Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting take on the issue on its website. In an article by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, the magazine challenges the assertion by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that more than 1 billion people are hungry.
Without minimizing the reality of extreme poverty, the article says that the number of people worldwide who truly don’t have access to enough food is much smaller. It questions if there are many people in the world who are trapped in poverty and provides evidence that many of the world’s poorest people choose to spend their money on other things – even relative luxuries such as elaborate weddings for their children. Given the choice between adequate healthy food and more expensive, less nutritious and better tasting food, they will often choose the latter. Like Americans, in other words, though the article doesn’t point that out.
World hunger has always been an important issue to me, starting in college and continuing through adulthood. I have spent four months of my life in Kenya and Somalia as a relief worker and two months in the Dominican Republic as part of a National Guard mission building schools. I have seen people malnourished, but never on the verge of starvation.
That’s not to imply that Americans in our relative wealth don’t have a moral duty to help others. We do. More importantly, Christians have a spiritual duty to do it.
But it’s important for the problem to be correctly defined, and then solutions must be found that solve the problem, not just make us feel better. Foreign aid in the form of big checks from one government to another doesn’t work and is often counterproductive. Foreign aid in the form of basic humanitarian relief, on the other hand, has saved millions of lives.
Most important is to encourage the creation of democratic governments and free markets. It’s time to stop supporting dictators who only seem to be on our side and support foreign governments that share our values. Meanwhile, our policies can encourage free and fair trade. The article quotes Nobel laureate Amartya Sen as saying, “No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.”
What can average people do? Give, of course, but give smartly. Certainly there are some charities that are inefficient or corrupt, but there are many good ones, such as Living Water International, a Christian organization that digs wells in the world’s poorest places, providing access to clean water so residents don’t get waterborne diseases and can spend their time earning a living instead of hiking back and forth to some polluted stream. Long-term, nothing works better than microloans – small loans of a few hundred dollars that can help a desperately poor person overseas start a business and lift themselves out of poverty. You can give $25 to start. Check out Kiva’s website if you would like to know more.