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Putting Hunger In Perspective

  • Published Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010, at 12:28 p.m.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, I'll take a break from writing about European hot spots to describe a fascinating vacation I just took to a place I'd never been before — Des Moines, Iowa. I wasn't traveling solo: I shared my time off with a thousand people from 65 nations who were attending the World Food Prize Award Ceremony.

I was there to help honor one of the prizewinners: David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World (www.bread.org), a nonprofit organization that encourages our government to consider the needs of the world's poor. Simply put, it lobbies for hungry people. As a friend of David's and a longtime supporter, I was invited to the festivities, which included a daylong international symposium on hunger.

The dinner conversation was curious. People shared tips on getting African villagers to embrace using new drought-resistant corn seeds, even though the kernels were yellower than normal. Someone else was excited about a new strain of rice with a "snorkel gene" so that it can grow tall enough to survive floods. And all marveled at how the chocolate cake at our table was soy-based and still tasted fine.

We were all in Des Moines because Iowa is where Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, was born — and where the World Food Prize Foundation has its headquarters. Borlaug, who bred new strains of wheat to get disease-resistant varieties with higher yields, is credited with dramatically reducing hunger in the Third World.

Along with powerful leaders like former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, I also met heroic and inspirational citizens such as Alabaman Elaine VanCleave — an avid supporter of Bread for the World. Concerned about famine in undeveloped nations, Elaine decided to help hungry people in Africa. She personally met with her U.S. representative, Spencer Bachus, a Republican who prides himself on his conservatism. He admittedly had never given Third World debt — and its consequences on hungry people — much thought. For debt relief to even get to first base, Bread for the World needed the support of Bachus, who chaired a key committee. Elaine mobilized her neighbors, and together they educated Bachus.

Congressman Bachus eventually did more than just say OK. He enthusiastically embraced the cause, helping spearhead a multi-billion-dollar debt relief bill that gave the world's most heavily indebted nations a chance to rise out of poverty. The human benefits of this are mind-blowing: Literally millions of poor Africans now have schools, clinics, and seeds funded with money that would have otherwise gone to the First World for interest payments on debt. Fighting hunger is neither liberal nor conservative. It's simply the right thing to do in a world where there's plenty of food and too much hunger.

The climax of the World Food Prize festivities was under the dome of the grand Iowa State Capitol. In addition to David, Jo Luck, president of Heifer International (www.heifer.org), was the other 2010 laureate. Under Luck's creative leadership, the group provides livestock, seeds, and training to poor families so that they have better nutrition and can start a small business.

While Heifer International provides direct aid, Bread for the World is an advocacy group. Advocacy, as explained in David's new book "Exodus from Hunger," is channeling energy to change government policy for a cause — rather than dealing directly with the cause. In his book, he explains how private U.S. aid for the world's hungry amounts to just 6 percent of our governmental aid. So a drop in governmental aid of just 6 percent would have the same effect as the loss of all those hard-earned and well-meaning private contributions. Conversely, an increase in governmental aid of just 6 percent doubles our nation's philanthropic impact. (A common misperception among the American electorate is that we are more generous than we actually are: Less than 1 percent of our national budget goes to foreign aid.)

David's acceptance speech was inspiring. He said in a soft voice that filled that grand hall: We need to change the politics of hunger. Decisions in Congress should not be made only for our economic self-interest, but to help the hungry.

I appreciate Bread for the World because it has taught me the economics of hunger and structural poverty. With all my travel experience, I've gained empathy for the struggles of people in developing nations, but my concern used to be confused and directionless. Understanding the basics of structural poverty put my compassion into clear focus. As we gather together for our Thanksgiving dinners, I believe the vast majority of Americans (whether regular citizens or politicians) are good and caring people — but we often need help when it comes to putting hunger in perspective.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

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