Greed, complacency, ineptitude; finding how to circumvent these individual and corporate sins is the answer.

The abject plight of the world’s poorest, especially those who cling precariously to the very edge of life, stands as an affront to the conscience of every American. It stands all the more as a perpetual rebuke against Christians.

Unfortunately, none of the evangelical writers on this popular subject (and it is a current fad) have bothered to face squarely the really fundamental issue. They have not asked the truly crucial question about how one goes about actually providing food for the world’s hungry. Indeed, the casual naïveté with which questions of this sort have been waved aside, left unanswered, or provided with silly and unrealistic answers is all too embarrassingly manifest.

But without showing us exactly how the world’s hungry are to be fed, nothing results except the mouthing of pious platitudes and highly emotional exhortations to act. Such well-meaning efforts to help are at best inefficient and wasteful, and, at worst, utterly self-defeating and demoralizing. Often, like the children’s crusades, they end up doing more harm than good.

Fatal Flaws

Take, for example, the work Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (IVP, 1977). I select this because it has won such loud acclaim and because supposedly it represents the best of what Christian thinkers and writers can say on this subject. Despite its heavy emphasis upon scriptural authority and its appeal to the divine commands (which we heartily endorse), the book is fatally flawed.

In the first place, the author fails to delve into scriptural and phenomenological causes of hunger. He almost totally ignores the power of evil and the social consequences of inhumanity and sin, especially as these are manifested in both Christian and non-Christian, rich and poor alike.

Whatever remains of the original divine image in which God fashioned man, sheer human wickedness can result in deeds of inhumanity and can thwart man’s best efforts to alleviate the human condition (remember Cambodia?).

Second, the author does not take into account existing institutional structures. These can form almost insurmountable barriers, and frustrate even the most careful attempts to feed the world’s hungry. Put differently, having aroused consciousness and stirred consciences, he runs the risk of leading those he has aroused into a trackless desert of futility, frustration, and failure, the consequences of which may be worse than if he had never stirred sensitivities at all.

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Unless such problems are recognized and dealt with, any likelihood of our being able to do much about the world’s hungry must remain almost hopelessly remote. The human organizations that could be the most helpful in facilitating the delivery and distribution of food are those that put up the most impenetrable barriers and obstacles. From harvesting of food surpluses to putting meals into hungry mouths, no single structure is more intractable than the sovereign state. It must be willing to cooperate in the production of huge surpluses. It must allow generous people to dispose of surpluses as they wish (assuming that all such surpluses are not taxed away from them as happens in many, if not most, countries).

The Entrenched Elite

Moreover, those who wish to share their surpluses must also take into account the role of entrenched elite groups and privileged sectors of society that sustain each sovereign state. Without doing so, there is no way to reach the starving short of violating laws or engaging in war. No food from one country’s people can feed the hungry in another country, at least in any appreciable amounts, without the full cooperation of that county’s rulers.

Thus, when Ronald Sider writes about India’s starving millions and postulates the scenario of an Indian prime minister attempting nuclear blackmail of wealthy nations in order to feed the starving people of India, his perception becomes ludicrous. To be sure, India does provide us with our single greatest example of hunger. With or without Bangladesh, India probably has as much stark hunger as the rest of the world combined. About 100 million people are starving at any given time. Life for them is so precarious that it hangs by a thread; average life expectancy is hardly that of some domestic animals. Acute lack of nutrition causes brain damage and body deformity. Living standards are far below those of untold millions of our own household pets.

India: The Other Side

But what is not understood is that: (1) at least 300 million other people in India have never lived so well or had it so good (not counting another 200 or 300 million for whom life is perhaps getting worse); (2) millions are unbelievably affluent, thousands of them millionaires and powerful landlords; (3) one of the world’s largest, best, and oldest standing armies (professional and all-volunteer) and even larger numbers of peace officials not only give the country security from “public” foes (foreign and domestic), but make it one of the safest places for travel at almost any hour; (4) some hundred million of these same people are esteemed “untouchable”; and (5) hundreds (even thousands) of distinct communities (castes, etc.) are separated from each other by strict pollution rules (forbidding intermarriage and interdining). India is not starving; rather one portion of the people of India is starving while another portion lives in superabundance.

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Yet, one might still respond: We are not responsible for the unfeeling wealthy of India. At least we can be generous and give food to the needy.

But it is not all that easy. What will this do to the wealthy landlord whose financial position will be destroyed by free food, or the merchant whose livelihood hangs on his participation in the market of India? The well-off half of India would have much to lose. This alone invalidates serious consideration of Sider’s scenario.

The Intrusion Of Alien Relief Efforts

But much more is involved. Insofar as national states are sovereign, and have control over what is their national “good,” alien food givers and do-gooders are intruders.

