Bread for the World’s Arthur Simon talks candidly about the politics of feeding the hungry.

Every day another 40,000 children die of hunger and infection. At least one-tenth of the human race suffers from chronic malnutrition. Included in these figures are one hundred fifty million Africans—trapped in unrelenting famine.

Simultaneously, global military spending outweighs aid to developing countries twenty to one.

From these statistics, many conclude that the forces that move the world economy are beyond the influence of church groups and religious leaders. However, Bread for the World, a Christian citizens’ movement that attempts to make the needs of the hungry a priority in the halls of government, is working effectively to change “the politics of hunger.”

In 1974 Bread for the World began with a handful of Christians from a number of denominations. Today, the group is a respected and effective lobby with over 48,000 members. Working closely with church-related relief agencies, Bread for the World informs government leaders about hunger issues, and assists in formulating policy and drafting legislation.

Bread for the World’s support comes from both Republicans and Democrats, and they have contributed to the establishment of an emergency grain reserve for famine relief, the passage of the Hunger and Global Security Act, and the creation of theChild Survival Fund.

In this interview, Arthur Simon, founder and director of Bread for the World, addresses key issues surrounding world hunger. He is a graduate of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and has served as a pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for ten years.

The recent focus of organized efforts by the church to alleviate world hunger has been direct aid and development programs administered by Christian relief agencies. Why do you focus your efforts on government programs and public policy?

It’s not an either-or situation. To cope with problems of the magnitude of world hunger, both private assistance and government intervention are essential. We fully support church organizations giving direct aid, and they in turn encourage us to develop the public support necessary for a large governmental response.

While we may know how to be a neighbor to one person in need, when that one person becomes one million, the need is beyond the reach of individuals. Then the only effective way to express our love is through larger structures, and very often that means the government.

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The famine in Africa is an example. When the crisis began there, it required a prompt response on a scale beyond the ability of private agencies. In 1984, we were able to work closely with organizations like World Vision and Catholic Relief Services to get a congressional appropriation for $150 million in emergency food aid, plus $16 million for transportation. Congress voted much higher levels of aid for 1985. The amounts are small relative to the need, but they make an enormous impact.

The common perception of government-to-government aid is that it is rendered largely ineffective by corruption and bureaucracy.

Corruption is a problem. But it’s not insurmountable. The tendency is to paint a black-or-white picture. Some say there are no problems at all, while others claim that there are so many problems that we might as well forget government aid altogether. Both views are simplistic and irresponsible.

On the whole, food does get through to the people who need it. There is ongoing monitoring of distribution, and in Africa much of the government’s assistance is actually channeled through private, church-related agencies.

Problems do not always stem from corruption and abuse. They are often a result of the extreme poverty of the countries involved, their lack of resources and management skills. These difficulties are sometimes complicated by the lack of understanding on the part of donor nations. For example, at times food piled up on the docks in Ethiopia, while millions of people were starving. Some attributed this to the malign intent of the Ethiopian government; but Ethiopia has a limited infrastructure and, whatever mistakes it was making, it needed assistance to transport and deliver this food.

In 1983, the United States government said there was no cause for alarm in Africa. At the same time, private relief agencies were saying the situation was out of control and getting worse. How do you account for this discrepancy?

I can’t account for it. We were receiving well-documented reports of an emerging tragedy, from World Vision and other agencies, and everyone was eager for the government to move quickly. (Part of the urgency felt by relief agencies is that most of the food they distribute is given to them from the government’s “Food for Peace” program. This is another vital, but little-known link between private agencies and the U.S. government.) In any event, we presented the case to Congress and the State Department, but assistance was slow in coming.

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The general assumption, both within and without the U.S. government, was that our initial lack of response resulted from the presence in Ethiopia of a Marxist military dictatorship that was perceived as hostile to our national interests.

To what extent is food aid used as a political weapon?

Far too much. We tend to concentrate our food aid where security interests are a factor. Where governments are perceived as unfriendly, we don’t give assistance, or give it only reluctantly.

For instance, in 1984 when the African emergency food aid bill was before the Senate, there was enormous support from both Republicans and Democrats, and it was obvious the appropriation was going to sail through quickly. Then the Administration arranged for a rider to be attached to the bill, which included highly controversial aid to contras fighting the Nicaraguan government. The legislation was immediately bottled up. The delay went on for months, and because time was the critical factor, every day meant more lives lost.

