Where are the leaders? The news media is AWOL, with ABC staging the most insulting presidential debate in memory. The administration is fixated on peddling Iraq's calamities as progress. The presidential candidates, intent on throwing the "kitchen sink" at each other, ignore the fact that the house is on fire. And a silent assassin goes unmentioned.
Across the world, hunger is on the rise. The World Bank estimates that average food prices have soared by some 83 percent over the last three years, and 100 million people may be pushed into poverty as a result. In Haiti, the poor eat "dirt cakes" to put something in their stomachs. Food riots have convulsed more than a dozen countries -- from Egypt to Mexico.
For Americans, rising food prices are part of a big squeeze, with gas prices more than twice what they were a year ago, health care costs soaring, and wages simply not keeping up. But as the New York Times notes, even the poorest 20 percent of Americans spend only about 16 percent of their budget on food. Rising food prices hurt, and hunger is rising in this rich country. Food kitchens are having a hard time meeting demand across the country. But for much of the developing world, soaring food prices are about survival, not sacrifice. Nigerian families spend 73 percent of their budgets to eat, Vietnamese 65 percent, Indonesians half. People living on $2 a day can't scrimp on luxuries to pay for rising food prices. They go hungry. In Bangladesh, garment workers strike over the cost of food. The price of rice, the staple of their diet, has increased by one-third since last year. Experts say 30 million of the country's 150 million people could go without daily meals.
The causes of the soaring prices are many -- and they will only get worse. Demand is rising as India and China develop. Global warming disrupts traditional weather patterns. Subsidies for corn-based ethanol have driven up the price of corn and led farmers to move to that crop. Subsidence agriculture has been devastated by a global trade system that features subsidized agribusiness food exports. And now the rising price of oil increases the cost of transporting that food.
Emergency aid is needed right now, both for our neighbors like Haiti, which is our responsibility since we displaced its government, and for the world. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for a global effort in his visit here. He got little attention. The U.N. secretary general is raising alarms across the world. He gets virtually no press. This is, as Jean Ziegler, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on the right to food, said, "silent mass murder."
About $500 million is needed now to replenish emergency food relief. We spend $12 billion a month on Iraq. On Wall Street, hedge fund operators earn $3 billion in one year. Yet the call for emergency funds has thus far not been met. In fact, overseas aid from developed countries went down, not up, last year.
This is a matter of human decency. It is a measure of what kind of people we are. But it also concerns a clear and present danger to our security.
Have no doubt: Growing hunger and desperation in a global world will devastate people, destabilize governments and generate more kindling for terrorism. If the U.S. leads, it can help revive its reputation in a world that has been alienated by this administration's arrogance. If the United States does not lead, it surely will contribute to resentment around the world. It is a time for leaders to stand up.
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