What balance they may possess was achieved by processes that sometimes took countless generations, even eras. Unsolicited meddling from outsiders, however well meaning, is not appreciated. Acts of foreigners are rarely invited and almost never appreciated. They soon become focal points for animosity or blame. Established indigenous elite groups tend to perceive aid, even when it is food, as either damaging or outright dangerous—a violation of their national integrity, as something to be blunted, corrupted, diverted, or destroyed, if not appropriated and used for other purposes.

Even well-intentioned and carefully administered efforts by outsiders can stand as a rebuke to indigenous leadership. It is an affront to pride, to local dignity, and to the cultural achievements of their own civilizations. Each morsel from afar can be yet another reminder of that most galling of truths—namely, of local failure. Such reminders may of necessity be accepted, but they can evoke no gratitude. By whatever name, and in whatever form—“shiploads of grain” or “technical assistance” or “brilliant advice” or modern “know-how”—all such “help” is intrusive. It is foreign and, hence, unwelcome. Coming from outside, it undermines existing arrangements. All in all, it is a testimony to local failure and a blow to personal and national pride. We may decry all this as unutterably foolish or criminally negligent, but it is a fact of international life. Any do-goodism that ignores it is a snare and a delusion.

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The goal, we must remember, is not to get rid of our food, but to get it into the mouths of the hungry. Obstacles to delivery and distribution must be removed or all our generosity does no good. Strange and unbelievable as it may seem, therefore, stark poverty and starvation in no way can be overcome without conquering the obstacles that have caused these evils and preserved them.

Sin Versus Technology

Some of these obstacles are endemic to national, governmental, and social structures. Others stem from sheer human wickedness, and the latter is worse than the former. Structural barriers, especially sovereign states and societal substructures, can be carefully studied and sometimes eliminated. But what can one do with all of the manifold forms of deliberate human exploitation and violations of even minimal standards of human dignity that are evident in all societies? What is the role of sin in producing the substructures of hunger and inhumanity? Even if one were to suppose that efforts to bring food to the world’s hungry could be successful in terms of the technology of delivery and distribution, would such efforts truly end hunger? Or does maldistribution come from some deeper malady? One need not even refer to inadvertent and unintentional forms of human imperfection, the constant tendency to mistakes, errors of judgment, and simple bungling that so often hamper and hobble the best and noblest efforts of men.

Widely trumpeted calls for Christians to feed the world’s hungry, therefore, are useless and even harmful when they do not address the real problem of how this can be done. Moral obligation and Christian stewardship do not end with the act of simple giving, or merely divesting oneself of material surpluses. One must track the food all the way from the hand of the productive farmer to the mouth of the malnourished child.

How, then, can world hunger be eradicated? At this point some may be tempted to “cop out”: “How should I know?” or “How can one know?”—as if such questions were unanswerable and the problem insurmountable. But this response is too easy and simple—too much an all-or-nothing proposition, too neat and tidy. Real solutions are neither simple nor straightforward, because man’s behavior and institutions seldom are.

The Intelligent Use Of Information

The first requirement in seeking solutions for the problem of how to feed the poor is the securing of in-depth information and the intelligent use of it. Only then can one hope to understand the complex forces that create, perpetuate, and obstruct solutions to the problem. One must become aware of the possible ramifications of any proposed actions in any given society. Fortunately, in recent years we have seen a remarkable growth in research on food and nutrition and the consequences of malnourishment (e.g., brain damage, diseases, shorter life spans). Secular institutions, of course, have such vast resources in funds and personnel (paid for by our taxes) that it would be pointless to repeat what they do. Christians (through their church-based or voluntary agencies) should monitor, digest, record, report, and study what secular agencies learn, and then focus upon the work such secular agencies are not able to do, or cannot or will not do.

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What is peculiarly deplorable in this regard is how little effort Christian thinkers have made to understand the hard facts of economic, social, or political reality that are readily available. Except perhaps for Reinhold Niebuhr, few have struggled with political and social theory. Few religious people from the private sector—hardly any evangelicals in North America—have bothered to assess the facts or weigh how problems can be solved.

How many Christian experts on Islamic societies in Bangladesh, Uganda, Iran, or Afghanistan, for example, can now tell us much about (or could accurately have informed us of conditions leading to the rise of) a Mujib, an Idi Amin, a Khomeini, or a Babrak Karmal?

