In the two years I've been head of the World Food Programme - the world's last defense against famine and starvation for 100 million people - I've learned a number of things.
I've learned that hunger is a killer. More than 25,000 men, women and children die each day from hunger and related causes. And it especially hits the young - one child every six seconds is lost from hunger - that's 14,000 children a day.
I've learned that hunger is a thief. It robs nations of potential productive citizens - and children of their futures. When children under two are malnourished, they suffer irreversible stunting to their bodies and minds - losing as many as 15 IQ points, never to be regained. The cost of child undernutrition to national and economic development is steep - in some countries consuming as much as 2- to 3 percent of annual GDP. All told, child malnutrition costs an estimated $20-$30 billion per year.
Worse, I've also learned that hunger is aggressively on the march. In the last two years, rising food and fuel prices added 115 million to the ranks of the hungry - leaving nearly 1 in 6 people on earth without sufficient food. Now the global economic slowdown is rippling through the developing world, where most people have neither the resiliency nor the government safety nets to ride out this next storm. As exports slow, remittances falter and jobs are lost, the UN fears as many as 75 million more could be left dangerously undernourished.
I've learned that hunger can be chronic, creating a negative downward cycle where malnourished mothers - often little more than children themselves - have malnourished babies who must struggle from their first breath to even survive. Or hunger can come unexpectedly - with disasters that take away dignity and self-sufficiency - whether through man-made conflict or natural floods, earthquakes or droughts.
As I've travelled the world - from the hurricane-ravaged mud fields in Haiti to the wind-swept devastation left by the Myanmar cyclone, from Darfur feeding camps to subsistence farms in Ghana - I also learned that no parent ever wants to accept food assistance unless they have run out of options. And they will take that option - whether it's exchanging work for food rations (WFP has in this way planted more than 5 billion trees and built infrastructure in places like Darfur), or by participating in our new P4P (Purchase for Progress) program, where WFP guarantees small farmers contracts for their produce.
Most importantly, however, I have learned that hunger is a winnable problem that we can all help solve. Today the world is nourishing more people than ever before in human history. Ending hunger and malnutrition is not rocket science: it requires no new huge scientific breakthroughs. Between 1969 and 2004, we cut the proportion of hunger by half. Most recently, nations such as China, Brazil, Ghana, Malawi, Vietnam, Thailand and many others have been making serious gains against hunger.
In fact, less than 20 years ago China was WFP's biggest program. Today we provide no food aid to China. These nations follow the success of Europe and Japan in beating hunger after World War II. Many nations such as Ireland - the land of my own ancestors - only broke the cycle of famine, hunger and agricultural impoverishment a few generations ago.
Wherever I go, I always take with me a humble red plastic cup. It's a cup that came from Lillian, a little girl from Rwanda who once filled it each school day in one of WFP's school feeding programs. We gave Lillian a new cup, but for her and for 20 million school children fed by WFP, this cup may be the only food they receive each day. We have even seen many children take the incredible step of eating only half of their rations - so they can bring home the rest to brothers and sisters too young to go to school. http://www.wfp.org/content/fill-cup-fact-sheet.
In 2008, when food prices doubled, we at WFP were faced with a terrible dilemma: do we cut rations in half - or feed half of our beneficiaries?
Instead, I appealed to the world and a miracle happened: the world stepped forward and refused to let a food crisis become a humanitarian tragedy. By extending and expanding our school feeding programs and adding millions to our rolls, we were able to quell food riots and cool things down.
Former Senator George McGovern, one of the principal architects of our country's own school lunch programs, has a dream - that no child on earth would go to school hungry. What would it cost the world to say every schoolchild who needs it has at least a cup of nourishing food each day? Less than $3 billion a year - and in a year we read in the news that Christmas bonuses on Wall Street totaled more than $30 billion.
This is not permanent charity - as dozens of countries have "graduated" from food aid and school feeding programs, once food security is assured. As world leaders prepare for the G-8 Summit this summer, there will be a lot of talk about the economic crisis and financial rescues. But as we worry about Wall Street and Main Street, let us not forgot about the places where there are no streets - and make sure that we put a human rescue package at the top of the list. Let's keep the red cup filled. Learn more at: www.wfp.org
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