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Heather Hanson of Mercy Corps talks about the roadmap to end global hunger

United States, September 18, 2009

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William Lambers

The Examiner
September, 2009

Mercy Corps is one of a coalition of charities calling for a new U.S. government strategy for fighting global hunger. This comes at a time when the number of the world's hungry is over 1 billion people.

The coalition's recommendations have become legislation in Congress called "The Roadmap to End Global Hunger (H.R. 2817)." Heather Hanson, Director of Public Affairs for Mercy Corps, recently answered some questions about what this bill means in the struggle to defeat mankind's most resilient enemy: hunger.

How might the Roadmap legislation impact Mercy Corps' efforts in fighting hunger?

The Roadmap legislation calls upon the US government to take a coordinated, comprehensive approach to ending world hunger. This kind of response will allow more flexibility for aid agencies such as Mercy Corps to address the real needs facing hungry people. For example, after crop failures, natural disasters and other kinds of shocks, Mercy Corps will often design and implement programs to ensure that all people have access to the food they need to weather the emergency and begin to rebuild. But often it is very difficult - because of poor co-ordination from a central body - to transition from emergency programs that provide food, to medium-term programs like cash-for-work programs that can contribute to building back rural infrastructure, and eventually to long-term development programs aimed at increasing the productivity and earnings of small-scale farmers. A comprehensive, coordinated approach will enable Mercy Corps to better serve the needs of those we aim to reach with our programs by making sure the different streams of US funding are mutually reinforcing and link up with one another.

Rep Jim McGovern said, "We have the resources to end hunger in our lifetime - what we need is the political will to make it happen." Could the Roadmap legislation change the political landscape in terms of the fight against hunger?

The Roadmap legislation alone is unlikely to change the political landscape of the fight against hunger, but it is a very important mobilizing tool to build support for a comprehensive US government program: essentially to build the political will to end hunger. Hunger politics is incredibly complex because so many sectors - from agribusinesses to the shipping industry - are impacted by major shifts in policy. However, we have seen a welcome shift in the Obama Administration towards tackling the issue of hunger, with Secretary Hillary Clinton allocating major resources behind this effort. With strong leadership in the White House, the State Department and other US agencies, and a growing network of supporters in Congress, it is clear that major progress can be made towards ending hunger in the coming years.

Would the Roadmap legislation make for a more efficient use of taxpayer funds used in hunger fighting initiatives?

That is the vision. The vision is to scale up those US programs that are most efficient at producing impact while gradually building up the capacity of people all over the world to sustainably feed themselves. While the shifts in US funding that the Roadmap recommends would not take place overnight, the Roadmap lays out a gradual plan to shift resources over a five year period. For example, there will always be emergencies, but if there are disaster risk reduction programs in place, if small-scale farmers have access to adequate crop insurance, if other countries have effective emergency response programs to be able to respond independently to needs, then the cost to the international community for responding is dramatically reduced.

The Roadmap establishes a global hunger advisor to work with President Obama in the White House. It also reestablishes a congressional committee on hunger. What do you think would be the significance of these two developments?

Right now US programs to address global hunger are spread across many different agencies and several Congressional Committees share oversight responsibilities. This often means that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing, which can lead to duplication of efforts and also to some important gaps going unfilled. Having adequate coordination and oversight is essential to making sure all the programs we support are mutually reinforcing and focused on really getting assistance to the hungry people who need it most, as well as making sure that the programs are not handouts, but are structured to help hungry people help themselves.

Do you think a global hunger advisor in the White House can also increase the awareness about global hunger issues in the newspaper and TV media? Could it elevate hunger into the news?

Yes, although last year's food crisis also elevated hunger in the news. This is one of the sad elements of hunger - that while almost a billion people go to bed hungry every night, it is a rather invisible problem most of the time. It takes a shock - something that causes unrest, or an event that hits us here in the US as well - to get people's attention. Hopefully having strong White House leadership on global hunger would raise awareness in ways that would ensure we are doing all we can to end hunger. The American people consistently express their support for programs to combat hunger, both at home and abroad. We are a deeply moral nation with a real sense of responsibility to a larger community, to caring for those in need. The real news is not that people are hungry - but rather that they don't have to be. We can end hunger in our lifetimes. It would be great if the Obama Administration could make steps in that direction to restore people's hope in big goals like this.

Mercy Corps in the past has received funding from the McGovern-Dole Food for Education program which supports school lunch initiatives in developing countries. How do you think the McGovern-Dole program will benefit from passage of the Roadmap?

It's not clear how any specific program might benefit as the legislation does not set aside pots of money for different programs but rather tries to set a higher ceiling on the overall US support and encourage a comprehensive, flexible, and sustainable approach. In the detailed funding recommendations we have recommended increased funding for the McGovern-Dole Food for Education program. We also recommended expanding it to allow for full development of the program, since from the beginning it has never been funded at the level that was authorized by Congress. The program is very flexible and meets a dual goal of improving child nutrition and increasing school enrollments.

How can readers get in touch with Mercy Corps and help work toward getting the Roadmap to end Global Hunger legislation passed in Congress?

Visit our website at mercycorps.org.
Sign up as an activist at actioncenter.org.