Helping Hungry Texans in Time of Need

By David Braughton

When hardship strikes, those hurt most are those least able to cope. These include single-parent families headed by moms, front-line service works, people out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic, immigrants, people of color, and the homeless.  The savage cold that ripped through Texas on Valentine’s Day and tortured the State for a week afterwards affected nearly everyone, but no one as much as persons already struggling to survive.  For many low income and marginalized residents, rolling blackouts, frozen pipes, and boil water advisories were just the beginning. 

Not only did the power outage cause the food people had stored in their freezer or refrigerator to go bad, but additionally they faced bare grocery shelves that had not been stocked for days.  Highways became impassable and fruits and vegetables in the Rio Grande Valley were frozen over. The Texas Citrus Association predicts that out of a projected 230,000 tons of grapefruit, 138,000 tons will be lost.  The same fate faces other food items. The valley grows a variety of vegetables as well, much of which will have to be plowed under.  Experts predict that recovery from the disruption to the supply chain could take months. 

The winter storm cost millions of hourly wage earners to lose at least a week’s worth of income and, given the severe crop damage, some will have a difficult time finding work anytime soon.  With food still scarce and no income, food banks and other emergency aid have become essential lifelines.  

Each year, BGR devotes nearly 10% of its annual budget to emergency grants to areas of the world suffering from weather-related catastrophes. In response to the ongoing crisis in Texas, this past week BGR made an emergency grant of $5000 to Feeding Texas, the largest hunger relief organization in the state. Feeding Texas supplies 21 member food banks that help to feed over 5 million persons annually, making it uniquely equipped to respond to the recent crisis.  The organization has fostered deep ties to large grocery chains like Kroger and H-E-B but reports that the catastrophic disruption to the supply chain and the devastation of many of the State’s crops present ongoing challenges that will take months to recover from.

While all of us at BGR lament the severe hunger the state’s residents are facing on account of this calamity, we are happy that we could contribute even a small amount to help alleviate hunger and ensure that recipients receive the food they need to get through this crisis.

David Braughton is the vice-chair of Buddhist Global Relief.

Vocational Training for Women in São Paulo, Brazil

By Carla Prater

Founded by two sisters who are professional social workers, GAIA – Group for Assistance of the Elderly, Children and Adolescents – is a non-profit organization acting in formal and informal education and social work in São Paulo, Brazil. The founders saw many needs in their low-income neighborhood of Campo Grande in the south end of São Paulo. Their first effort was to start a little preschool, which was so successful that they soon had two schools, which serve families in the area, giving the children a good start on their school careers.

They soon found other ways to serve, including providing vocational training for the many women whose schooling was minimal. These women require public services that are overstretched and unable to meet the demands caused by their lack of access to healthy food and dignified living conditions. The project supported by BGR is intended to offer better living conditions to 120 women, through workshops, talks, and courses designed to give them skills as formal or informal workers earning money to supply their families’ basic needs.

Two types of training were offered: eldercare and sewing. About forty women participated in each of these classes. The women were instructed in pattern-making, cutting, sewing, and finishing their work so it was ready for sale in a Christmas bazaar. The eldercare group attended lecture sessions covering legal and social issues, physical care techniques, and field trips to care facilities, as well as hands on practice sessions in how to assist bedridden patients.

The project ran into some serious issues halfway through as COVID hit São Paulo very hard. However, GAIA was able to pivot quickly to provide modules for online learning. The sewing classes switched to videos explaining how to do projects and the videos were posted online for the students’ use. Almost everyone in Brazil has a cell phone and the students were able to access the content online.

The instructor was thrilled with how things turned out. Cilene, an instructor of the sewing workshop, says that she has learned not only how to teach in-person classes but also virtual classes, a useful new skill for her. She says: “GAIA and BGR, thank you so much for the confidence you placed in me this past year. I hope to be able to honor my commitment in 2021 and continue the in-person classes. Always count on me!” The video classes are available at this link: http://www.grupogaia.org.br/index.php/blog.

The eldercare class also had to pivot to online training for their second group, which worked out better than expected. A student named Graça said:“I’m here to talk about the free elderly caregivers course. I really enjoyed participating in the two weeks of interaction and exchange of information. The teachers who participated were clear and objective, which facilitated learning. Thank you GAIA and BGR.”

Juliana, a participant in the eldercare workshop, said: “I first want to thank GAIA and BGR for this wonderful course for caregivers, which was very useful for me. All the classes, all the lectures we saw, taught me many things that I didn’t know before. I learned much about nutrition too! The last class, with the nurse, was wonderful.”

A video explaining the course is available at: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1076376292811179.

At the beginning of the pandemic, GAIA purchased materials and set up a voluntary seamstress task force. They made 1600 masks, which were distributed to the community and donated to other communities as well. These are very poor regions, with few resources and little governmental assistance. GAIA also purchased food and mobilized the donation of resources and food. They distributed 370 basic baskets in June, July, and August. BGR support was fundamental and essential to this emergency effort.

Carla Prater is Assistant Director of Buddhist Global Relief. Transplanted to Brazil by missionary parents at the age of twelve, she remained there for the next twenty years and speaks fluent Portuguese. During her professional life she worked as a researcher at the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center at Texas A&M.

Why Is There Hunger in the Midst of Plenty?

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

In an interview on Democracy Now!, Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, raises the question why, when the planet is producing more than enough food to feed everyone, millions still face chronic hunger and starvation. The answer he gives points to fundamental structural flaws in the global food system.

