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Only the poor go hungry

By V. Tarzie VittachiV. Tarzie Vittachi is deputy executive director for external affairs of the United Nations Children Fund. / November 2, 1982



Every year World Food Day comes around and every year the statistics of hunger become uglier. The stock response is that it is inevitable because people in the populous poor countries are excessively and irresponsibly fecund so that food production cannot catch up with increasing numbers. Malthusianism in its oldest and rawest form dies hard.

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The truth is that most people across the globe have reduced their family size and birth rates have fallen - in some areas impressively, almost everywhere noticeably. (There are one or two aberrations in this trend.)

And on the supply side, more food is being produced than ever before and the technology for producing enough for all is available. What is not available is access to that food for millions who need it and a resolute determination by people in power that hunger will be stamped out of this planet as certain diseases have been.

Is it possible to concentrate that will? The prospect is dismal. The problem is that there is no ''reason'' for people who have not experienced what it is to suffer from unappeasable hunger to be concerned with the pangs of others. They are only a huge faceless, nameless mass of statistics. Simone Weil, that luminous French lady who could empathize with the hungry because she deliberately set out to experience hunger herself, told us (in ''The Need for Roots'') that there is no reason to feel responsible for another human being's hunger other than that you yourself are human.

But there are ''reasons'' galore to dodge that responsibility.

A few years ago, I was present when Moraji Desai, then prime minister of India, addressed the parliamentarians of Sri Lanka. With his white cloth cap and his cadaverous face, he was the very embodiment of the ''Gandhian.'' ''My friends,'' he said, ''you will be glad to hear that India has a surplus of 20 million tons of grain.''

I asked myself: Surplus to what? To need? When there are so many millions living at the edge of starvation? He went on to offer his ''reason'': ''Unfortunately,'' Mr. Desai continued, ''our people are too poor to buy it.'' Even a dyed-in-home-spun Gandhian had developed the mind-set which made it seem reasonable that even the survival needs of human beings had to obey the non-human laws of the marketplace.

In Kyoto, I once saw a train of trucks loaded with rice packed in plastic sacks. An army of people were dumping them into Lake Biwa. I asked the man in charge of the operation why they were dumping food when Bangladesh was reported to need 700,000 tons at that time to avoid a threatening famine. He had a ''reason.'' They were carrying out an experiment to find out how plastic-bagged rice would store under water.

The marketplace of economics and politics can produce other reasons, less bizarre and evidently rational, for not making ''surplus'' food available to people in need of it. Prices must remain high enough to sustain farmers' profits to make production worthwhile. Politicians cannot afford to annoy the farmers' unions. And giving food ''away'' or even subsidizing it, upsets the International Monetary Fund's stern notions of economic prudence.

The late Barbara Ward realized in the mid-'70s that all appeals to conscience had failed and tried a new tack: to touch the self-interest of power. That approach was epitomized in the Brandt Commission report which virtually argued that a billion destitute was not a good foundation for the growth of the industrialized countries. It suggested that the development of the materially poor world and that of the industrialized world were intermeshed. The alleviation of poverty was, according to that scenario, a good investment in market development.

It has not washed. The only clear response - whether one likes it or not - has come from the Reagan administration which says, in effect, ''Okay, we will help you to develop our way - by recourse to the capacity, expertise, needs, and methods of private industry.'' So it is a standoff. Was Barbara Ward's work then futile in the drive to banish hunger?

On the contrary. It threw light on a simple, self-evident truth, that only the poor are hungry. Have you ever seen anyone with money who is hungry? It is so simple a fact that it is generally forgotten. Only the poor are hungry. Poverty, then, is the cause and poverty has to be attacked.

Development and the elimination of hunger and malnutrition can proceed simultaneously. There are some important steps that can be taken immediately. First, it is essential that leaders of developing countries give their people a solemn public undertaking that within a year, or possibly two, no one would go hungry in their land. If such a declaration were made, the change of attitudes, the change in the administration's priorities, and the change in the pace of work would change dramatically. Second, the malnourishment of children, the epicenter of the family, can and must be stoped at once.

What is lacking is a determined response in the medical hierarchy which advises governments on health policy. If they were to accept the principle that it is unconscionable to let a child die of a preventable cause, village communities will have found an important ally in their own struggle to improve the health of their families. And, if they went the next step and convinced themselves of that simple act - that only the poor are hungry - they would also be serving the ethical values of their profession by persuading their governments to make that declaration: no one will go hungry in this land. It might even be good politics.

It is certainly good conscience.