e-mail is scallahan@crs.org.

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