01/09/2012 01:03 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2012

Food Today, None Tomorrow

What responsibility do we in the West have to atone for the suffering we have caused in faraway places? I can't get out of my mind Adam Nossiter's recent front page article in the New York Times, "For Congo Children, Food Today Means None Tomorrow." He interviews families in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who ironically call the severe food shortages delestage, French for "power cut." Like the frequent power outages that occur in so many poor countries, there may be food for a day but often, the next day, there is none. None for the adults, none for the children. It is a growing and widespread problem for that country: The Global Hunger Index for Congo has risen 63 percent in the past 20 years in contrast to a number of other countries where the hunger index has improved during that period.

Why is life so difficult in today's Congo? Why is there not enough food in that beleaguered African country? Here's a short history lesson: The policies of the U.S. and other European powers were responsible for setting up this country, which is rich in natural resources, to be a long-term failed state.

Under Belgian rule starting in the 1800s, the Congolese were brutally pressed into developing a rubber industry to enrich their colonial masters. Hundreds of thousands of men were literally worked to death: The population was reduced by half between 1880 and 1920. Then a ray of light: Congo became independent in 1960, and democratic elections produced one of the most dynamic and committed prime ministers that Africa has known, Patrice Lumumba.

Sadly, Lumumba was suspected of being pro-Communist (for accepting aid from the Soviets and trying to generally democratize the country) so the U.S. and Belgian governments decided he had to go. They supported a coup and imprisoned Lumumba, who after several days of torture was executed by firing squad. His successor, a military man by the name of Mobutu, cynically learned the ropes and ruled with an iron fist (but also with an open palm) for more than 30 years. By the time he was overthrown, Mobutu was said to have accumulated four to five billion U.S. dollars in a personal Swiss bank account - enough to retire the country's entire national debt (a debt that today stands at $11 billion).

Subsequent rulers have not improved life for the Congolese. Today, according to UNICEF, DRC is the second poorest country in the world, and only one other country has a higher rate of child deaths. Congolese children are slowly starving, with continued civil unrest and border warfare intensifying the shortages of food for families who are internally displaced.
After many years, Belgium made a formal apology to DRC for its role in the death of Lumumba. The U.S. has yet to make that gesture, but as citizens of the globe we can acknowledge our responsibility for the disaster that we helped create.

There are simple ways to help. UNICEF has active programs in the country. At a smaller scale, there are nonprofits actively helping the Congolese to be more self-sufficient in food and health. Cecile deSweemer is a Belgian physician who helped found a nonprofit group, Butoke, in an area of DRC that includes a large number of internal refugees. The group struggles to support its efforts to improve agricultural capacity in the area, and to provide badly-needed health and nutrition support. Contributions to Butoke are tax-deductible in the U.S.

We will never be able to make amends for the damage done to this unfortunate country, but we can make sure that a few more children eat today -- and tomorrow.