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September 25, 2013
It was a beautiful, late summer morning and thousands were pouring in to the National Mall in Washington, DC, on August 28, trying to get as close as possible to the stage erected on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The scene was a far cry from the original March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, but it was a noteworthy expression and a fitting opportunity to redress persistent grievances held by millions of Americans. Admittedly, my expectations were low. There is a delicate dance between creating a spectacle and creating an event that could inspire, equip or encourage a movement. The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) had brought five young activists from North Carolina, Georgia and DC to participate in an “intergenerational teach-in” sponsored by the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference.
While the event was planned around the commemoration of the 1963 march, I know that people were uncertain about what to expect. The 2013 march exceeded my expectations; genuine organizers were invited to speak, and the variety of voices heard from the stage were evidence of the interconnectedness of present struggles. The single most surprising voice for me was probably that of the Harvard-trained economist (now at Columbia University) and internationally respected economic policy advisor, Jeffery Sachs.
Hunger was among the grievances wrapped up in the first march. It did not have to be named then. Everyone knew that “Jobs and Freedom” was intimately related to the fact that poor families throughout the country could not put food on the table. Sachs has been a champion for a fair and more humane economic system for many years, but I did not, for some reason, expect him to be on this stage. I should have. Any march on Washington in 2013 to address the present blights of poverty, labor exploitation, bloated military spending and consistent cuts to social services would need to have someone who could explain where we are in history, and where war is in the history of struggle for “jobs and freedom.”
During his brief time at the podium, Sachs made passionate remarks. 2013, much like 1963, is a time of moral crisis, he told us all: America is mired in income inequality. America enslaves multitudes of black and Hispanic young men to feed the avarice of its privatized penitentiaries. America despoils the Earth by its heedless fracking and burning of fossil fuels. And America sends drone missiles that kill innocent wedding-goers in a misguided war on Islam.1
Imagine all of this, coming from an economist! For me, the significance of that choice of speaker, and of his relevance to the topic of hunger, is that I know of Sachs as someone who has consistently decried the policies of world financial institutions that leave too many people unable to access means necessary to subsist, much less flourish.
In 2004, he made the case, in his well-known book The End of Poverty, that we already had the means to end abject poverty around the globe. In other words, we can end hunger. What we lack is the political will. Children and adults go hungry in the world, not because we don’t have enough food, but because alleviating world hunger has not ranked high among the list of priorities of the rich nations of the world. This is not a human problem that we can’t figure out; it is not a disease that would require a revolution in agriculture or science. Those revolutions have already occurred. What is needed, as Martin Luther King, Jr. so accurately expressed 50 years ago, is a “revolution of values.”
Disturbingly, what ranks high among the priorities of rich countries, particularly in the US, is the vast number of resources spent on the world’s largest and most capable military. The justification of our military prowess is shocking when one considers the fact that famine and food insecurity are among the key ingredients to the instability of several African nations where extremist groups are on the rise. It seems like common sense that a government that cannot ensure that its people are fed, is also not a government that can stand up to extremists that threaten its own survival. Yet the choice is all-too-often to offer military aid instead of the infrastructure and development support requested by African governments.
The United States either ignores or encourages policies by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that prioritize the demands of lenders rather than the needs of countries trying to develop their own economic capacity.
The US also has a reputation for propping up leaders that have been disastrous to their own people, but who meet some narrowly conceived security or economic interest of the United States. Jeffery Sachs has been among those articulating this concern most clearly. In some countries where the US has been militarily engaged, there has been an acknowledgement by military commanders about the humanitarian needs pressing communities that the US is engaging in war.
However, the decision to provide limited infrastructure and food support while sending missiles from predator drones, or going door-to-door in night raids, terrorizing families in the hunt for suspected terrorists, does not bring us closer to a resolution to the problem of global hunger. In fact, we will not effectively combat hunger unless we likewise challenge the increasing militarism of the United States and the decision to deal with conflict by threat or use of arms.
In working during the past year with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, I have traveled to two active conflict zones where armed hostilities had a direct relationship to matters of agricultural production, food security and hunger. The first is Colombia, a country that has been at war longer than I have been alive. In Colombia, paramilitary groups, working in the interests of multinational corporations, displace farmers from their lands by threat or massacre. There is forced recruitment into the Colombian military and a documented history of extrajudicial killings, where young men from cities are driven to the jungle, killed and labeled as insurgents.
Colombia is among the world’s most biologically diverse countries, with breathtaking beauty and rich agricultural capacity. Corporations want access to lands held by rural farmers, indigenous groups and afro-Colombian populations for the sake of things like mineral extraction, fruit and palm cultivation.
This reality is not only the source of conflict between guerilla insurgencies and the official military forces (with their paramilitary counterparts), but it is also the source of conflict between farmers and communities that want no part of the war and the economic interests of elites that threaten the stability of life throughout the country.
The US branch of the FOR has practiced the nonviolent action called “protective accompaniment” in Colombia for nearly 10 years. The community of San Jose de Arpartado has refused to take part in any side of the war, and they have suffered greatly for that refusal. The presence of international activists provides a deterrent to paramilitary action against the community. Colombia is the highest recipient of US military aid in the Western Hemisphere and is home to one of our largest embassy compounds. US foreign policies are interrelated with the conflict in Colombia.
The drug war, which is among the ways the US justifies its involvement, is said to finance the conflict. However, while that is partly true, the facts about who really profits from narco-trafficking are often misrepresented. This conflict has caused Colombia to have one of the highest rates of internally displaced people in the world—nearly 5 million.
