Each New Year brings with it a feeling of optimism, of hope and of change. Millions of us around the world make resolutions and promises to ourselves: to lose weight, to stop smoking, to get fit.
In the working world, there are fancy luncheons and dinners—at which politicians, academics and aid agencies take turns bemoaning, yet again, the persistence of hunger among the poor, how this year things will be different. Yet, the speeches sound very much like the ones they made last year and the year before.
I confess I have made just those kinds of speeches.
If the 800 million poor people who do not have enough food could live off noble words, they would be obese.
I have visited dozens of field projects of UN agencies and NGOs in countries like Mali, Liberia and Ethiopia, where women line up by the hundreds for food handouts in buckets, children scramble for a plate of food at school and skeletal babies are hooked to feeding tubes in makeshift tents and hospital wards. The project workers are dedicated, inspiring human beings who really want to help. But it is often hard to get a straight answer on how many people are actually malnourished.
Why? The reason is, all over the world, national politicians are ashamed. They see the persistence of hunger as political failure—and they are right. But hiding or minimizing starvation hardly helps. History is filled with stories of mass starvation, as politicians denied there was a problem in countries as diverse as colonial India, Ireland and Zimbabwe.
When I started Tkiyet Um Ali in Jordan, I needed the direct support and intervention of my late father, His Majesty King Hussein. Tkiyet was the first NGO in the entire region solely dedicated to ending hunger. And still today it is thriving because of the constant support, and often political intervention, of His Majesty King Abdullah to allow us to do our work.
There is a big difference between brave leaders who are willing to admit there is a problem and who fight to solve it, and those who would rather deny it. In the Middle East, there are now many good NGOs and generous individuals who are working hard to end hunger, but in general, east or west, governments tend to stay quiet on this topic, when it is in our own backyards, but there is no hesitation in discussing it when it’s affecting others.
In the West, domestic hunger is a taboo topic of conversation for governments. Some major European countries do not even try to track it, though you can easily see the poor gathering scraps of food from garbage cans in many of the famous capital cities.
I understand the pressure on politicians to make things look rosy, in order to maintain public peace. And I also understand the pressure to look like achievements and progress are being made by administrations… But it is morally bankrupt to hide the people who are starving to death.
Take just this one fact: The largest food agency today is the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), and it feeds on average 80 million people. Other NGOs and bilateral donors might double that figure to 160 million, but in our world we need to reach all of the 800 million who are hungry. And those 800 million cannot wait for agricultural-development projects to solve their problems, as so many well-fed politicians, academics and bureaucrats are prone to say. They are hungry today.
In 2017, as we all think about our hopes and ambitions for the year ahead and about the things we want to change or improve, I am asking you to please take a minute to think about those who go without, and call on your governments to stop hiding hunger, where it exists domestically. It must be tackled as a top priority. Please call on them to support UN agencies like WFP and so many other NGOs to do their work.
Last year OECD countries spent more than twice as much on pet food than they did helping the hungry in the world’s poorest nations. We desperately need to reorder our priorities. Please call on your governments to make solving world hunger a top priority.
A while ago I visited a refugee camp for South Sudanese in Gambella, Ethiopia. It was hell fashioned out of mud. More than 90% of the refugees were women and children. I kept imagining myself there with my two children—without a roof over my head, sleeping on branches piled up in the mud, lining up for handouts of food on the good days when food actually arrived. I imagined all the fear, the loneliness and the helplessness these women felt and the guilt for not being able to care for the people I love most in the world.
It is time to stop hiding the pain of hunger. It is time to end it.