Key to easing global food crisis is aiding the poor, says UCC minister
Written by Jeff Woodard
October - November 2008
High fuel costs, bio-fuels contributing to problem
Alleviating the global food crisis is no longer an issue of not moving forward fast enough," says the Rev. Dr. Margaret O. Blamberg, an ordained UCC minister who is the United Nations chair for the NGO Committee on Financing for Development.
"We’ve actually slid backward," she says. "We want to be the voices of the poor here. Otherwise, they will get trampled in the shuffle."
In April, Blamberg participated in a roundtable discussion for the "Harnessing Knowledge and Technology for Development" session at the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Accra, Ghana. She says the tone of UNCTAD XII was positive and representative of poor countries, especially those in Africa.
The inevitability of globalization and its impact upon the world were front and center at the conference. "We need to acknowledge that globalization is on the way, and nobody’s going to stop it," says Blamberg. "We’ve moved from fighting globalization to protecting those at the bottom. There was a tremendous focus on the current food crisis — and the focus was on price."
Soaring fuel costs and the increasing use of crops for biofuels have made food affordability a daunting problem for the world’s hungry. As a result of what is being called the worst food emergency in 30 years, the World Food Program says that a child dies every five seconds. One in four children in developing countries is underweight, according to UNICEF.
Blamberg wants to be optimistic that trade negotiations set for Doha — the capital city of the African nation of Qatar — will prove helpful. "But if you go through all government documents leading up to [upcoming trade negotiations] in Doha in November, they don’t talk about poor people at all. They talk about poverty and development, but basically, they don’t talk about people and about the social consequences of economic development. They are not focusing on real people’s lives and what the food crisis does to real people."
She says the millennium development goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000 were intended to pull people out of poverty. "But many more people around the globe have fallen into extreme poverty since countries committed to the MDGs. We need to call for radical restructuring of the world’s financial institutions. We want delegates fashioning economics that is people centered."
Blamberg, a longtime member of Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., worked for 25 years in commodity futures trading. She then answered a call to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York City, earning an M.Div. in 2006.
For starters, says Blamberg, the age-old notion of the "happy peasant" farmer must pass. "Subsistence farming in poor countries no longer works. As countries urbanize and more young people move to the cities, the only ones left in rural areas are the aged and women — and they can’t produce enough food to feed themselves."
Instead of a family farming only a quarter of an acre to feed itself, for example, Blamberg advocates "small-scale" agriculture. "A 5-acre plot would provide enough for the farmer’s family and others. The small-scale farmer feeds his family and can then bring a truck to market. He produces more than family can eat."
Don’t be surprised, says Blamberg, if Africa becomes an urban continent in the next 50 years. "That’s why small-scale farming is the way to go."
Blamberg also likes the concept of farmer cooperatives. "They are forming gradually. We’ve seen some in the horn of Africa. In Ethiopia, for example, they have some of the richest farmland in Africa. But they go from famine to famine to famine. In a couple of areas, co-op farmers are sharing farm machinery like tractors, trucks and harvesters." In order for a successful co-op movement to sustain itself, international, private and government funding are imperative, she adds.
Another hurdle for Africa has been the "digital divide" that separates it from the rest of the world. But that could be changing, says Blamberg. "A colleague of mine told me there’s an initiative among Africans called the Digital Solidarity Fund, where rich countries are asked to contribute small sums to make technology more available. It comes directly from the African NGOs themselves and is one of several new ideas beginning to emerge."
Blamberg is hopeful that the U.S. administration will bring badly needed change to handling the food crisis. But as the conference in Doha approaches, she wonders about potential results. "Everyone in the U.S. delegation has voiced their opinion that the Doha document — this recipe for development — should be as brief and non-specific as possible." The outcome of the Doha conference will be known at the end of November, weeks after the U.S. presidential election.
Whatever the outcome, Blamberg is steadfast in her role. "UCC people at the United Nations should remind delegates that this is about poor people." And she encourages local UCC congregations to make their voices heard by contacting Congress to encourage support of U.N. initiatives on hunger issues, especially the World Food Program.
"We need to emphasize awareness of the depth of hunger issues around the world. Malnutrition contributes so directly to poverty and the inability of people pull themselves out of poverty. If people are chronically undernourished, they can’t be productive members of society."
Jeff Woodard is a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, Ohio and a regular contributor to United Church News.
For more information or resources on joining the fight against global hunger, please contact one or more of the following organizations. The list is not comprehensive but contains several high-profile groups serving those affected by the food crisis.
Bread for the World
202-639-9400 or 800-82-BREAD
Church World Service
574-264-3102 or 800-297-1516
Foods Resource Bank
Freedom from Hunger