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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, stated, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself/herself and of his/her family, including food, clothing, housing. . . .” More than 50 years later, these basic human rights elude millions of people in Third World countries and in the most affluent and powerful nation in the world, the United States of America.
Poverty remains the major cause of hunger, malnutrition, disease, and death. Chronic malnutrition kills about 12 million children a year. In addition, there are children and adults with acute and subacute chronic nutrient deficiencies, such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A, which may result in permanent physical and/or mental impairment.
Are these basic human rights for food, health, clothing, and shelter only the rights of the wealthy? None of us would admit to that, yet when we examine economic policies, land policies, and political organizations, especially of Third World countries, we realize that all of these policies are skewed to help the business sector of a nation, the large land owners and the political elites. U.S. and European “aid “ policies are based on the premise that if the economy of a nation can be stimulated, then the country can fix its own problems. However, the “trickle down” theory rarely improves the economic condition of those who need it most.
According to Sachs, Mellinger, and Gallup of Harvard University’s Center for International Development (Scientific American, March 2001), geography and climate play a major role in the economic prosperity of a region. The economies of coastal regions that have easy access to sea trade and lie in temperate climates outperform those of inland, tropical, or desert areas. The poorest regions of the world are located in tropical (India, Bangladesh) or desert (sub-Saharan) ecologies. Poverty, disease, and malnutrition are endemic to these areas. Most of these poor countries suffer political instability, war, corruption, unbridled population growth, and socioeconomic inequities. In addition, natural disasters such as monsoon rains, floods, drought, pests, and the constant advancing of the desert into arable lands make a harsh life even harsher. With no infrastructure for support, millions of people perish annually.
There are success stories as well. China has improved its economic status with a multi-pronged approach of improved health care, increased agricultural productivity, and strict population growth control policies. Malaysia has addressed its public health problems and has diversified its economy from climate-dependent commodity exports such as palm oil and rubber to climate-independent electronic products.
Life is difficult for sub-Saharan nations. Ecological conditions are harsh on crops, animal health, and human well-being. The situation has been aggravated by the spread of HIV/AIDS and the lack of available vaccines or medications to combat the spread of tropical diseases, including malaria. Pharmaceutical companies have no incentives to address the health issues of these poor countries. Also, the governments of most of these countries are military institutions with little or no interest in improving the health of the populations. Interethnic animosities are constant. Even if a benevolent political administration wanted to address public health issues, the GNP is insufficient to make a difference.
Reducing or eradicating poverty and hunger requires a multi-pronged approach:
• The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and USAID are the most influential agencies advising and providing aid to developing countries, but these agencies have placed more emphasis on maintaining leaders in tune with Western political ideology. Changes must be introduced to address universal education, public health projects, agrarian reform, sustainable agriculture, trade, technological advances, environmental issues, and promotion of democracy.
• To achieve political stability, economic growth, and food security, governments should promote education; address public health issues, including universal health care; establish infrastructure and meet energy needs of the nation; address agricultural development and environmental concerns; improve gender equity (women produce 50–70% of the food in developing countries yet are excluded from receiving technical training or loans, even with appropriate collateral); establish national economic and political policies; discourage corruption and bribery; support women’s rights to inherit and own property; and promote the development of appropriate technology for the region (tractors and dams are not the universal answer to farming and water problems).
• The Institute of Food Technologists can play a major role in solving hunger. Appropriate technology transfer, agricultural education, and food processing technology should be the backbone to aid people to become self-sufficient. IFT can continue to provide educational opportunities, scholarships, and mentoring for international students and expand opportunities for international exchanges for faculty and students.
• Industries that take advantage of low labor costs in developing countries should be ethically obligated to pay living wages to their employees commensurate with the local economy and should support educational, technological, economic, and social institutions to improve the nation’s standard of living.
Assistance provided to Third World countries that leads to self-sufficiency ultimately benefits all.
by Anahid Crecelius is Professor and Chair, Dept. of Human Nutrition and Food Science, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.