April 4, 2008

BILL MOYERS: We'll talk now with one of the leaders in the global fight against hunger. David Beckmann is an economist, who spent 15 years at the World Bank, and a Lutheran minister. He's a graduate of Yale, Christ Seminary, and the London School of Economics. He's†president of the faith-based†citizens' movement, Bread for the World, and the founder, as well, of the Alliance to End Hunger.†Welcome.

Watching that young man who was at the end of the film there, the one who was, you know, Tutu the bike rider.


BILL MOYERS: What goes through your mind when you see him?

DAVID BECKMANN: Well, what I loved about it was that you showed the dignity of these people who are really, really poor. What's striking was when you visit those folks anywhere in the world, most people are generous. They're joyful. They maintain dignity in the worst circumstances. If you visit their homes, he would have shared that little-- you know, he didn't have enough of that sauce, but if you would have visited, he would have shared his sauce with you.

And I think lots of times when we think about hungry people, we see pictures of them with their arms cut off or something. And we think, oh, my God, this is hopeless. But what you saw in that man who rode the bike was the hard work, the dignity, the hope that all human beings have.

BILL MOYERS: What's the effect on a country like the Congo when something like 72 percent of its people or, in this case, 37 million people are under nourished? What does it mean on a practical day in and day out basis?

DAVID BECKMANN: Well, when people don't get enough to eat, adults are-- I mean, all of us know it. If you miss lunch, you're not very productive in the afternoon. If you have over a long period of time, if you haven't had enough to eat and you're a landless laborer, you kind of do a calculation at the beginning of the morning. It's not consciously but you figure, what's my chance of getting a job today? And if you walk to five or six farms, is it gonna be worth the calories of burning up those calories, walking to five or six farms to get to get work today?

So, people who are hungry chronically look lazy. You know, they because they don't have the kind of energy that God meant them to have. And then, the damage on children is terrible. Even, they can't learn. They can't, you know, you know it from our own kids. If they don't eat, they're naughty. They can't behave in school.

And then, little kids die. If kids have not had appropriate nutrition when they were in their mother's womb, in their first couple of years of life, then the chance that some little disease, you know, they get a stomach parasite and they die. Or if they don't die, they're stunted for life. So there is no more powerful way to invest in the future of a country than to feed the little kids.

BILL MOYERS: See, I'm sure many of our viewers watching that film will want to know, what can I do? Where can I send a check?


BILL MOYERS: Is there something I can do to volunteer? What's your answer to them? Because they're frustrated because they see people in need. And yet, they don't feel they know how to get to them.

DAVID BECKMANN: Well, I think we can send a check to Catholic Relief Services, CARE, Save the Children. Pick your international charity. That's important. But I think the best way to respond, the most effective way to respond is to put pressure on our elected officials.

To let them know that there are people back in South Dakota or Arizona who care about getting our government to do its part to open up opportunities for poor people. And it's what I'm excited about is that it's happened. In fact, we're makingó

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

DAVID BECKMANN: Well, we're making progress against hunger and poverty in the world.

The problem with our government is we're not doing enough, but we're providing twice as much money for programs to reduce hunger and poverty around the world than we did in the year 2000. And it's making a difference, so

BILL MOYERS: Then why is the United Nations even as we talk asking saying it desperately needs another half a billion dollars to make up for what the United States is no longer sending abroad

DAVID BECKMANN: Well, the specific issue there is that food prices have gone up. So, the world food program provides food in places like Congo. And they've made commitments. And now they can't with the same amount of money that was appropriated earlier in the year, they can't provide as much food.

So, there's an immediate need there. But I think that we ought to take care of it. We've got to take care of it. But the broader picture in fact is remarkably hopeful. I mean, there's a lot of bad stuff happening in the world. Butó

BILL MOYERS: Food riots in Indonesia. Food riots in Egypt.

DAVID BECKMANN: Right. Right, sure.

BILL MOYERS: The President of Afghanistan says we're desperate. El Salvador, a million people in jeopardy. I mean, I quoted in the first part of this showó

DAVID BECKMANN: You're right.

BILL MOYERS: That there are forty countries that are said to be, you know, in serious trouble. What's happening?

DAVID BECKMANN: Well, some of the immediate problem is because of the dramatic increase in food prices.

BILL MOYERS: And what's driving that?

DAVID BECKMANN: Well, part of it actually, it's a mixed story. Because the increase in food prices means that hungry that people on the edge of hunger in our country, around the world, a lot of those people have a big problem. But there's some good in this story.

