Still Dying of Hunger

By James T. Morris
Thursday, May 25, 2006

The U.N. World Food Program recently had to make a terrible decision, one that would give even King Solomon pause: either to halve food aid rations for almost 3 million people in Darfur -- one of the world's worst humanitarian emergencies -- or halve the number of recipients.

The ultimate choice was to cut rations in half -- well below survival level -- because of a shortage of funds and fears that we would run out of food altogether during the looming "hungry season" before the harvest. Thankfully, the United States and other donors, including the European Commission, Canada and Denmark, have offered new funds and pledges, enabling us to increase food rations soon. So there is some relief ahead for the people of Darfur.

Yet the tragedy of the matter is that each day, around the world, hundreds of thousands of poor parents must make such agonizing choices at the household level: Which meals do they forgo so they can stretch limited food stocks through the week, or month, or until life improves?

Today I will brief a congressional committee on ways of dealing with a problem that has dogged mankind from the beginning: hunger. It's a problem that -- I'm pleased to say -- we have almost overcome in the United States. Although we haven't eradicated poverty, and plenty of Americans subsist on poor diets, our welfare programs have ensured that no one in the United States dies of hunger.

So, to my mind, it is unacceptable that you need travel only a few hundred miles from our shores to find societies in which hunger is still a grim component of daily life. In Haiti, for example, just across the Caribbean, food supplies are sufficient for only 55 percent of the population. More than 2 million Haitians cannot afford the minimum daily calories recommended by the World Health Organization. In human terms, that means Haiti's children are growing up malnourished, compromising their physical and mental development.

A few weeks ago I was in Africa with Ann Veneman, executive director of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF), and António Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. We were there to see firsthand the devastating effects of drought in the Horn of Africa. Seared into my memory is the feeling of cradling in my arms an acutely malnourished girl in a remote Kenyan village. Although she was a year old, she weighed little more than your average American newborn. I felt engulfed by two emotions: grief for her plight -- and that of so many others -- but also shame that we can allow this to happen in the 21st century.

The fact is that 18,000 children like her will die before today is over. Their bodies will simply succumb to the burden of not getting the nutrition they need to survive over weeks, months, years. Even before they were born, their chances were diminished; born to malnourished mothers, their own "half-life" started in the womb.

Last year the World Food Program provided food assistance to 97 million people in 82 countries. To do so, we raised $2.8 billion -- a huge sum in anyone's book. Nearly half of that was from the U.S. government, consistently our largest donor. Yet, despite this generosity, our emergency operations, like those in East Africa and Sudan, were only 57 percent funded. The need for food aid still outstrips the resources available. Although donors have boosted overseas development aid to new heights, they are not assigning food aid the priority it merits -- and indeed must have if other development initiatives are to succeed.

Today there are some 100 million hungry children in the world who get virtually no assistance. We have calculated that it would cost around $5 billion a year to provide them and their mothers with a basic package of food, nutrition and health care. A lot of money? Perhaps. But it is about the same amount that Congress has allocated to assist 7 million American mothers and children this fiscal year through WIC, the USDA-administered program for women, infants and children. If that investment in America's poor is worth making, why not reach out to all mothers and children who need our help?

The writer is executive director of the U.N. World Food Program.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company