Feeding the Hungry Is More Than Moral : Assistance Targeted to Third World Markets Could Give U.S. Farm Economy a Boost

Orville L. Freeman, a former secretary of agriculture, is chairman of the board of governors of the United Nations Assn. of the United States

Hunger. Long the forgotten issue on the world agenda, it blazed briefly in public consciousness during the African famine of 1985 and abruptly faded from attention again.

But even if hunger has vanished from public debate, the gnawing problem continues--and grows. Half a billion people endure numbing malnutrition each day, often too weak to work or too debilitated even to produce the food they need to energize themselves. That number is growing, not diminishing.

The growth of chronic hunger not only presents the glaring paradox of want in the midst of plenty; in fact, the grinding poverty itself actually helps create gluts of unsold food. The ample surpluses of American agriculture, with production capacity 40% in excess of domestic needs, would find eager buyers in the fast-growing countries of the developing world if only their people could earn money with which to buy them.

A decade ago hunger emerged as a major issue on the global agenda. As secretary of state, Henry Kissinger went so far as to set an ambitious goal for both the United States and the world community: the elimination of world hunger by 1980. Long-range programs to accomplish both food and development strategies were established, funding was provided and considerable progress was made, even if the goal was not quite reached.

After 1980 hunger disappeared as an issue. The United States' multilateral development aid was slashed from $2.3 billion in 1980 to $949 million this year. Our three-year commitment to the International Fund for Agricultural Development fell from $254 million pledged for 1981-83 to $80 million pledged for 1987-89. Our Food for Peace allocation was halved in just two years, from $2 billion in 1985 to $1.1 billion today. And for 1986-87, payments on our $101-million obligation to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization have amounted to only $13 million.

No wonder the numbers of chronically hungry are growing once again. The United States has gone into default on a serious moral obligation, which is hardly attenuated by the episodic response to public concern about outright famine two years ago. This is the thrust of a new report titled "A Time To Plant: International Cooperation to End Hunger" by the United Nations Assn. of the United States: There is an urgent need "for a renewed commitment, by our own countries and the international community, to the goal of a world where no child goes to bed hungry--to the elimination of hunger before this century's end."

This is truly a moral obligation of first priority. At the same time, it is an economic issue of inestimable importance for American agriculture. For an all-out development war to conquer world hunger is also at the core of building future markets for agricultural products.

The plain fact is that the necessary markets for American farmers are not in Japan and the countries of Western Europe. The fastest-growing markets today for U.S. food exports are the developing countries that are undergoing rapid economic growth. South Korea, once a poverty-stricken recipient of U.S. food aid, is now purchasing more than $2 billion a year in American farm products--even as its own food output grows by a healthy 3% a year. Brazil, while expanding its agricultural production by 5% a year (and becoming a stiff U.S. competitor in the soybean sector), increased the volume of its imports of U.S. farm commodities by 15% over the last decade.

There is, in short, a fundamental relationship between the crisis of hunger in the developing world and the crisis of surplus in U.S. agriculture. The solution to both crises lies in rapid growth of earning power in the Third World. And economic expansion in developing countries must be led by rising purchasing power in the rural sector, where the bulk of Third World people live. This underscores the importance of carefully targeted international development aid that can spark increased productivity and an economic take-off.

It is increasingly clear that poorer nations' development policies need to be targeted to the poor in rural villages. Growth in their purchasing power both fuels local consumer industries (generating increases in urban income) and allows them to buy more varied foods. Similarly, development aid provided by wealthier countries, both directly and through multilateral institutions, should focus more on investment in productive "micro-enterprises" among the poor. Happily, initiatives in Congress to do just that have recently gained ground.

One of the most innovative recommendations in the new U.N./U.S. Assn. report, reflecting the fundamental relationship between trade and aid, calls for re-allocating some of the budget savings from a worldwide phase-out of grower subsidies to food purchase subsidies for the poor in key developing countries. The aid, channeled back into higher food purchases, would enrich the diets of the hungry poor--and would also expand markets for our growers. Just as food stamps expanded the food purchases of America's poor by 24%, in Sri Lanka they have increased the volume of food sold to the poor by 30%.

This is the epiphany that American policy makers must recognize: American interest in Third World rural development is practical as well as moral. The dollars invested in multilateral development banks are creating consumers, not competitors, and carefully targeted food aid stimulates productivity, not passivity. The possibility becomes ever more real of restoring a broad constituency against hunger amid this "action" triangle of interests: humanitarian aid, Third World development and commercial market-building.

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