Hunger and Disasters…

My friend Andy wrote a good post about Haiti…

A similar article was in Time (way to go Andy!!)

Peter Singer and others have a fairly radical idea of our duties concerning hunger.  It’s based in a general idea that no one person is more or less worthy of life than any other.  I really get that idea — and I think he’s generally right.

The problem is in the transfer of that idea into the real world.  I honestly believe that we should do what we can to help those in need.  The tricky part of that last sentence is the word “can” – what is reasonable to expect a person to do?

Not all of us have the luxury of being able to be like Sean Pen and devote a large part of our lives to helping out directly.  Penn has the luxury of being able to stop working for as long as necessary to accomplish his goal — heck, his royalties from Fast Times at Ridgemont High would support Andy and I for a lifetime.. Thus, he has the luxury of being able to devote his time to helping others.

The question now becomes what is our duty, as normal people, to those distant from us and in significant peril?  I think we should use our own talents, skills and positions to change things.  For example, I can read philosophical literature and arguments about hunger and teach the topic in my classes.  Choosing class topics is difficult because I can’t teach everything, thus I need to decide what’s important enough, timely enough and interesting enough for my students — then, perhaps MAKE it interesting to them.

Anthony Bourdain has a TV show that looks at street food and culture — on his season premier of “No Reservations”, he bought out the food carts and gave away the food to the folks who were starving.

This created quite a problem for him and his crew, because it started a riot…. clearly, there wasn’t enough food on the cart to feed the whole area so some folks remained hungry while others ate.

Just going in and providing food has it’s problems as well.  In my former life as a debate coach and judge, we made an argument called “hug of death”, which essentially means that going in with massive amounts of food to solve a short-term crisis results in a depressed local food economy.  In essence, if you can get food for free, why would you pay a local person for a meal?  The long-term problem is that local farmers stop growing food because it doesn’t pay.  Associated with that is the long-term dependence on another country, which isn’t a reasonable goal for any area of the world.

The fact of the matter is that hunger isn’t caused by lack of food.  It’s a political problem with a political cause.  Chronic hunger is caused by politics.  People are hungry because their leaders aren’t managing the resources in their area effectively.  The political leadership could, if they wanted to, accept development help from other nations.  In order to do so, they’d have to give up some levels of control and open their country up to receiving help from others.

Short-term crisis in otherwise functioning countries, like the Japanese earthquake, is quite different.  When a country is suddenly in crisis the rest of the world has a strong obligation to help however possible.  This is often best done by existing groups or governments who have the infrastructure to get help into an area immediately.  Our obligation as regular folks is to give what we can reasonably do without to those organizations.


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