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close this bookOvercoming Global Hunger (WB)
close this folderAssociated event- the ethical dimensions of global hunger: a panel discussion
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Jorge Marid Mejia

The conference we are participating m, thanks to the invitation of the World Bank, is significantly entitled "A Conference on Actions to Reduce Hunger Worldwide" I emphasize the world actions to reduce hunger worldwide are and should be political actions, economic actions, and even social actions if civil society is to be involved, nationally and internationally, as it ought to be, and if the hoped for results are to be not only true results but also permanent ones.

However, actions of such different kinds are first of all human actions, individual human actions, even if they come from a given social context and tend to transform that context.

Now, human actions are of themselves ethical actions. That is to say they are actions that are morally inspired; either good or evil. Because omissions are as important as positive actions regarding the solution of problems such as global hunger, one should be prepared to assess not only actions but also omissions.

We are all agreed, I gather, that the problem of global hunger, which is also and indeed primarily a problem of concrete individual persons being hungry and having nothing to eat (men, women, children, older people), can be solved Put in other teens, it is not currently beyond the pale of the human community to have people eat enough, even in the most remote comers of the world.

According to recent data of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) that were examined at the FAO's twenty seventh conference held in Rome during the past two weeks, world food production is sufficient to meet the demands of the world's population considered as a whole . The point IS therefore not the lack of food. Nor is it, according to another FAO study, the imbalance between agricultural food production and demographic growth, which at this time appears to be stationary or tending to slow down.

The main difficulties, indeed the real obstacles in the way of adequately producing, trading, and distributing food so that it reaches everybody, are economic and political Some economic and political decisions, or again omissions, are responsible for the lack of a solution to the problem of hunger Consequently, hunger is not a kind of unavoidable necessity, a kind of curse hanging over the Lives of so many people, a curse induced by fate.

It is sometimes said that if the political "will" were there, at least some of the economic problems regarding hunger could be solved.

There is, therefore, an ethical question involved in global hunger. Whether or not to put some mechanisms in action depends on what criteria one chooses to follow in one's actions or inaction.

These criteria can be approached from different perspectives If one believes that purely economic or even political considerations are first and foremost in determining a certain course of action, and not the human rights and duties of all those involved, then hunger might easily continue unabated, or even extend and deepen This would also be true even if the lack of enough food were not seen as the direct aim of actions or omissings inspired by such criteria, but only as a painful result.

Does this mean that solidarity and sharing should take the place of sound economic planning and enlightened political decisions? To this question the answer is no. But we should add immediately that solidarity and sharing should also inspire economic and political decisions, especially in times of universal crisis, such as the one we are going through now.

Solidarity and sharing are, of course, ethical concepts and ethically inspired actions.

The problem lies deeper however I shall now try to approach it from the particular angle that might prove useful for our present discussion.

People have a right to be adequately nourished. Human beings, according to the United Nations 1948 Declaration in Article 3, have a right to life, as well as to liberty and security. And according to Article 25, a human being also has a right to an adequate standard of living "for the health and wellbeing of himself and his family, including food".

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) is yet more explicit. Article 11, paragraph 2 states: "The State Parties to the present Covenant recognize the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger ".

So, the right to be nourished is now seen as a "fundamental" right And let me add that since 1966 the declaration has become a covenant Now, a covenant implies obligations, as we shall soon see.

I believe this is a very solid ethical basis for assessing the problem of hunger worldwide, as well as for deciding on the correct actions to be taken.

Rights, in fact, exist to be respected and implemented, and for this reason they go hand in hand with the corresponding duties. Indeed, according to John Henry Newman (A Letter . . . to the Duke of Norfolk): "Conscience has rights because it has duties ".

For this reason, the covenant just quoted proceeds from the formulation of the fundamental right to be free from hunger, to expressing what the state parties should do to implement this right and what it implies. It goes from rights to duties; or, if you wish, supports the right with the corresponding duties. Otherwise, rights remain null and void.

In this connection, let me quote some sentences from Article 11.1 of the 1966 covenant '´The State Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right," (namely, the one to an adequate standard of living, "including adequate food"), "recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international, crop-ration based on free consent " Further down in paragraph 2 it says "The State Parties . . . shall take individually and collectively and through international cooperation, the measures, including specific measures, which are needed." These specific measures are then spelled out under sections a) and b) in the same Article 11. I do not need to read them out We all know them. The only pending question is to put them into practice. In a true sense, I am afraid, they have been awaiting implementation since 1966.

Moreover, the World Declaration on Nutrition of December 1992, which emerged from the FAO/World Health Organization International Congress in Rome, envisages not only the right to nutrition, but also recognizes "that access to nutritionally adequate and safe food is a right of each individual" (Article 1) In this sense, the right to nutrition implies adequate economic capacities and a safe environment.

We have thus made the transition from right to duty, and conscience has been mentioned in relation to both, if we are to take John Henry Newman's words seriously The "ethical dimensions of global hunger" have appeared before our eyes.

If I may now use a different perspective to express the same reality, I shall say that the problem of hunger, indeed of global hunger—but without forgetting what I said above about concrete individual persons who arc hungry—is a problem of conscience, ethically considered.

Conscience, in fact, manifests to us what is wrong and what is right, and in doing so expresses what we are obliged to do or to avoid It is the herald of moral obligation, as the recent Papal Encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" has admirably explained.

In the face of the problem of global hunger, conscience reacts and proclaims that there are some concrete actions, whether economic, political, or social, to be taken, and other actions to be avoided When such actions are not decided upon, or others are decided upon in their stead, then the problem in question not only remains unsolved, but we become responsible for the failure. We become responsible, according to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which we have undersigned, before the international community; but also responsible before ourselves; and, of course, before those who are bound to remain hungry, or die of hunger As a Christian, I would add that we are responsible before God, the Father of all.

Conscience, it could be said, is a very personal matter. Whose conscience, then, is or should be affected by the problem we are facing?

My first answer to such a pertinent question would be: the conscience of whoever is nearer to the one who suffers.

The term "near" in the comparative, should not be interpreted locally. It might, of course, be read so, because we are called, as fellow human beings, to share our food with whomever we see next to us being a victim of hunger This seems to be particularly true when people are victims of hunger because they are innocent victims of war, as is the case in more than one part of the world, as currently in the former Yugoslavia, for example.

But, in a deeper sense, "near" means, in this context, whoever is able, by his or her actions or omissions, to alleviate hunger or to ignore it, which always makes it worse.

As it is here a question of ethical decisions, there is no need to be more precise Each of us knows, or should know, exactly where he or she stands.

Again, there is such a thing as a common conscience, or shared values in a given society, be it national or international.

That is why it is so important that values are held up, promoted, and defended among all of us. I mean, of course, true values. Values are closely interconnected with rights and duties.

The existence and real influence of values make all the difference One could ask whether the fact that global hunger still exists and is worsening is not a sign that some values at least are no longer operative, or rather, whether or not they are considered values at all.

If global hunger is an ethical problem, then we should ask this question, and face the consequences.

As a Christian, I am convinced that the problem of global hunger, because it is ethical, affects one's relationship to God.

God not only commands us to feed our brothers and sisters, if they happen to be hungry while we are not; but also, much more radically, says to us that where we did feed or did not feed those who were hungry, we did feed or did not feed Him, as in the parable of the Final Judgment (Mt 25:35-41).


1. FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture 1993, Document C 93/2 (Rome: FAO, 1993), 2-10.

2. FAO, Agriculture Towards 2010, Document C 93/94 (Rome: FAO, 1993).