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Hunger Hurts Also the Well-Fed

by Paul Virgo

ROME - Ask food experts whether it is in the interest of well-fed people in wealthy countries to fight hunger, and most will say: Yes. But ask whether we should tell them, and the answer you are likely to get is: maybe not.

There are many reasons why people not directly affected by food insecurity should consider it a problem, even taking moral considerations about social justice out of the equation.

The most eye-catching is that in creating desperate people, hunger becomes a source of conflict and a threat to everyone's security.

"One of the arguments is terrorism and national security. When you have people living in poverty and hunger, that's a breeding ground for terrorism," David Dawe, senior economist at the Rome-based United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) tells IPS. "That's a strong argument."

Josette Sheeran, head of the World Food Programme (WFP), another U.N. food agency based in Rome, also believes that empty stomachs feed trouble.

"A hungry world is a dangerous world," Sheeran told reporters earlier this year. "Without food, people have only three options: they riot, they emigrate, or they die. None of these are acceptable."

While these may indeed be "strong arguments" for powerful states to take action, their implications set some NGOs engaged in the war on hunger on edge. Some reject them outright.

"I don't buy this argument that if we don't do the right thing they'll come over here and ruin our lives," John Hilary, executive director of the London-based anti-poverty group War on Want tells IPS. "I think that's too near to the far right and the British National Party."

Oxfam International believes the self-interest case is valid, while harbouring concerns that it could be twisted by groups in developed countries to block immigration and imports from developing countries.

"It is true that it is in the developed world's interest to eradicate hunger, but I also perceive some risks in this message," Teresa Cavero, head of research at Oxfam's Spanish section tells IPS.

"With the economic crisis and the temptation for greater protectionism, it could be a double-edged sword. For example, it could be said that by encouraging growth in developing countries, people will have more job opportunities in their homelands and there will be less migration. This may be correct in part, but it does not mean immigration is a bad thing."

It is also true, however, that decades of taking the developed world to task over the need to eradicate hunger as part of a quest for social justice has not been enormously successful.

It could be argued that the developed world will only find the necessary commitment to fighting hunger when the issue climbs to a higher position on the political agenda. And this may not come about unless voters in rich countries see food insecurity as a problem that is in their self-interest to solve.

"I'm more comfortable with the justice message, but it's right that it's in the developed world's interest to fight hunger, and any arguments you build to make the developed countries take action are positive," Cavero says.

"The first thing governments and people in rich countries need to be aware of is the reality we are confronted with. Today we have more and more people in hunger, and the WFP have announced the shameful figure of one billion hungry people has been passed."

While fear is one factor that might stir the well-fed, Dawe sees money as another: "On the economic level, there is a huge reservoir of potential demand for developed world products in developing countries if people break out of hunger and poverty."

Cavero agrees: "We at Oxfam are aware of the role trade can have in economic development if it is conducted under fair rules, which is not the case now, along with strong transparent markets. Healthy growth would lead to improvements in overall welfare, which is good for the South and good for the North.

"It is in the North's interest to have a developing world that is not suffering hunger because the whole economy suffers. If they are free from hunger, they can work on their own development. But you must be free from hunger before you can overcome poverty, and only then can you participate in the global economy. Hunger is a dead weight that's too heavy to allow welfare to be achieved."

Cavero believes that highlighting the link between food security and the threat of climate change is another way to give developed countries an incentive to act. If developing countries try to eliminate poverty and hunger by following the North's resource-energy intensive model of development, global temperatures are set to accelerate.

"To get an agreement and action on climate change we must first make sure the developing world, where most of the world's poverty and hunger is concentrated among poor farming communities, is tackling food security in a sustainable way so that we can put policies into place to avoid a global disaster," Cavero says.

"We must achieve this through a sustainable model of agriculture. There is a chance to achieve a win-win-win scenario - a win for food security, a win for climate change, and a win for social, economic and environmental sustainability."

Dawe says the developed world would benefit from the contribution people freed of food insecurity could make to science and culture.

"We're living in an interdependent world. All knowledge is built on the insights and contributions of others," he says.

"The more smart people are working on a problem, whether it be AIDS or global warming or anything else, the closer you get to finding an answer. The same argument applies to culture, art, music and other fields.

"Hunger and food insecurity are holding people back from reaching their own potential and contributing to humanity's potential. We're not as rich as we could be and I don't mean in material terms."

War on Want still believes the battleground should be social justice, not self- interest.

"The scandal is that many people who are producing food in rural areas cannot afford to buy what they produce. That's a serious condemnation of the model we've allowed to grow," says Hilary.

"What we need is a less exploitative model of agriculture. Vast areas of the developing world are being turned over to cattle grazing, or soy for cattle or biofuels so the rich world can eat more meat and drive around in ecological cars when the priority should be ensuring there is enough affordable food for everyone.

"I do believe the moral case is strong and that hunger is a profound challenge to our idea of progress. If we thought that our privileged lives depended on exploitation, more would be done. It's a moral and political question."

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