MOST of what Americans believe about the cause of hunger is a myth, says Joseph Collins, co-founder of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (IFDP). And unfortunately, he adds, these myths leave Americans hopeless as to what they can do to help end it. Or, they result in a misdirected response that, in many cases, sustains the very injustices it seeks to alleviate.
Among the myths Dr. Collins views as most prevalent are:
There's not enough food;
Nature's to blame;
There are too many to feed;
More US aid will end the hunger.
Using food as a ``window,'' Collins analyzes societies to uncover and document evidence that disproves these statements. ``Food,'' says Collins, ``is a very good way of seeing societies, of understanding how they function. Indeed, in those societies where ... many people go without food, there is something radically wrong in the structure of that society.''
This structural error is ``a lack of democracy,'' he says.
Thus, the traditional approach - programs designed to transfer resources and technology to less-developed countries - are virtually useless if the structure of the society remains the same, he notes.
In 1974, Collins, who holds a doctorate in public policy from Columbia University, collaborated in writing and presenting to the United Nations World Food Conference the first of what was to become a series of reports challenging orthodox views of hunger.
A year later, he and Frances Moore Lapp'e, author of the best seller ``Diet for a Small Planet,'' jointly established the Institute for Food and Development Policy.
Although Collins and Ms. Lapp'e are considered two of the foremost authorities on food issues, their ideas are not always welcome. Indeed, says Collins, ``We sometimes find that our ideas alienate us from those groups that would otherwise be natural constituencies.''
Their institute is at odds with both the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its affiliate, the World Bank. The IFDP has attacked not only specific aid programs and loans - and the people involved with them - but also the very purpose for which these and other agencies exist: aid for international development.
The heart of the contention is whether the US should provide aid to developing countries whose governments show little or no respect for human rights.
As Collins and Lapp'e see it, the US is actually prolonging - sometimes even creating - the misery it seeks to alleviate with its foreign aid programs and support of IMF loans.
In the most recent of several books they have written together, ``World Hunger: Twelve Myths'' (New York: Grove Press, $7.95), they write: ``Hunger is the ultimate symbol of powerlessness.'' This powerlessness, they say, is the result of undemocratic structures in society that strip the individual of his ability to care for himself and those he loves.
They note that in many underdeveloped nations where hunger is rampant, governments hard-pressed for foreign currency set national policies that require farmers to produce cash crops instead of food for local consumption. (Sudan - one of Africa's most indebted nations - is now prepared to begin exporting grain surpluses from its northern regions, despite the fact that starvation is widespread in the south.)
Under such conditions, says Collins, foreign economic aid prolongs poverty and hunger. Military aid ``arms the ruler against his own people.'' And international loans, made by officers who Collins says are ``under incredible pressure to make loans'' have created and are sustaining an international debt crisis.
In many instances, it would be better for the US to pull out entirely, Collins says. The US role in international development ``is not to intervene and see ourselves [the United States] as called upon to set things right. No. What we should understand is that there are people in these countries working for change, but in many instances the obstacles in their way are related to what is being done with our tax dollars.'' IFDP's main thrust is to teach Americans how to help remove these obstacles through the politicians they support, the charities they fund, the goods they buy.
But officials at foreign aid and relief agencies - both government and private - view their programs as efforts to help people mostly at the grass-roots level. USAID officials do not, as a general rule, see themselves as implementers of foreign policy. Rather, they see their agency somewhat an entity unto itself, with humanitarian goals.
Additionally, defenders of present policies say that if the US were to pull out, in many societies the people working toward change would be more vulnerable to the influences of communism.
But as one long-time food and development expert sees it, critics who charge Collins and Lapp'e with being advocates of communism or socialism are merely reflecting the far-right mood in the US today. Even ``social democrats'' are out of favor these days, he notes.
This expert goes on to note that colleagues' displeasure is often a result of what he terms Collins and Lapp'e's ``dogmatic'' approach, which leaves them too often unwilling to cooperate with other agencies. But for all the criticism, he says, ``we don't want to discredit a group that is doing some very good things.''
Despite its poor reputation at some institutions, the San Francisco-based institute has been key in setting the current debate on hunger and international development, says Tom Keehn of Interaction, a 127-member umbrella association of private voluntary organizations. Relief groups are increasingly addressing the issues of poverty and powerlessness - instead of concentrating on development technology and charity, he notes.
According to other sources, including UN, government, and relief agency officials, Collins and Lapp'e's approach has resulted in some very positive contributions to the international development field. Even those who criticize their politics praise studies IFDP has done on the ``food realities'' of some very controversial countries, such as Nicaragua, Cuba, and North Korea.
The Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1885 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103.