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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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David Beckmann

In our era the most pressing ethical question related to hunger is how do we organize political will to end hunger?

As the papers for this conference have pointed out, a series of conferences over many years have recognized people's right to food and outlined feasible programs for getting rid of mass hunger in the world. The basic problem in carrying out those mandates is that we have not been able to mobilize the necessary political will.

Political will is also an issue within the World Bank The Bank has been committed to poverty reduction as a primary objective for twenty years. McNamara made his Nairobi speech on rural poverty in 1973. The last two presidents of the Bank have consistently said that reducing poverty is the basic objective of the World Bank, but there are still many internal meetings in the Bank where the staff who are most serious about reducing poverty and hunger feel as if they are a beleaguered and idealistic minority.

Despite twenty years of real commitment at the level of the president of the Bank, doubts remain even among many Bank staff about how serious the Bank is about its stated intentions of reducing poverty and hunger The challenge for the Bank, as well as for antipoverty efforts more generally, is to take steps that will establish the political will to actually carry out the rhetoric.

I will speak from two areas of my experience: the work I am doing now with Bread for the World, and my fifteen years of work within the World Bank.

Bread for the World

Bread for the World is a church-based citizens' movement against hunger. We have about 44,000 individual members and 1,000 affiliated local churches throughout the United States. We get moral and financial support from about fifty different denominations all the way across the theological spectrum, and we have some members who are not Christian.

We organize people to lobby the U.S. Congress and the administration on issues that are important to hungry people in our country and around the world. Because or our active grassroots network, Bread for the World accounts for more than half of all the lobbying done in this country for poor people in developing countries. We also have an influence on some issues that affect poor and hungry people within the United States. It has taken twenty years to build Bread for the World. But it now provides practical links between the high aspirations of people in South Dakota, Arizona, or Colorado and policymaking in Washington that affects hungry people throughout the United States and worldwide.

Others have spoken about guilt and outrage as motives for action to overcome hunger. But I suspect that most Bread for the World members are more deeply motivated by a sense of abundance, of having been blessed, accepted, and forgiven Christian faith in a loving God is what has given Bread for the World its staying power I suspect that most people who actively work to overcome hunger are grounded in grace, shalom, Islam, love of nature, or some other positive and transcendent ethos.

Bread for the World's annual budget is less than US$4 million, but almost every year we get the US. Congress to move hundreds of millions of dollars into programs that are good for poor and hungry people. Sometimes we help win broad shifts in U.S. policy that are worth far more.

Bread for the World Institute has just published Hunger 1994: Transforming the Politics of Hunger. This book is a stage in a multiyear process of consultation and study on how to change US. politics as it affects hungry people in our country and around the world We intend to help build a broad social and political movement against hunger and poverty If we want to make the US. government a serious ally of hungry people, we need to transform the politics of hunger.

I urge you to get Hunger 1994 and read it Let me make just two points from Hunger 1994 here.

First, to overcome hunger, people and organizations who are already working with poor and hungry people need to become more political. That includes official development agencies such as the World Bank. The Bank's charter and systems of governance have, at least until now, made it almost impossible for the Bank to think straight about politics. Nongoverrnmental organizations (NGOs) and others who are trying to work with hungry people also need to get more political.

The United States now has more than 150,000 private agencies passing out food to hungry people So there is no scarcity of concern about hunger and poverty, but most of it is apolitical Especially in the United States, we tend to be privately generous and publicly stingy Nearly all the 150,000 private feeding agencies have sprouted up since 1980, during a period when public policies have been harsh toward low-income people The private feeding movement, as fast as it has grown, has not kept up with the spread of hunger. The US. feeding movement is a clear demonstration that people and organizations who are concerned about hunger and poverty need to engage more— and more effectively- in changing the politics of hunger.

A second point from Hunger 1994, which seems especially relevant for this conference, is that US. political decisions about world hunger will be significantly influenced by the politics of domestic hunger. The U.S. government won't care much about what happens in Somalia or to poor people in the Philippines or Brazil until it cares much more actively about the plight of hungry people in southeast Washington, Appalachia, or south Texas. Serious U.S. commitment to international development, if it comes, will he froth on a wave of domestic social concern.

Bread for the World has been able to get tens of thousands of people working on foreign aid reform, partly because we also empower them to work on issues that effect the 30 million people in the United States who face hunger.

One final Bread for the world experience that I want to share is our work this year to reform U.S. foreign assistance. We call our campaign "Many Neighbors, One Earth." We anticipated last year that the end of the Cold War would put the future of U.S. foreign assistance very much in doubt US. foreign assistance is being dramatically revamped, and no one can yet tell whether it will be slashed or meaningfully reformed So we have been campaigning to make sustainable development—especially reducing poverty and hunger in environmentally sound ways the primary purpose of post-Cold War foreign ail We have also been trying to shift money from Cold War driven aspects of the US aid budget into programs that are focused on sustainable development. About 185 organization have worked with us on the "Mary Neighbors, One Ear" campaign, and other organizations have worked in various coalitions with us.

What happens at the White House, two blocks away, will have more impact on world hunger than any decisions here at the World Bank. We should all be trying to get President Clinton to focus on what is good for developing countries and for poor people in developing countries Hunger and poverty in other countries have not been among the Clinton administration's priorities. So foreign aid money has been cut. The foreign aid policy bill was put off. A full year after President Clinton came to office, his administration has yet to appoint a US. executive director to the World Bank.

My sense is that senior managers of the World Bank do not all share the same vision of its future, and that the Bank is unlikely to set any clear new course for itself as long as its largest shareholder government, at the highest level, really does not care much what the Bank does.

The United States is important in the world economy and in international decisions. So until we can get the president of the United States to provide some leadership for international development and hunger reduction, we are going to have a very difficult time making progress against hunger and poverty worldwide.

