WASHINGTON — Air drops of food and a call from President Bush to help hungry Afghan children are timely reminders that suffering is at the heart of most human conflict, and that Americans are ready to help. As part of the war on terrorism, we are challenged to think long and hard about America's global role and how we can make common cause with the vast majority of people around the world who want only the freedom and means to live a better life.
Religious fanaticism motivated the Sept. 11 attacks, but poverty and hunger remain the central obstacles to global security, whether we gauge it in social, economic, political, or military terms.
For people who struggle to feed their families and feel left behind by economic globalization, the call to radicalism is powerful. The challenge for America - both to protect itself and to fulfill its highest values - is to tackle the problems of poorer nations in a way that demonstrates our bond with them, getting results they can see.
Around the world, more than 800 million people are chronically undernourished, with devastating consequences for their health and for the welfare of their communities. The ravages of poverty and hunger in much of the developing world threaten social and political stability and provide a fertile field for those who seek to generate and exploit anti-Western hostility.
Recognizing the importance of these facts, the United States joined 185 other countries at the United Nations' 1996 World Food Summit in a pledge to cut global hunger in half by 2015. The US told the summit that "improving food security is an essential key to world peace" and that "our humanitarian interests, our economic interests, and our national security are at stake."
Following the summit, we prepared an elaborate "action plan," whose broad themes reflected consensus in this country and abroad about how to achieve the hunger-reduction goal.
But we have not followed through with effective action. We have not developed concrete implementation plans. We have not committed sufficient resources. And we have allowed that effort to be overseen by an interagency committee with no real authority to exert meaningful leadership. The result is little progress in achieving the 2015 hunger-reduction goal.
Battling terrorism appropriately takes center stage today. But as the food crisis in Afghanistan emerges and the Bush administration maps its longer-term strategy for making the world secure, now is the time for our government to define American interests and the American role in battling global hunger.
There are promising signs of the administration's intentions. President Bush told the World Bank in July that "a world where some live in comfort and plenty, while half of the human race lives on less than $2 a day is neither just, nor stable." Andrew Natsios, the new administrator of the Agency for International Development, has hands-on development experience and has included improving agriculture in developing countries among the "four pillars" of his development strategy.
To make good on these insights, the administration needs to review its game plan for fighting hunger. It should focus on programs that will yield tangible results. It should make a resource commitment to achieve the summit goal. And it should give food security greater political priority. The secretary of State and AID administrator - not an interagency committee - should have full-time leadership of this issue.
With these changes, the US can fulfill its promise in the fight against hunger and help people who are less fortunate than we are, but whose futures are inextricably intertwined with ours.
Michael R. Taylor is a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, an independent research organization, where he studies food security.