According to the World Food Programme, Colombia is the third most populous country in Latin America, with an estimated population of 44 million, 76 percent living in urban areas. Despite its middle-income country status, 21 million Colombians are poor and 6 million live below the extreme poverty line.2
The end result is that, in a country rich with biodiversity and agricultural capacity, millions experience food insecurity. Hunger here is not the product of natural causes; it’s the result of policies that encourage exploitation and a nearly 40-year-old war.
The second conflict zone where I have been engaged more recently is Palestine. Among the multi-layered dynamics of the conflict, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has a direct effect on hunger in Palestine. The agricultural livelihood of Palestinian farmers, many of whose families have cultivated olive trees for centuries, is under constant assault.
Access to wells throughout the West Bank has been denied to Palestinians by Israeli settlers who have built communities there and claimed the wells for themselves. Soldiers, settlers and private security forces are known to have shot holes in water tanks above Palestinian homes. Hundred-year-old olive trees are destroyed to build settlements and the separation barrier, often referred to as the Apartheid Wall.
When an occupying army controls the means of one’s livelihood and an entire population’s agricultural production, a different type of food insecurity exists. This is not a matter of drought or famine, pestilence or insufficient agricultural knowledge. Because of geopolitical realities, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are simply not in control of their ability to provide food or water to their families or communities. Every aspect of their lives is the product of a negotiation with the Israeli occupying army.
The situation in the Gaza Strip is far more dire than in the West Bank. Acording to the World Food Programme, In the Gaza Strip, food insecurity levels are on the rise. In 2012, some 71 percent of households in the impoverished strip were found either food insecure or vulnerable to food insecurity.
The WFP report continues: Restrictions by Israeli authorities on freedom of movement, access to natural resources, the right to pursue gainful employment, and on international trade and investment has left 27 percent of households, or 1.3 million Palestinians, unable to meet their basic food and households expenses, with a further 14 percent of households at risk of food insecurity. Although these numbers show a slight recent improvement, they remain at an alarming level.3
The occupation has created a circumstance of food insecurity amid an environment where the legend and reality of Israel is that the desert was made to bloom.
When one juxtaposes these experiences alongside the persistent problems of hunger in the United States, one sees clearly the problem of mal-aligned priorities. It is well known that childhood nutrition affects early childhood education. It is also known that private prison companies are said to calculate the number of beds they can count on filling by examining third-grade reading levels in certain communities.
The “War on Drugs” in the United States, in addition to militarizing our police departments (before the “War on Terror” justified their militarization), has had devastating effects on poor communities, particularly Black and Latino communities—not because drug use is higher but because of the net affect of policies and targeted policing.
When someone is convicted of a felony charge of marijuana possession, the felon-disenfranchisement laws in many states not only strip one of his or her right to vote, but also his or her right to housing and SNAP benefits (Food Stamps).
The problem is not at all remote and not at all abstract. Yet, amid these incidents of hunger caused by the violence of war, there are examples of resistance, and I believe we are living in a time of great opportunity. The persistent inequalities in the United States are causing people to question not only what has been said about domestic policy, but also international policy.
As I speak to student groups in places like Gainesville, FL, Atlanta, GA, Louisville, KY, and elsewhere in the world, I see renewed engagement and a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of struggles. The nonviolent struggles of courageous Palestinians and their Israeli allies have gained increasing amounts of attention. US student groups like Students for Justice in Palestine have sponsored boycott campaigns on university campuses, aimed at boycotting the institutions that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
These students have also recognized that some of the same institutions are profiting from mass incarceration, immigrant detention and other inhumane systems in the US. In Colombia, while there is not yet cause to break out into celebration, there are peace talks between the government and leftist militias, and the Constitutional Court has handed down victories for the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado.
Communities in the United States, led in some ways by Detroit, where there is life and resilience amid the city’s economic devastation, are addressing issues of nutrition and its link to early education in ever-morecreative ways.
The relationship between war and hunger is not simply that hunger from natural causes creates conflict, although that is certainly true. Today, however, the relationship between war and hunger is a matter of choices—choices that either prioritize human life and flourishing, or choices that promise a false sense of security purchased through militarization and war.
We are living in a time of great opportunity. As I write, the United States stands ready to intervene militarily in Syria. There is little doubt that an already dire humanitarian situation will be made worse. We have before us choices to make; we have before us opportunities to engage in the construction of a better world. We can’t let up now! I’d like to echo the conclusion of Sach’s speech at the March on Washington, as it was later printed in the Huffington Post:
It was the genius of the generation of 1963 to recognize the indivisibility of morality. Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII knew that racism, poverty and militarism all carry us away from human needs and aspirations. It is our turn to bend the arc of the moral universe. We too must banish the moneylenders, not from the temple but from the lobbies of Congress and the White House. We too must beat swords into plowshares, joining together with Iranians, Egyptians, Palestinians and Israelis, to honor the prophets of peace. And we must end our assault on nature, leaving oil and coal in the ground and harvesting the sun and the wind instead.
In our age of greed and glitter, the work of justice often seems to be stilled. But do not be deceived. For the ancient cry still moves us today: Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live in the Promised Land.4
1. Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-sachs/march-on-washington)
2. World Food Programme (www.wfp.org/countries/colombia)
3. World Food Programme (www.wfp.org/countries/stateof-palestine/overview)
4. Huffington Post (see Number 1)