The "Many Neighbors, One Earth" campaign generated about 90,000 letters to Congress in 1993. Constituents have told their representatives that foreign aid that empowers and enables poor and hungry people is important and should be expanded Almost half the members of the House of Representatives and thirty senators have become cosponsors of the "Many Neighbors, One Earth" resolution, which calls for a shift of policy and money toward poverty-focused activities. Partly because of this grassroots pressure, congressional leaders have been pushing the administration to move forward with a foreign aid policy bile.

This discussion of Bread for the World's work provides some practical illustrations of ways to build political will to overcome hunger. We shouldn't just hope for political will, waiting for some politician or journalist to appear with the necessary conviction, vision, and persuasive power Building political will is a project that requires planning and work over many years—a profoundly ethical project.

The World Bank

Now allow me to reflect a bit on my fifteen years at the World Bank. I did not leave the Bank because I thought it was a horrible institution or that no good could be done here. On the contrary, I think a lot of good is done here. But the World Bank has a fundamental problem of political will: it is responsible to its shareholder governments.

The industrial countries' governments dominate the Bank's board. What the Bank does thus depends heavily on what the governments of the United States, Germany, Japan, and the other industrial countries want The Bank lends to developing countries' governments, and it feels pressure from them too What the World Bank does in India depends profoundly on what the Indian government wants.

The mandate of the World Bank is to reduce poverty, but its accountability structure makes the Bank always beholden to governments Its board of governors are the folks who drive around in limousines at the Bank-Fund annual meetings. Finance ministers are not usually nasty people, but reducing poverty is seldom the highest priority of any government.

The industrial countries' governments give inconsistent signals to the Bank In the board they may agree that the Bank should focus resolutely on reducing poverty. Yet the next week the Bank may be making a decision related to francophone West Africa, and the French government has other interests it wants to push Or the Bank is doing something in Egypt or Viet Nam, and the U.S. government has priorities other than what's best for poor people.

Similarly, developing countries' governments are seldom preoccupied with reducing poverty and hunger, and they also often pull the Bank off course. The World Bank has many wonderfully committed staff, and they do a great deal or important and good work. But again and again the Bank's governance system does not back them up with consistent mission driven political will.

Can we fix this problem? Even if we could change formal governance structures, an institution that manages such large-scale finance will be forced to work closely with governments.

The change in the Bank's information policy that is about to be implemented is a tremendously important reform. People all over the world will be much better informed about what the World Bank and governments are saying to each other and planning to do. Groups like Bread for the World and the National Wildlife Federation, our counterparts in Central America or India, and local community organizations and journalists will be in a better position to influence Bank-related policies and projects Knowledge is power, and pro-poor interests will now have more possibilities for holding the Bank's feet to the fire.

I applaud this measure that the Bank's management and board have taken. NGOs have pushed for years for a more open information policy The Banking Committee of the US House of Representatives pushed hard for it. It is a small, but significant, and almost irrevocable shift in the balance of power For years to come Bank managers and staff will be under a somewhat different set of pressures.

The next step should be to help groups who represent pro-poor interests become involved with the Bank and with Bank-financed activities They will often criticize, but they will, in the process, help the Bank do a better job.

Commercial and other interests will also have more information More open, democratic processes will not necessarily result in decisions that are better for the poor. Because the Bank's mission is to reduce poverty, the Bank should actively help poor people and pro poor NGOs to engage in the planning of Bank-financed activities. NGOs do not now have the necessary capacity. As president of a relatively large antipoverty advocacy group, I have gained a sharp sense of how limited our resources are in relation to those of official agencies It has been a stretch for US NGOs even to participate meaningfully in the planning of this conference. US. environmental groups are large and sophisticated by NGO standards, but they have had to focus on a score of projects to make their broader points about the need for World Bank reform The Bank is churning out more than 200 projects a year. NGOs do not now have the capacity to have even a minor influence on most of them, let alone the hundreds of other major projects and policy decisions that other official agencies and governments are developing.

The Bank's new information policy makes NGO involvement more feasible What is needed now is a decentralized system of small grants and other assistance to advocacy groups, especially in the developing countries, so that they can modify the pressures on Bank managers and staff as particular decisions are made NGOs, especially well-financed industrial country NGOs, should shift more of their resources to advocacy. Bilateral aid agencies, public and private foundations, and others should also help with funding In addition, we need a new institution or set of institutions to help pro-poor organizations make the agents of large-scale development activities more accountable.

The Bank could give capacity building along these lines a tremendous boost forward. At this conference the Bank is indicating that it might help organize a consultative mechanism to assist and empower hungry people: the ultra-poor. This proposed network of institutions should, in my view, strengthen pro-poor groups around the world to pull the Bank and other large official systems in the direction of what is good for really hungry people. This would include a stronger social orientation in the design of macroeconomic policies and measures to empower poor people to shape projects that will affect them. A consultative network of institutions is a good model—decentralized, but in close communication with one another. It would include both governmental and nongovernmental institutions, some already existing and some new.

Would the Bank cooperate in building this sort of network? Why should the Bank strengthen its critics? This conference shows that the Bank just might do so The Bank invited NGOs to help plan the conference, and the conference is indeed better because it includes criticism and dissent NGOs here are saying things that some Bank stain' themselves would like to say, but could not say so boldly.

If pro-poor citizen groups become better able to become involved in specific and informed ways, the Bank would need to face up to lots of controversy and make far-reaching, difficult changes. The process would encourage the Bank to be more consistency faithful to its antipoverty mission and, over time, would broaden political support for the Bank.


1. Until 1991, David Beckmann was on the staff of the World Bank, most recently as the Bank's lead adviser on nongovernmental organizations and popular participation.