There are many awful things we can say about the Ethiopian government, but thousands of people were starving to death as early as 1983, and we were doing nothing. Food is essential, and we contend that where people are devoid of the essentials, there are no moral grounds for withholding assistance. If there is reasonable assurance of getting supplies through to the people who need them, food aid should be given regardless of political interests.

What Can We Do to Feed the World’s Hungry?

While farmers in many parts of the world shake their heads over withered vegetable patches, the average American farmer raises enough crops to feed 75 people.

Certainly America could help a lot of hungry people by sending them food. The catch is that those hungry people would just need more food next year. And the next. And the next.

In the long run, hungry people need more than charity; they need dependable water supplies, training, farm implements, seeds, new hybrid breeds, animal stock, marketing networks, roads, and agronomists’ advice.


Genocide marked the Pol Pot regime, which began in 1975. Once the Pol Pot regime was overthrown, however, many refugees were willing to try to rebuild their lives in their own land. But they had lost their farming equipment and, more significantly, their seed supplies. They faced starvation if they went back.

In the spring of 1980, several Christian agencies decided to “capitalize” Cambodian farmers with rice seed. At the Thai border they gave a 66-pound bag of seed rice, along with a bag of table rice, to every Cambodian farmer who showed up. Some traveled as far as 120 miles to collect the supplies.

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Reports that have filtered back from inside Cambodia indicate that very little of this rice has been stolen by unscrupulous officials. Giving Cambodian farmers seed meant they would be able to help themselves in the future.

More rice, more relatives

In Laos, during the 1950s, some Western agriculturalists introduced fertilizer to the local farmers. They welcomed it but didn’t use it, as the experts had planned, to increase their yield. Rather, they calculated how much fertilized land it would take to produce the same amount of rice as they had harvested before. Then they reduced the size of their planting.

“Why should I grow a bigger crop?” farmers in many countries ask. “It will just mean more relatives descending on me at harvest time.”

To maximize their effectiveness, visiting specialists should sit at the feet of resident experts—even nonliterates. Each has something to learn from the other.

Water tight

In many parts of the world where the development of water resources is essential, Christian organizations have helped communities dig shallow tube wells. These wells not only help agriculture: they will reduce communicable diseases by as much as 60 percent. Each well costs about $150. This is considerably cheaper than shipping in food every other year.

But wells are a mixed blessing. In Africa, too many deep wells have lowered the water table and increased the desert. Even shallow tube wells may pose problems. When the pumps break, as things inevitably do, the people don’t have the faintest idea how to fix them. The pumps rust. And the people have less water than ever.

Faced with such problems, development specialists hunt for “appropriate technology”—small, simple pieces of equipment that don’t require much expensive fossil fuel.

Bad aid

Some governments, having grown dependent on Western aid, now neglect developing their own agriculture. A flood of surplus food from the U.S. can so depress prices that it drives local farmers out of business. The next year, the country has less food than ever.

People can also become habituated to handouts. Bengalis used to rebuild quickly after disasters. But in 1970 a great cyclone flattened Bangladesh, and mammoth amounts of relief supplies poured in. Much of the Bengalis’ incentive to help themselves dwindled away. Now, in some regions, they wait for outside aid after calamity strikes.

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But there are ways to give without making people dependent. Local people must be encouraged to plan, help finance, and participate in the physical work of rebuilding. Then charity can become a self-help incentive.

This takes time. But it preserves people’s dignity and their confidence that they can find solutions to their own problems in the future.

“The poor you have always with you,” Jesus said. In fact, Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 15, which continues, “… the poor will never cease to be in the land: therefore I command you saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand.…”

What better way to open our hand than by helping people feed themselves?

MIRIAM ADENEYDr. Adeney teaches missions and anthropology at Seattle Pacific University and Regent College. This article is adapted from her book God’s Foreign Policy, ©1984 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; used by permission.

Aside from our moral perspective as Christians, it is not in our national interest to use food as a political weapon. We do not endear ourselves to other nations in this way. If we withhold food from starving people in Ethiopia because we don’t like their government (and don’t like it for very good reasons), do we make Ethiopians more likely to tilt toward the West and an open society? Or do we only make them all the more determined to head in the opposite direction? No one can say for certain, and we should do what is right regardless of the consequences. But certainly there is a greater possibility that the country will eventually lean in our direction if we are perceived as people who have compassion for their starving citizens.

You have said, “There is no technical, financial, political, or moral reason why people should starve. What is lacking is political will.” Can you elaborate?

