While the bureaucrats fiddle and their food programs flounder, millions of their fellowmen cannot scratch up enough to eat. Another 2,283 will die while the administrators of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are out for lunch.
Even as we contemplate the terrible statistics - 700 million people "seriously malnourished"; one person in six suffering from "chronic hunger"; 20 million perishing every year directly or indirectly from lack of food - the mind rejects the knowledge that they are human beings with a basic right to nourishment.
The stark facts have been presented to President Carter in a confidential, 20-page memo, which declares bluntly: "Our past and current effort to address the world hunger problem has been marked largely by the lack of a cohesive policy and clear-cut goals."
For all our humanitarian intentions, the White House study adds, the programs have been botched by bureaucratic ineptitude. "There has been no effective interagency coordinating mechanism for world hunger policy," the memo charges, citing a mismash of 26 federal agencies involved in the programs.
It contends that international organizations, particularly the FAO, have been "generally ineffective and poorly administered, severely compromising their ability to bring to bear available resources in a coordinated strategy or capitalize on world concern about hunger." Americans assigned to the international agencies, the report concedes, "have not always been of the highest caliber."
While U.S. food programs may have saved millions from starvation since World War II, they may have actually hindered rather than helped bring about "the fundamental internal changes in developing countries that would lead to food self-sufficiency," the report suggests.
"At the World Food Conference in 1974, we joined other food donor nations in pledging our support for a number of actions but we have failed to do our part to provide sufficient leadership . . . There has been a failure by the United States and other nations to instill in the leaders of most developing countries the political will to give this problem a sufficiently high priority."
The White House study contends that domestic political concerns and foreign-policy factors have been "a major impediment" in setting up an effective U.S. policy on world hunger. The memo says candidly: "Our problems in the past have arisen largely from our inability to separate our motivations and objectives with regard to world hunger from the domestically inspired need to dispose of large commodity surpluses."
This has created the awkward spectacle of American farmers holding back grain in order to increase prices while people across the seas are starving. On Feb. 13, for example, Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland reported to the Cabinet behind closed doors that "the United States will exceed all international records in tonnage of soybeans and feed grains this year. Wheat tonnage will be about the same."
But he explained that farmers could keep their surplus off the market by storing it. That is now possible, he said, under the new farm law that Congress passed last year. He boasted that "grain is up 50 cents a bushel in the last six months and implementation of the new storage arrangements will increase the price even more."
Bergland said he is now "educating" farmers to take advantage of the storage program to keep grain off the world market. Yet at the same time, President Carter told the Cabinet that he had been discussing "the problem of world hunger" and that he had asked aide Peter Bourne "for a memorandum on the subject."
This confidential memo will become the basis for a special message that Carter will send to Congress in May on his proposals to combat world hunger. As the first step, he plans to sign an executive order establishing a presidential commission on world hunger.
His advisers view his crusade to eradicate hunger as a vital extension of his human-rights campaign. They suggest he adopt a number of key themes based on the following:
"The right to food is the most basic of human rights. You are committed to providing the leadership to see that the problem is eventually solved. You invited the leaders of other nations to join you in giving this issue the highest priority. You are aware that this must be more than a short-term initiative and you are, therefore, making a long-term commitment for the United States."
The memo cautions Carter that his proposal would be met with cynicism from less-developed countries. In the past, some American food shipments wound up in the hands of profiteers and black-market operators.
But "the key to solving the world hunger problem," the report emphasizes, "must be to increase food production in those countries where hunger exists. It is above all their responsibility to deal with their own problem."
Bourne cites the Chinese communists, who increased food production on their own. The report contends, therefore, that "the ability to increase food production is not, as we have often believed in the past, dependent on either massive transfer of expensive technology with heavy energy consumption or highly trained technicians."
It suggests that "more emphasis" should be placed upon "the immediate use of simpler voluntary efforts stressing self help and a sense of dedication similar to that which allowed the Chinese to overcome their food deficit."