Losing the war on hunger

President Bush has boldly called for freedom and liberty for people suppressed and oppressed by tyranny.

Tyranny has many expressions. They include poverty and hunger, facts of life in the developing world that obstruct the broader fulfillment of Bush’s noble ambition.

Yet America’s modest commitment to fighting world poverty and hunger seems only to become more modest in comparison with the ambition to make the world a better, safer place. This is reflected in the current spending on food aid and the spending proposed in the 2006 budget the president submitted to Congress this month.

Hunger is more onerous than any human tyrant. Hungry people are not liberated or free. They are slaves to the simple chore of finding food. They have little time to ponder the advantages of liberty and democracy. But they have the time and the reason to “simmer in resentment” – one source that Bush cited, in his second inaugural speech, of the hatreds that pose a danger to America.

In his last State of the Union address, Bush noted, “If whole regions of the world remain in despair and grow in hatred they will be the recruiting grounds for terror, and that terror will stalk America and other free nations for decades.”

Cognizant of these factors, the Bush administration made enormous commitments to reducing poverty, hunger and disease in the world.

But the administration has fallen woefully short on its commitment to a vital element of that goal. That is providing food aid as a part of critical development programs – a commitment that’s been further eroded by transferring resources from development to such emergencies as the horrific events in Darfur, in Sudan.

This trend seems to be perpetuated in the president’s 2006 budget, which transfers $300 million from development food aid to cover potential future disasters.

Even before the tsunami disaster, we at Catholic Relief Services estimated an $832 million shortfall in the 2005 appropriation for food aid, directly resulting from earlier emergencies, such as Darfur. Following a release of grain from the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, the pre-tsunami net shortfall was reduced to $650 million.

The number of people potentially hurt by the loss of development aid because it was moved to emergency aid is as staggering, in its own way, as the number of tsunami casualties.

Catholic Relief Services is one of the largest non-government distributors of U.S. food aid to developing countries. Unless supplemental funding of $1 billion for food aid and tsunami relief is made available – with the explicit instruction to restore the development programs – the adverse impact on CRS programs alone could be enormous.

It is possible that up to 1.2 million children in vulnerable households would not be given the opportunity for a well-rounded education. Some 1.6 million orphans, disabled people and people affected by AIDS and other diseases might not receive food assistance. More than 1.2 million mothers and infants might not receive critical health and nutrition interventions. More than 1.5 million farmers might not receive support for programs to help them become food-secure.

That’s just the potential impact from cuts in CRS programs in the current budget.

The magnitude and immediacy of this crisis require a comprehensive solution.

U.S. Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and U.S. Reps. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., Ike Skelton, D-Mo., Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and James McGovern, D-Mass. – along with many colleagues on both sides of the aisle – have clearly enunciated that shifting resources from development programs will not sustain America’s commitments in either the short or the long term.

Nor will these shifts advance the collateral advantage of these programs: that populations that are not hungry, not poor and not plagued by disease are more likely to be stable and friendly.

Costs facing the Bush administration – Iraq and Afghanistan; the desire to cut taxes, fix Social Security, cut the deficit – are tremendous. Restoring America’s earlier commitment to development food aid would cost $1 billion.

In his second inaugural address, Bush said, “Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill and would be dishonorable to abandon.”

This obligation is actually not difficult to fulfill. And not fulfilling it would abandon millions of people America promised to help rescue from the tyranny of hunger, poverty and disease.

(Ken Hackett is the president of Catholic Relief Services.)