Jack de Groot: Getting the fundamentals right

20 May 2009

By The Record

Caritas CEO, Jack de Groot, says we need to get fundamental on the right to food.

By Jack de Groot

Hungry? Go to the fridge or the cupboard and it is likely that if you live in Australia, you will soon have your needs sated. Tonight though, around the world, 1 billion people will go to bed hungry. It is a devastating fact. In Australia we are feeling the direct affects of the confluence of the food and financial crises.  Many people have lost their jobs and higher unemployment is predicted through until the end of next year. Large chunks of our superannuation and investment have been totally wiped out. The food crisis too in Australia is being felt with the prolonged drought, urban sprawl placing pressure on agricultural lands and increased natural disasters pushing up prices in our supermarkets.
Yet the pain we feel here is nothing compared to the extreme vulnerability of that being felt by the poorest of the poor. Even though the world produces more than enough food for every man, woman and child on the planet, 1 in 6 people are teetering on the brink of starvation.
It is nothing more than an absolute affront to human dignity to know that we in the rich world have created a situation which is so unjust.
The rising price of food staples and fuel during 2007 and 2008 put basic necessities out of the reach of millions of people and the financial crisis has and will pull millions more into hunger. Although prices have come down, traditional staples such as rice, wheat and flour are between 30 and 150 percent more expensive than just two years ago. And as the financial crisis worsens here in our own country, it is the poorest communities in the poorest countries, who have no safety net, that are most vulnerable. Already the poorest spend the vast majority of their meager incomes on purchasing food. If they don’t get enough food, many will pay the ultimate price.
Equally as disturbing is the long term toll the current food and financial crises will take on developing countries. The hard won victories achieved in the fight against poverty are now on the line.
In 2000, The Millennium Development Goals were adopted by the international community as a fifteen year action plan to tackle poverty. Much progress has been achieved. The overarching goal of reducing absolute poverty by half is now within reach. In all but two regions, primary school enrolment has increased to 90 percent, deaths from measles fell from over 750,000 in 2000 to less than 250,000 in 2006 and the number of deaths from AIDS fell by more than 200,000 between 2000 and 2007.
These are just some of the achievements the world has made. Yet now, these successes are also in jeopardy.
The Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) called on nations to contribute a total of US$30 billion dollars annually to turn around the food crisis. This is well within our capacity, given that it took world economies just four weeks to come up with US$4 trillion to address the global financial crisis. We need the same level of political will to be directed to the food crisis. The economic costs of dealing with the fallout of the food crisis are immense, with the multiple impacts of malnutrition costing countries about 3.5 percent of their Gross Domestic Product. A child who suffers from malnutrition will feel the affects for the rest of their life, with a higher risk of mortality, vulnerability to illness and negative impacts on their schooling and work productivity as an adult.
Pope Benedict XVI articulated the moral dimension to the food crisis when he wrote: “Hunger and malnutrition are unacceptable in a world which has, in fact, levels of production, resources and knowledge sufficient to put an end to such dramas and their consequences”. Caritas Australia has released a report Food: The Fundamental Right to bring into focus the urgency in which the world needs to address the problem of global hunger. The report suggests a new framework for alleviating global hunger. The current system of food distribution which focuses too heavily on the power of the market and international trade, has failed to deliver sustainability to the world’s poor. Pope Benedict XVI wrote that social justice among people must be promoted to encourage a sharing of goods, their sustainable use and a just distribution of their benefits, in a letter to the Director General of the FAO.
The emerging idea of ‘food sovereignty’ emphasises community control over what is produced and eaten, promotes safe and sustainable agricultural practices and crucially, puts poor communities back in control of their food.
The right to food is a foundation of human development and a fundamental human right. By following the principles of solidarity, partnership, common good and stewardship of the earth defined in Catholic Social Teaching, Caritas holds human dignity as paramount and ensures economic systems contribute to a better life so that people can build their own food secure future. Caritas puts this into action every day by implementing sustainable agriculture and food security projects in countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, East Timor and Uganda which focus on supporting whole communities in a culturally appropriate manner, promoting environmentally friendly agricultural practices, and ensuring both short term and long term benefits for the people involved.
We live in a world with massive injustices but we also live in a world where compassion and humanity abound. This moment of horror can also be a moment of catalyst and hope. Read the report. Take the suggested actions. Support the work of Caritas and show your commitment to the human dignity of all peoples.
Jack de Groot is the CEO of Caritas Australia, the agency for aid and development of the Catholic Church.