Not until a solid phalanx of specialists command both hard knowledge and constructive theory; not until we have those who know both the language and lore of each group of starving peoples and political structures, together with the subtle depths of socioeconomic forces that make them what they are; not until we have adequately informed researchers for each of those areas of the world where stark hunger is now destroying people; not until we know what makes some agrarian structures so resistant and impermeable; not until we devise strategies for penetrating structures so as to provide food and build infrastructures to make sure that hunger actually ceases; and not until we understand better what kinds of structures are preferable to others in order to insure humane conditions—not until then can we really begin to fathom how to get food to the world’s hungry, and do so in more than a haphazard or stop-gap way.

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Effective Instruments And Institutions

If the first requirement for Christians who really wish to help the world’s starving is to gain accurate information and better intelligence, the second and equally necessary requirement is for effective instruments and institutions to accomplish the task. In our modern world, those agencies invariably involve us in political problems. An example from the recent past is the enormous campaign mounted against the slave trade and slavery itself (and also, incidentally, against a wide range of inhumane practices, including human sacrifice, infanticide, ritual murder, and widow burning in the early nineteenth century).

This movement began with a small number of influential and well-placed evangelicals, spearheaded by William Wilberforce and his friends (the “Clapham Sect” or “Saints”). A world-wide effort developed. These people compiled and dispensed vast amounts of accurate data. Monitoring and publicity by the antislavery society was so effective that what seemed impossible became possible. But this possibility, one must remember, grew out of the coincidence of the world-wide sway of the British Empire, and of the presence of a small band of dedicated activists at the command center of that empire. Effectiveness required parliamentary legislation and the unceasing vigilance of the Royal Navy’s “slave watch” upon the seven seas. What Wilberforce wrought was far greater than anything he lived to see.

What can be done in our own day requires some similarly close combinations of public and private agencies, some blending of “sovereign” state power with socially generated economic force (and political influence). We only delude ourselves if we think we can minister to the poor on a large scale without taking those political structures into account. In this connection, we need to understand the limitations of agencies both within our own society and its political structures, and of agencies in other societies beyond the reach of our nation’s power.

How many compassionate citizens, for example, realize what was actually happening when, for so many years, massive shipments of grain were sent abroad as “aid” for poor and “undeveloped” countries? Such “aid” (often connected to, but not to be confused with, the federal institution called AID), in many instances, went as “wheat loans,” requiring “long-term,” “low-interest,” and nonconvertible “soft-currency” repayments by recipient countries. But what may not be appreciated are those other factors that conditioned such loans. Vested interests were involved.

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Regular procurements of grain provided needed economic and financial stability for American farming interests (and for the grain market). Grain that was to be carried only in American ships provided support for sagging American port and shipping interests. On the other side, perhaps, were the cumulative consequences of “soft-currency” repayments. The very magnitude of American-held fluid assets in some countries could (and sometimes did) undermine and destabilize (if not destroy) their economies.

Moreover, countries receiving such “aid” had to be exceedingly careful in their actual dispensing of it to relieve hunger lest in the process their own agricultural industries and their own agricultural markets became ruined. In short, it was possible for public policy in one country, which aimed at providing food for the hungry in another, inadvertently to engage in a form of what is now sometimes called “neocolonialism” or “neoimperialism.” By this we mean that needy countries found themselves being exploited by rich countries.

Bangladesh has become the classic example of intermediate agencies causing almost the opposite of what was intended. So many agencies tripped over each other and so many millions of dollars of “assistance” came into the country, only to be siphoned off into the wrong hands, that world relief efforts to that country (1972–6) have become a byword for bungled administration, botched delivery, and colossal waste. The story is so complex that we may never fully learn what went wrong. Relief agencies eventually became a threat to the stability of governmental structures and to the country itself. Relief, as often as not, turned up in black markets, sometimes as far away as Calcutta, Karachi, Bangkok, and Singapore, having first passed through the control of “bandit” gangs. One recent ruler of Bangladesh made a huge bonfire of appropriated “relief” materials so as to strengthen and solidify his hold upon the reins of government.

At the same time, some “private” or voluntary agencies have not done all that much better. Many “free-lance” and “faith” agencies are notorious for their emotional, tear-jerking promotional techniques. Appealing to kind-hearted but unwary folk through mass mailings or fund-raising campaigns in gullible communities, such agencies have been conspicuously secret about their record keeping and silent about their auditing procedures (as serious historians and Internal Revenue Service officials quickly discover).

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Issues Of Accountability And Efficiency

What is at issue here is accountability and efficiency. As long as agency (or mission) archives and records are kept closed and as long as bona fide scholars and investigators are forbidden access to such materials, it is impossible to know exactly how leadership and personnel selection occurs, how control is exercised, how efficient or inefficient past efforts have been, exactly what mistakes have been made, or what internal obstacles continue to hinder or even to prevent relief (food, supplies, care, etc.) from reaching the hungry.

