Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What is Hunger?

I got a link to this new campaign, One Billion Hungry. Their goal is to get a billion people to sign a petition against hunger, to "put pressure on politicians to end hunger." I wish it said "put pressure on politicians to radically change the organizing principles of society" or "put pressure on politicians to redistribute my wealth and place limits on what I am allowed to access by recognizing the inequity the so-called free market perpetuates."  Just something a bit more nuanced, a bit more realistic, then "make the people in charge stop the problem and eliminate me from the equation."

Reading through the site, I am struck by their argument on why hunger exists.

"Lack of food is not the problem. Enough food is produced in the world today for everyone to be properly nourished and lead a healthy and productive life. Hunger exists because of poverty. It exists because natural disasters, like earthquakes, floods and droughts, sometimes occur in places where poor people have little or no means to rebuild once the damage is done. It exists because in many countries women, although they do much of the farming, do not have as much access as men to training, credit or land. Hunger exists because of conflict, which takes away any chance people have to earn a decent living and feed their families. It exists because poor people don’t have access to land or solid agricultural infrastructure to produce viable crops or keep livestock, or to steady work that would otherwise allow them access to food. It exists because people sometimes use natural resources in ways that are not sustainable. It exists because there is not enough investment in the rural sector in many countries to support agricultural development. Hunger exists because financial and economic crises affect the poor most of all by reducing or eliminating the sources of income they depend on to survive."

I feel like they aren't quite telling the truth, like they are glossing it over a bit. I agree with a lot of the statements - yes, hunger is perpetuated by natural disasters, lack of infrastructure, gender inequality, conflict, knowledge, resources, land... but the end gets a little weak. People "sometimes" use natural resources in ways that are not sustainable? Last time I checked there was a global ecological crisis being inflicted through wanton consumption by the haves. The 'not enough investment' argument doesn't ring true, either. As far as I know, there's been quite a lot of 'investment' into the rural sector in developing countries in the past 40 years, but it's been principally targeted towards the development of large export markets that destabilize local communities, destroy local customs, and thwart local knowledge. And arguing that financial and economic crises are a cause and not merely an aggravator of pre-existing conditions doesn't work for me either. They are depending on cash crops because their local sustainable food system has been systematically weakened, egged on by the myth of progress and the belief that life is better in the consumption-driven world. Laura Beach and I were discussing a similar issue earlier: the Olympics. On the one hand, the Olympics are an inspiring demonstration of the capacity of the human spirit to overcome obstacles and achieve personal triumph. On the other hand, the Olympics have become a vomit-inducing cash-grab orchestrated by the world's largest governments and corporations. The two facets are so tightly interwoven that it is a challenge to isolate the one from the other, and give the whole institution any merit. Same goes with Western society: yes, we enjoy incredible comfort and almost unlimited options. But we are no happier and there is vast inequality, an aching absence of community, and little genuine security, especially when our lifestyles are speeding us all towards global ecological catastrophe. From the outside, how easy is it to understand that?

It seems to me the source of sustainability and the elimination of hunger and poverty lies first and foremost in the cultivation of resilient communities. By pooling resources and creating networks of support and exchange people can do far more than on their own. People must first begin to understand that they have more power than they think. The illusion of powerlessness is the most debilitating and depressing experience of all. Once communities begin to band together and set common goals, such as the production of food, shelter and education, people can begin to flourish and withstand the pressures that come down on them. I think this awareness is beginning to spread around the world, especially in disadvantaged places, such as Detroit, where a vibrant urban agriculture movement is beginning to take root and take off. The principles of food sovereignty to me, seem like a more complete basis for ending the threat of not having enough food just to live.

Can a petition ever achieve the end of systemic poverty and the resulting hunger? Perhaps if all the petitioners had the chance to gather in a common place and time, it might, or perhaps if that list of petitioners was used as support for a concentrated, strategic campaign, such as what Avaaz does when they target a specific issue with a specific goal at a specific time and place. But I just don't think tapping your email into a database is really going to change things. Still, it's nice to know that at least 388,541 individuals have the desire in their hearts to see all people clothed and fed. I don't buy into the self-centered, cynical view of people that seems to be perpetuated by those self-same corporations and politicians who profit off the privatization of the commons. Robyn sent me a wonderful RSAnimate on Saturday that made that point quite eloquently - that we are in fact driven by empathy, by compassion. Now if we just get a holistic, grounded understanding of the global social and economic systems that govern our civilization... Now that is something I'd like to listen to Jeremy Irons go on about, and not from the inside of a petroleum-powered taxi cab or limousine. Perhaps from the seat of a bicycle?

A final note: I couldn't find info on who was behind the project, so I click on the contact link. It is based in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. I don't know a lot about this group but I do know that peasants movements such as Via Campesina have arisen in resistance to policies the organization was pushing. Anyone with any more information, please step up and ladle us some wisdom.

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