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World Food Day Highlights Severity of Global Hunger, Public's Will to Eradicate It


Thursday (October 16th) is World Food Day, an annual observance sponsored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to promote worldwide awareness of the problem of global hunger and ways to alleviate it. The situation remains dire. According to the 2008 Global Hunger Index just released by the International Food Policy Research Institute, 33 countries in the world have "alarming or extremely alarming" levels of child mortality, child malnutrition and other hunger-related health problems. (See interactive map below.) But a new international poll suggests that the public will exists to end the scourge of hunger. VOA's Adam Phillips reports.

Despite improvements in the global economy and living standards in many countries in recent years, more than 900 million people - most of them in developing countries - continue to experience chronic hunger. In recognition of this crisis, leaders from more than 100 nations met at the United Nations in 2000 and agreed to eight so-called Millennium Development Goals. Among them was a commitment to halve the number of people in the world who live on $1 a day or less by the year 2015.

To gauge the level of public support for that goal eight years later,, a network of polling research centers around the world, conducted a survey of more than 16 thousand citizens in 20 nations. In the first of two questions, respondents were asked whether the developed countries have a moral obligation to reduce hunger and severe poverty in poor countries.

"And in every country that we asked, we found a majority or a plurality who said 'yes,'" says Clay Ramsay, the group's research director. "In the United States, it was 81 percent, and it was very high in most countries."

Majority of Citizens in Developed Nations Say They Would Pay to End Poverty

The second question was reserved for citizens in eight developed nations which already provide at least some financial aid to end global hunger.

Respondents were given a specific tax amount that would be required of each citizen in that country in order to pay that country's proportion share in realizing the Millennium Development goal of eliminating global poverty.

"And in every country, a majority said 'Yes. I will pay these extra taxes,'" says Ramsay. "That tells me that there is tremendous untapped good will and political backing that... the leaders of the world [could] use in order to solve the problems that are going to be core for the 21st century."

Politicians in developed countries have sometimes argued against spending more to help end hunger by claiming that their constituents are opposed to it. According to Ramsay, this happened a great deal in the United States during the 1990s when "it was very common for foreign aid to be treated as a kind of 'whipping boy' in Congress."

Ramsay adds that there continues to be a "misperception" among the American public that the United States spends a greater percentage of its federal budget on foreign aid than it actually does.

"However," Ramsay says, "… that misperception doesn't change Americans' underlying belief that we have a moral obligation, along with other countries, to do something [about world hunger]."

Researcher Says Developing Countries Can Help Achieve Millennium Goals

Ramsay is quick to point out that developing countries also have a vital role to play in achieving the Millennium Goals they agreed to - even if, for now, this does not mean contributing foreign economic aid per se. China and India, for example, are not yet considered developed countries by international standards. But their economies have grown enormously in recent years, and their leaders, Ramsay believes, must ensure that those nations' new wealth is shared justly.

"In the Chinese case, the important thing would be to take the huge remaining peasantry… that has not shared in the spectacular growth of the Chinese economy, and really lift them [out of poverty, too]."

There are comparable tasks in other developing countries. Many involve other Millennium Development goals that bear a powerful, if indirect, relationship to hunger. For example, free primary education for all children is a Millennium Development Goal that Ramsay says Kenya adopted five years ago.

"From one day to the next, they had another million and a half kids in those classrooms. Was it tough? Yes!" Ramsay says. "On the other hand, offering universal primary education greatly improves a nation's economic prospects for the long term.

"… and this does have an indirect effect for how the picture for food and hunger is going to look down the road. That's why there are eight of these Millennium Development Goals and they are all interrelated."

Besides reducing by half the ranks of the world's poor, those Millennium Development Goals also include a vigorous commitment to child and maternal health, gender equality, environmental protection and the eradication of HIV/AIDS - all by 2015.

Map courtesy of International Food Policy Research Institute