The main reason why food prices are up is that hundreds of millions of people in India and China and other parts of the world are now eating. They didn't used to eat. So, they're driving up food prices.


DAVID BECKMANN: Right. I was just at a meeting yesterday with some people who are thinking about roads in Africa. And they're thinking this increase in food prices is here to stay. We've got to get roads to the port.

For most hungry people, the real long term solution is better roads, seeds, better farming. Those roads are important to the farmers. Because in Kenya for example, the cost of fertilizer is fifty times the cost of fertilizer in Iowa. Because if you drive a truck of fertilizer into rural Kenya, you're gonna break the truck because the roads aren't there.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. We saw that with that road.

DAVID BECKMANN: So in most the long term solution to hunger is not shipping in food from Iowa. The long term solution is seeds and technology and a decent road to the market, so that those people can grow their own food, make a decent living and buy what they need.

BILL MOYERS: But David, I can hear people, honest, compassionate people saying, you know, look; we've got problems in this country. Our food prices are rising. We've got to solve our problems at home before we can send more money abroad.

DAVID BECKMANN: Well, we're now spending about fourteen billion dollars a year to reduce poverty in the world, which is a lot of money. But in the federal budget, it's not. We think we ought to be spending another twenty billion dollars every year.

BILL MOYERS: Doing what?

DAVID BECKMANN: And what you can do with that is invest especially in countries, poor countries that have managed to get good governments and that are moving in the right direction. You can we can invest substantially in those countries, helping those with their agriculture. That's key. We can let every kid in the world go to school. Primary school, this is doable.

And it's now girls who don't get to go to school. If we can get those girls into school, they'll be better farmers. They'll be better mothers, smarter mothers. They're less likely to get AIDS. They'll have fewer children. So, education for all children, primary education. We ought to be able to do more with health care.

There a lot of things. You know, we saw in your report that if you get to somebody even with cholera early enough, cholera is always fixable. But most people die. You know, they don't get medical care. So and then there are lots of people dying of the most simple diseases that are dumb deaths.

So some money's not all. But we need more money, more effective use of money. And then in other ways, more attention to the problem of poverty in our country and around the world. And what's striking to me is that with a little bit of attention, we've been able to do a lot already.

BILL MOYERS: No one I know has traveled to more countries to look and work with hungry people. How do you sustain your own hope in the midst of the very situation you've just described when people are so hungry?

DAVID BECKMANN: Well, you know, I believe in the resurrection. So, you know, some of it's religious. That, you know, I think ups and downs of history aside, that we're headed towards a better world where there will be hunger no more.

So, there's a fundamental hope that comes from God. But then, the other thing that's given me a lot of hope that I didn't really have ten years ago is that just the evidence shows that hundreds of millions of people are escaping from hunger and poverty.

BILL MOYERS: It is true, is it not, that our farm policies, farm subsidies actually have a negative effect on the people we saw in the Congo and around the world?

DAVID BECKMANN: Yes. In general, our farm policies are part of a global system. The farm policies of the rich countries make it hard for those farmers in Africa and other poor parts of the world to make a living.

And so, Bread for the World works on farm bill reform. And we started this because African church leaders were saying to us, your farm policies are making it hard for our people to make a living. Your cotton is competing against cotton from Mali and Ethiopia. Big cotton farms in Arkansas are getting subsidies from the US Treasury, from the taxpayers. And that cotton competes against cotton from guys who are making two hundred dollars a year from Mali.

BILL MOYERS: But you can't blame the folks in Arkansas for wanting government subsidies.

DAVID BECKMANN: No. But we can change the system. It's not doing much for Arkansas either. It's doing some things for some very affluent farmers. But the money could be better used in Arkansas in rural Arkansas. And so you could have a better farm bill for America that would also reduce the extent to which our foreign policies are causing problems with farmers around the world.

BILL MOYERS: In this broadcast next week, we're going to look at farm subsidies in this country. And at the debate over the new farm bill. Will you come back and join me for that conversation?

DAVID BECKMANN: I'd love to. They're deciding it in Washington right now. So this is couldn't be more timely.

BILL MOYERS: See you next week.


BILL MOYERS: There's lots on our website about the fight against hunger.† Dominic MacSorley, whom you met†in the film, is online to answer your questions.†We will also link you to Bread for the World and other organizations working to overcome world hunger. That's it for the JOURNAL. Next week we'll look at hunger in America.

I'm Bill Moyers.