Hunger is not new. What is new (and this has been true only for a few decades) is that hunger is no longer necessary.

This has been confirmed by a number of studies. In 1974, a panel of over 1,500 scientists commissioned by President Ford participated in a six-volume study of world hunger. They concluded that our technology would allow us to overcome the worst features of hunger and malnutrition within a generation if there was the political willingness. That is, we have the means to eliminate hunger, but not the determination.

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It is critical then that evangelicals involve themselves in public policy. As people who follow Jesus Christ, we have an opportunity to use one of God’s gifts to be responsive to the gospel—the gift of our citizenship. In our country, it’s not the people versus the government; it’s our government. The state is one of God’s vehicles for preserving and promoting human welfare, and through it Christians can help determine the priorities of our nation and our attitude toward hungry people.

There is no consensus among Christians about our national priorities. Many Christians feel that government money is better spent on a strong national defense than on food for hungry people overseas.

That’s right. And I’m among those who believe we must have a strong national defense. But security is much more than simply pouring billions of dollars into the military. A lot of the unrest in developing countries, which is exploited by governments hostile to our own, is a result of abject poverty and hunger. Surely one way to develop a more secure world is to respond to this need. Instead, our tendency is to wait for a crisis to develop and then rush in with a military solution to what is basically a social and economic problem.

Suppose 20 years ago in Central America we decided to relate to these countries primarily in terms of how we could work with them to eliminate poverty and hunger. (The Alliance for Progress set out in this direction, but that direction was soon abandoned.) Isn’t it possible that we would be in a much better situation there now? One that even in sheer economic terms would be much less costly for us?

It’s a question of what our legitimate security needs are. Certainly it’s debatable whether continuing the arms race, when we are already at levels of massive overkill, is a way to develop a more secure world. But in the last few years we’ve seen an enormous increase in military and security assistance and a relative decline in development aid. Many of these cuts have been in programs that have unusually good records in effectively delivering help to the poor.

Can you give an example?

Last year, the President and Congress substantially reduced our country’s pledge to the International Development Association, an organization that has been particularly successful working with the poorest of developing countries. Because other nations give in proportion to our own donation, by a single stroke of the pen, development assistance to poor countries was cut by $3 billion. This was an enormous blow at a critical moment, and the amount far exceeds the ability of private agencies to make up the difference. It’s another example of how, if we focus on private relief efforts and neglect public policy, we have a formula for failure.

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What role do the governments of developing countries play in their own hunger problems?

Obviously their role is critical. In Africa, for example, even if the famine vanished overnight, there would still be grave problems. Food production there has been steadily declining for the last two decades. Part of the reason is harmful government policies. Unrest in these countries tends to be concentrated in urban areas, and there is a lot of pressure on the government to keep food prices low by subsidizing them. This takes incentive away from food producers.

Governments of developing countries need to begin paying more attention to small-scale farming, labor intensive methods, high yield seeds, and better use of land and fertilizers. Unfortunately, however, when governments fear for their existence, they tend to think short-range. Their situation is complicated by severe political and security problems, and we aggravate these problems by our emphasis on military assistance.

What relationship, if any, do you see between the agricultural policy of the United States and hunger overseas?

Fifty percent or more of the grain that is traded internationally comes from the United States, so our production and distribution are critical. This is particularly true in the area of food aid, where other countries respond in proportion to our own giving. If we take the lead, there is a strong positive impact; if we hold back, there is an equally strong negative impact.

At the same time, the agricultural success of the United States cannot be the primary solution to hunger in developing countries. It’s easy to assume that we should simply ship our surplus to the hungry, but the long-term effects would be disastrous. Governments would be encouraged to continue food subsidies, local farmers would lose incentive, and countries would become permanently dependent on food aid instead of moving toward self-sufficiency.

Food aid is justified only under two conditions: famine, where people are going to starve if they don’t get food right away, and food-for-work projects, where people are paid in food for undertaking land improvement projects like irrigation reservoirs. This way, food aid is used to encourage long-term agricultural development.

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The crisis in Ethiopia has focused attention on famine relief, but many experts claim that what is needed is long-term planning. What relationship do you see between relief and long-range development?

We must have both simultaneously. African countries need help for the emergency at hand and assistance for long-term development. To the extent that our response to the famine is inadequate, we make it more difficult for countries to plan for the future. But as we help them out of the famine, we need to move toward a developmental mode as soon as possible. It’s a mistake to get stuck providing food assistance and to neglect long-term development.

