Don't leave hunger off the global agenda

When the leaders of the globe's biggest economies — the G8 — meet at Camp David in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains this weekend, they will have a plate full of problems: banking and liquidity and bonds and loan guarantees and such.

Somewhere on that plate there needs to be room for the world's poor, specifically for the hundreds of millions who go to bed hungry every night.

To their credit, the G8 have put food security on the agenda. This comes as a $22 billion, three-year pledge for food and hunger issues made at the 2009 G8 summit is expiring — even as only a fraction of that money has been spent. That pledge was in part a reaction to a sudden spike in food prices in 2008 that led to disruptions and riots, making many realize how access to affordable food is, in part, a national and global security issue.

Since then, of course, the world economy has continued to suffer severe setbacks. Greece is close to default. The eurozone is threatened. The United States' economy sputters along. Japan is still recovering from its tsunami. Many would say that the G8 has other, more important, things to focus on than hunger.

But one essential fact needs to be kept in mind: The poor of the world did not cause the financial crisis. They should not be the ones who suffer because of it. And suffer they will, if these wealthy nations turn their backs on the poor. Food prices did decline after that 2008 spike, but they have crept up ever since, in many cases surpassing 2008 levels.

President Barack Obama took an important first step, inviting four leaders of African nations — Presidents Thomas Yayi Boni of Benin, John Mills of Ghana and Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia — to attend the G8 session on hunger. But he needs to follow through with firm commitments that cement the U.S. position as the moral leader of the world on this issue.

The other G8 members need to follow that lead, to show that they have a commitment to these developing nations that goes beyond pumping their oil or mining their resources. They need to renew the pledge of 2009 and commit to working within the framework it established, like country-led partnerships between G8 donors and national governments, including specific and supported roles for local and international nongovernmental organizations that in many cases have served poor communities in these countries for decades.

Let's be clear that when we talk about fighting hunger, we are not talking about simply handing out sacks of grain. Certainly, emergency feeding is sometimes necessary when drought strikes, as it did in East Africa last year and now in West Africa, or when an earthquake devastates a country like Haiti.

But these days, fighting hunger mainly means things like making sure that young children have proper nutrition so they grow up into productive members of their societies. It means agriculture projects and irrigation schemes and other development programs so that, someday, these countries will be able to feed themselves.

A country with a population that is malnourished will never develop a strong and vibrant economy. Better access to abundant supplies of healthy food helps create countries that will become trade partners for the G8 countries. In short, feeding people, and helping them feed themselves, is a good investment.

What sort of investment are we talking about? We at Catholic Relief Services and our colleagues in the humanitarian sector look for the U.S. to take a leadership position on this, by putting out $5 billion annually for fighting chronic global hunger, an increase of more than $1 billion over current spending. That is a certainly a lot of money, but consider that people in the United States spend more than $6 billion annually on potato chips. Or consider that one bank, J.P. Morgan, just lost $2 billion playing the financial markets — and expects little effect on its bottom line. That puts the amount in perspective.

The point is, we can afford to help the world's hungry. And we can't afford not to.

Carolyn Woo is president of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian organization of the Catholic community in the United States. Her email is

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