It was bound to happen, of course. Another catastrophe. Just when our memories of the staggering loss of life from the earthquake in Sichuan, China, and the typhoon in Myanmar had mercifully faded away, along comes the disaster in Haiti to shake us once more. Although not all the bodies have yet been recovered, the Haitian toll will apparently rival the 68,109 deaths in Sichuan and Myanmar’s loss which was even larger.
Whatever the specific numbers are in such a horrific event, they are always enough to trigger non-stop media coverage, and that coverage in turn stimulates relief efforts from every quarter. Governments, non-governmental agencies, religious groups, philanthropic foundations, classrooms of school children, and individuals are all stirred by the stories of loss and reach deep into their hearts and pockets to help.
One would think, then, that we could expect a similar response to the news of the next wave of mass deaths that it is my grave duty to announce today. In fact, one might even imagine that the response would be dramatically greater because these deaths—28,000 just yesterday alone!—could have been prevented. Yes, unlike those who died from sudden natural catastrophes like earthquakes and cyclones, these 28,000 took a while to die, right in front of observers. And what’s even worse: at almost any point prior to their deaths, a simple intervention could have kept them alive.
And so, too, could intervention stave off the 28,000 deaths that will occur between this time today and the same time tomorrow. And, yes, the 28,000 that will happen the day after tomorrow. (By now you can guess what comes next—another 28,000 the day after that, and so on ad nauseam, ad infinitum.)
These 28,000 people who die each day starve to death, slowly. Each and every day leading up to their deaths, their bodies waste away a bit more, until they simply cease to live. Did I mention that all 28,000 who will die today are young children? If you add in adults, the number is more like 36,000. The missing intervention? All they needed was something to eat.
Of course, these numbers are not new to us. We have heard them before, but we simply can’t deal with them. And so we shut them out. Okay, give us a big dramatic catastrophe we can rally around—an earthquake, a cyclone, a terrorist attack. We’re good at the loud crises. But the distant drumbeat of daily death from starvation and easily preventable diseases, well, that’s another matter. Like the folks who live next to the railroad tracks and no longer even notice the trains thundering by, we have tuned out this incessant holocaust of horror.
Sadly, we are all prone to “compassion fatigue”. We simply cannot be counted on to sustain a fever pitch of helping pitiable victims. On the other hand, we cannot simply turn away, either, thankful not to be among the victims. And so if we are to play a role in reducing and eventually eliminating the 28,000/36,000 daily deaths from starvation, it will more likely come through our support for systemic changes, not through surges of sympathy. This is not to downplay individuals’ support of outstanding private initiatives like Bread for the World, Oxfam, and The Heifer Project. To the contrary, our immediate and ongoing support for them is critical. But without enlightened, long-term action to address the root causes of poverty and starvation, the growing magnitude of the problem will continue to overwhelm even our most sympathetic impulses.
What kind of systemic changes can make a difference? The spread of microcredit is now a major force, having helped to lift more than 100,000,000 families out of poverty worldwide in the past decade. Microcredit is the epitome of “teaching to fish” vs. “giving a fish” and merits our continuing support.
But, curiously, one of the other most reliable interventions is the education of young girls in lands where starvation is rampant. For each year these girls spend in school, there is a dramatic decrease in their own children’s mortality and an equally dramatic increase in their ability to produce food. Want a pleasant surprise for a change? A 63-country study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that more productive farming as a result of female education accounted for 43 percent of the decline in malnutrition achieved between 1970 and 1995. That may be why Lawrence Summers, former chief economist of the World Bank and current top economic advisor for President Obama, asserted that “educating girls yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world.”
Fortunately, Congress is getting wise to this phenomenon. In the days just ahead, legislation will be introduced to create a “Global Fund for Education”. Coupled with parallel actions by other countries in an international movement called Education for All, the monies will support educational initiatives designed to draw some 300,000,000 children worldwide into schools where they can learn the lessons that will spare them and future generations the horrors of slow starvation. This would be a fine time for all us well-fed folks to contact our Congressional representatives and encourage them to sponsor and support this legislation. Like, how about doing it before our next meal?