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How To Feed The Hungriest

We've all heard how skyrocketing food and fuel prices have squeezed the world’s poor. But the fact that commodities prices are high--and that urban food-and-fuel riots have sprung up across the globe--isn’t always the best indicator of when people are going hungry, said Robert Paarlbarg, one of the panelists at yesterday’s American Enterprise Institute conference.

Most of the world’s poor and hungry are still living in rural areas that are more removed from the aftershocks of rising global prices, according to the Wellesley professor. They aren’t the ones who are buying imported food, using motorized vehicles, and taking to the streets as a result of escalating costs. For sure, the rural poor aren’t immune to the fluctuations of the international market: the upsurge in prices is destabilizing their countries’ economies, hampering government assistance programs, and hobbling international food aid efforts. (America’s food donations have been halved due to rising costs.) But even when world prices fall, the poorest won’t necessarily be eating much more, said Paarlbarg.

The reason, the Wellesley professor argued, is that the most deep-abiding cases of hunger tend to be the result of highly localized circumstances, not global ones. In Africa, the real problem is poor farm productivity--it’s declined 19% per capita since 1970, while much of Asia has leapt ahead in food production as a result of its vaunted Green Revolution. Even countries like India where farm productivity has greatly improved, much food never even makes it to market due to poor infrastructure and weak supply chains.

One real solution, as others have discussed, is agricultural development: getting seed, fertilizer, and machinery to farmers, and getting roads built so that these countries can feed themselves. This week, the World Bank announced that it would nearly doubled the money lent to such efforts in Africa, and Bank president Robert Zoellick has asked the G8 leaders convening next week to make similar pledges.

Unfortunately, it will be more difficult to muster the political will to look beyond short-term handouts and boost long-term rural development in starving nations. In this country, there’s the absurd boondoggle of the American food aid system, which demands that food be sourced in the U.S. and shipped on American vessels--a concession to powerful U.S. agribusiness and maritime interests. If food aid were sourced locally and regionally instead, it would create a big market incentive for agricultural development, ultimately alleviating the problem, or at least substantially diminishing its severity.

More broadly speaking, we also need to overcome the lingering paternalism that still colors our ideas about how to help the world’s hungriest--an attitude that assumes that the way to feed the wide-eyed children on television is by paying for their dinner tomorrow. There’s no doubt that emergency food aid is vitally necessary in the midst of the current crisis, and initiatives like the World Food Program have made aid efforts more sustainable. But the impact of America’s altruism would be many times greater if it were also directed to support less glamorous, screen-ready causes--such as, say, fertilizer.

The catch is that programs like international agricultural development are usually funded by governments, rather than private donors, and Americans continue to prefer voluntary private giving over mandatory public contributions. But the appeal to reconsider our conception of charity has to start somewhere. Give a man a fish, anyone?

--Suzy Khimm