How, then, should a devout midwesten farmer or farmer’s wife, or any compassionate person in this country, go about finding a responsible agency? He or she must take the trouble to discover which agencies are the most effective. While all agencies perhaps have some internal weaknesses and problems, it is possible to find those agencies that are better and stronger. Any—indeed, every—regular contributor should be able to obtain regular reports about the interned management structure and procedures of the agency, including an annual report of its fiscal responsibility. Any serious giver must be able to know exactly how much of what is given is actually reaching the hungry (or what the overhead losses are). Such very well-known agencies as World Vision, or World Relief (NAE), or Mennonite World Relief, or Lutheran World Federation may be cited as examples of the best. Some secular voluntary agencies (e.g., OXFAM) have equally impressive records.

What is important is that any responsible agency must be just that: it must be responsible to those who contribute. It must be accountable. At the very least, a reliable agency must: (1) give regular (quarterly or annual) reports, with access to records; and (2) be responsive to legitimate complaints or demands for internal reform.

All of this calls for a more fully informed public and a strengthened public opinion. Unless a large enough body of people cares enough to make itself aware of the problems, unless it demands accurate data and accountable agencies, it is difficult to see how better decisions can be either made or implemented.

Individual Involvement

Lastly, one must consider the relationship between improved intelligence and more accountable intermediary agencies on one side, and individual involvement on the other. It is at this point that serious attention must be given to ethical and ideological (that is, philosophical, religious, or theological) questions. The very fact that hungry people in the tens of millions remain unfed should indicate to us that both personal involvement and creative imagination have so far been woefully inadequate.

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On a practical, down-to-earth level, “feeding the hungry” is not merely an abstraction. Those who starve are persons. They have names. They have faces. Each name should be known; each face should be seen; each person should be touched by someone who cares. Mother Teresa in Calcutta has reminded us that someone must provide the personal dimension. She herself has held the spoon and the cup to the lips of the dying. Each person who cares must personally, either actually or vicariously, touch another person who starves and suffers. Is food alone enough? Is there no suffering worse than physical hunger and pain? Is not the suffering of abandonment and utter aloneness worse?

By extension, therefore, it seems to me that the logic to be followed is that of moving from the immediate to the remote. The personal must precede the impersonal. Problems close at hand must be dealt with before tackling those further away. If all who are truly sensitive were to follow this rule—solving first those matters directly under their own charge and over which they have personal responsibility—then foundations would be established. Larger enterprises of philanthropy and relief could then be launched. If our own society is abandoned and allowed to sink into anarchy and misery while we try to send relief across the seas, then we must be seen as culpable and negligent. The principle is the same as for a man who does not provide for his own family (wife and children), and, hence, is rightly to be accursed. How can we (as outsiders) judge the deficiencies of other nations and societies when we have not yet come to grips with those deficiencies within our own? Extreme humility is called for at this point.

Waste And Self-Indulgence

Finally, people in America must come face to face with their own wasteful consumption and inexcusable self-indulgence.

Conspicuous consumption of material goods has been so flagrant that it reeks in the nostrils of humanity the world over. Excessive concentrations of wealth and excessive maldistributions of material substance (including food and other essentials), have focused the hatred of the world upon us. The situation of laborers in Antarctica, compared with that of other people working there (who use refrigerators and freezers in heated buildings), is notorious. Differentials in lifestyles between American missionaries and the living standards of other European missionaries are also notorious.

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Do we gorge ourselves with luxuries while the starving hungry are suffering? Can we indulge ourselves with mobile homes, summer homes, summer trips, pleasure boats, style changes, and other trivial extravagances when the world is in such a sorry plight? The very profligacy of a “replacement economy” should cause the earth itself to cry out for justice. If American churches can demonstrate “appreciation” for their ministers by sending them to the Holy Land and on tours to overseas mission fields, how can there be any instruction in frugality and stewardship?

Formidable obstacles still stand between those who starve and those who care enough to do something. Barriers of ignorance, failure to understand foreign culture, lack of intelligent planning, inefficient intermediary agencies, arrogant interferences in other cultures, or just simple indifference to complexities that destroy others while we seek to help them are all too pervasive.

We must remember, too, that all our best efforts are in some measure tainted, and that mixed motives are common to all individuals. Insidious influences permeate all corporate structures, including all churches. Yet we must respond if we would obey God. Effective means must be found to penetrate and overcome every barrier, not once in a while, but consistently and steadily.

Compassionate people indicate a strong willingness to do something. Intermediary agencies, of varying strength and effectiveness, do exist and can be made to respond to demands for improvement. Counsels of despair and defeat are unthinkable. We must dare to continue the battle, for God will hold us responsible, not for victory, but for how faithfully and capably we have fought the battle.

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