In your experience, are donors as responsive to development needs as they are to short-term programs like famine relief?

No. Clearly we are creatures of the media, and hunger is a media event only when people are dying in large numbers. Even in the case of Ethiopia, there was no substantial response from our country until the networks began showing the tragedy in our living rooms. When we saw the famine in motion, then it became real.

But what the media reports is only the tip of the iceberg. The overwhelming reality of world hunger is chronic malnutrition. This engulfs hundreds of millions of people every day, but it never makes the evening news. So after a famine like the one in Africa has subsided, or the networks get tired of showing it, people assume that hunger isn’t a problem anymore.

We Christians also tend to be creatures of the media. But by virtue of our life together in Christ, we have good reason to buck the trend, to care about the suffering of others even when it is no longer popular. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we are made aware of God’s overwhelming concern for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, and we are told to “be imitators of God as beloved children.” We are called to show our love for God by loving our neighbor.

Surely the neighbor who stands most before us is the neighbor in need. So we Christians, of all people, should be globally aware and responsive to human misery, using whatever means are at our disposal to see that the world becomes a better place. This we do, not because we think we can usher in the kingdom of God, but because God’s love compels us to be people of love.

What effect do you think the pervasiveness of world hunger should have on individual lifestyles?

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To my way of thinking, it is a question of stewardship rather than of lifestyle. How are we managing what God has entrusted to us? Is there a way that by living more simply we can make our lives count more fully for people shorn of life’s necessities?

“He Has Filled the Hungry with Good Things”

A biblical approach to poverty.

According to Scripture, how should we think about wealth and poverty?

Psalm 113 seems a good place to begin. It is an invitation to Yahweh’s servants, indeed to all people, to praise him, since he “is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens.”

It continues: “Who is like the Lord our God, / the One who sits enthroned on high, / who stoops down to look / on the heavens and the earth? / He raises the poor from the dust / and lifts the needy from the ash heap; / he seats them with princes, / with the princes of their people. / He settles the barren woman in her home / as a happy mother of children” (vv. 5–9).

The psalmist is affirming something distinctive—indeed unique—about Yahweh, which enables him to ask the rhetorical question, “Who is like the Lord our God?” It is not just that he reigns on high; nor only that from these lofty heights he condescends to look far below to the heavens and the earth; nor even that on the distant earth he regards with compassion the depths of human misery, the poor discarded on the scrap heaps of life and trampled in the dust by their oppressors. It is more than all these things. It is that he actually exalts the wretched of the earth; he lifts them from the depths to the heights. For example, he takes pity on the barren woman (whose childlessness was regarded as a disgrace) and makes her a joyful mother. That is the kind of God he is. No other god is like him. For it is not primarily the wealthy and the famous with whom he delights to fraternize. It is characteristic of him to champion the poor, to rescue them from their misery, and to transform paupers into princes.

This affirmation is many times repeated in Scripture, usually with its corollary that the God who lifts up the humble also puts down the proud. This was Hannah’s theme when after years of childlessness her son was born:

“He raises the poor from the dust / and lifts the needy from the ash heap; / he seats them with princes / and has them inherit a throne of honor” (1 Sam. 2:8).

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This too was the theme of the song which the Virgin Mary sang after learning that she (not some noble or wealthy woman) had been chosen to be the mother of God’s Messiah. God had looked upon her lowly state, she said; the Mighty One had done great things for her, for which she gave him thanks:

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; / he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. / He has brought down rulers from their thrones / but has lifted up the humble. / He has filled the hungry with good things / but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51–52).

In Psalm 113, and in the experiences of Hannah and Mary, the same stark contrast is painted, although the vocabulary varies. The proud are abased and the humble exalted; the rich are impoverished and the poor enriched; the wellfed are sent away empty, and the hungry filled with good things; powerful rulers are toppled from their thrones, while the powerless and the oppressed are caused to reign like princes. “Who is like the Lord our God?” He is a topsy-turvy God. He turns the standards and values of the world upside-down.

Jesus himself is the greatest example of this. One of his favorite epigrams seems to have been that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (e.g., Luke 18:14). He did not only enunciate this principle, however; he personally exhibited it. Having emptied himself of glory, he humbled himself even to the depths of the cross. “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place …” (Phil. 2:5–11).


The Reverend Mr. Stott is director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. This article is adapted from Volume II, Involvement: Social and Sexual Relationships in the Modern World, copyright © 1984, 1985, by John R. W. Stott; published by Fleming H. Revell Company; used by permission.

I don’t think there is any legalistic answer to these questions, but every Christian should ask them and seek a biblical response. At Bread for the World, one way we respond as an organization is to base our salaries on need, rather than position. In my own life, I use the distinction between luxury and need. In all of our lives there are many inessential things, and perhaps by our doing without them, other people will be enabled to live.

Do you see any new directions for Bread for the World in coming years?

Our hope is that as Bread for the World grows larger, we will be in a better position to make hunger a major issue for members of Congress and the Administration. At present, it is far from being a central concern. I’m not just singling out our current leaders. In all administrations, the leadership has basically reflected the opinions of the population, instead of having led them.

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We need dramatic intervention: perhaps a visionary president who would explain the gravity of world hunger to our population and make its elimination a major foreign-policy objective. My guess is that our nation would be unusually responsive if a president took three minutes in a State of the Union or inaugural address to say, “As the richest nation on earth, we have the opportunity and responsibility to enter into partnership with other countries to eliminate the scourge of world hunger.”

Of course, we can’t wait for this to happen. In the present we need to continue building a grassroots response to hunger, hoping that if will provide a context in which proper leadership can emerge. It is this kind of citizens’ movement that we are attempting to develop at Bread for the World.

Realistically speaking, Bread for the World, with 48,000 members, is small for a special-interest group. What kind of impact can you make?

We have seen over and over again how a handful of people can have an effect on public policy disproportionate to their number. You see, it’s not so much that Congress is hostile to hunger issues. It’s just that its members are saturated with issues and bills, 95 percent of which are never acted on. The question becomes, How do you get the attention of massively overworked legislators?

Most legislators would like to be on the side of the angels. They also want to be on the side of the voters. If they have to choose, they will often side with the voters; but if they sense the two sides coincide, they are often quite happy.

If Bread for the World simply developed positions and proposed legislation, it wouldn’t mean anything. We might be treated politely, but we would be ignored. But when senators and congressmen hear from voters in their districts and they are presented with a plausible plan of action at a technical level they can respect, then the result is often quite amazing.

For example, we were recently able to get $25 million appropriated for the establishment of a Child Survival Fund. The fund promotes four simple techniques: immunization, breast feeding, growth charts, and oral rehydration. Used together these techniques dramatically reduce infant and young child deaths, UNICEF has estimated that for every $100 spent, a child’s life is saved. If we divide 25 million by 100, this means that 250,000 kids are going to live just because of one year’s funding. These lives are no less precious to God than our own lives or the lives of our children.

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Are there any significant lessons you have learned during the last ten years of your involvement with Bread for the World?

I’ve learned that when we give, we are not benefactors reaching down to victims, but human beings responding to the needs of other human beings. And this response does not have staying power when it is done out of guilt. Guilt is a very poor motivator. It tends to immobilize people, and as Christians, we are a people of grace. We’ve been set free through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ to serve others. If we are moved and nourished by God’s grace, then we will be able to stay with the struggle and not be discouraged when problems come.

I’ve also learned that when we start making our lives count for people who are hungry, we receive more than we can give. Recently I was in Mozambique, visiting a camp of 80,000 villagers who were living on the side of the road. They had been forced to abandon their villages some months earlier because the harvest had failed and people were dying. They came to the capital hoping to find food and work, but they were unable to find either. So they camped on the side of the road and foraged for food: grass, leaves, insects, whatever they could find. People continued to die, and although the government was able to give them tents, and a Catholic diocese gave them used clothing, no food rations were available.

I arrived after the first shipment of meager daily corn rations had come from World Vision. One of the workers commented on how much more lively the children seemed. There were still signs of malnutrition, kids with distended stomachs and diseased eyes. One old woman sat in the middle of the camp gazing into space and babbling. People said she had gone crazy because so many members of her family had died.

As we spent time there, the villagers became very friendly. Just before we left, some of the women and children formed a circle, and smiling and laughing, they did a folk dance for us. They sang in their tribal tongue and clapped their hands with joy. When we asked what they were singing, the answer both startled and touched us. “We have food, we have clothes, we have everything.” Our giving was so meager, and their lives were still so desperate. But in their gratefulness and contentment, these villagers shared with us one of the most precious gifts human beings can give—the gift of themselves.

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