Preparing complementary foods for children in Diffa, Niger
(Photo courtesy of Helen Keller International)

On December 10, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme, the world’s premier humanitarian organization combating global hunger and food insecurity. In his acceptance speech, David Beasley, the WFP’s executive director, said that he saw the Nobel Committee’s decision to grant the prize to the WFP as entailing “a call to action”—action to ensure that hunger is finally vanquished from the face of the earth. However, he warned, we are currently heading in the wrong direction. A combination of factors—multiple wars, climate change, the use of hunger as a political and military weapon, and the coronavirus pandemic—is pushing 270 million people ever closer to starvation. Thirty million of these, he said, are completely dependent on the WFP for their food.

He pointed out that the present may be “the most ironic moment in modern history,” a time when we find a grim chasm between the potential promise of the world’s wealth and the appalling fate that weighs upon a sizable portion of humanity. The world economy today has a value of $400 trillion, yet 270 million people hover on the brink of starvation, facing horrific illness and death. It would take only $5 billion to save the 30 million lives that utterly depend on the WFP, yet the agency struggles just to raise even this much, a tiny fraction of the world’s military spending.

While Beasley applauds the work of the WFP in saving lives, he does not find his job an easy one. He says: “I don’t go to bed at night thinking about the children we saved; I go to bed weeping over the children we could not save. And when we don’t have enough money nor the access we need, we have to decide which children eat and which children do not eat, which children live, which children die.”

In its report on the granting of the Nobel Peace Prize, the progressive news program Democracy Now! featured an interview with Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Early in the interview, Salvador raises the question why it is, when the planet is producing more than enough food to feed everyone, so many millions face chronic hunger and starvation. The answer, he states, lies in the rules governing the global food system. The global food system, as presently configured, allows those in positions of power and privilege to make major decisions that deprive others, less powerful, of the resources they need to eat and thrive. Thus if hundreds of millions of people go hungry year after year, this is not because we are short on food; rather, it is because too many lack the means either to purchase food or grow their own food.

Salvador points out that the modern food system is designed as a business model. This model is not intended to guarantee that everyone gets to eat, but to ensure that those who invest in the system receive the financial returns they expect on their investments. It is not only wealthy investors who benefit from the system but even middle-class folk in economically affluent countries. In the U.S. and other developed countries, almost any middle-class family can obtain from the shelves of their local supermarket virtually any food item grown anywhere on the planet. But in other enclaves far from our sight, hundreds of millions suffer the consequences of the pleasures we take for granted. When we consume even simple everyday items like coffee, tea, and chocolate, we seldom realize that we enjoy these things through the labor of people who have been deprived of the basic resources critical to a satisfactory standard of living. Those out of sight may be out of mind—for us—but we should remember the billions of ordinary folk around the world (and even in the U.S.) who face a harsh reality each day, all year round.

One of the most abhorrent features of the global food system, mentioned by Salvador, is land grabs. In a traditional agrarian economy, farmers own small plots of land on which they grow crops for their own use and to sell at the local market. This allows them to subsist, not in luxury, but with a sufficient degree of stability to weather the storms of daily life. However, in countries in Africa and Asia, desperate poverty and official government policy often compel subsistence farmers to sell their small plots of land to state enterprises or large multinational corporations. These then consolidate the plots into large estates devoted to specialized cash crops for sale to the global North. As a result, local populations lack the land to grow the essential crops they need for direct consumption and to earn an income. Rendered landless and penniless, they have no alternative but to toil as wage laborers barely able to get by from one day to the next, usually under degrading conditions. And those who don’t get to work lose their line to food.  

Salvador cites Africa as an example of sheer economic pillage conducted under the guise of legitimacy. Though often depicted as a global basket case, the continent, he says, produces more than enough food to feed its entire population. However, what is occurring in many African countries is that “governments are making land lease deals with foreign companies or other nations, namely China, so that the production of Africa is literally appropriated to meet the needs of other countries that have the capital to compete for that land and for the production of that land against the interests of native Africans.”

Another form of food deprivation mentioned in the interview is the deliberate withholding of food as a weapon of war, a weapon that can be as lethal as bombs and bullets. The prime example he cites is Yemen, where a civil war is being conducted as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The conflict in Yemen is widely considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, precisely because of its impact on the civilian population. To subdue their rivals into submission, both sides in the conflict have imposed food blockades that have pushed millions to the edge of starvation. At times, as many as 8.4 million people have been at risk of starvation, with acute malnutrition threatening the lives of almost 400,000 children under the age of five.

Salvador does not make specific suggestions about the kinds of policy shifts that are needed to tackle hunger on a global scale, but his remarks suggest that a far-reaching overhaul of the international food system is mandatory. Whatever official policy changes are implemented must be guided by a moral imperative. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Article 25, adopts this moral stance, asserting that food is a fundamental human right. What we must do now, on a global scale, is take up the task of feeding the entire world population as a shared moral challenge, a challenge that must be met if we are to truly measure up to our humanity. People must always take priority over profits.

We can’t complain that we lack the funding to meet this demand. If we had the moral will, funds would not be an obstacle. After all, nations around the world—especially the major powers—invest hundreds of billions in their military forces and weapons of war. The U.S. itself has a defense budget of almost a trillion dollars. It would take only a tiny fraction of this to guarantee that everyone eats, that no one starves, that no child has to be reduced to a heap of skin and bones.

However, acts of humanitarian aid are not enough to redeem our humanity. People should be able to obtain the food they need in a way that affirms their inherent dignity. This means that they obtain their food through their own resources, not through charity. They would either grow their own food on land that they themselves possess or earn enough to live on a nutritious diet. To achieve this goal, the current dominant model of industrial agriculture, often cruel and destructive and blindly driven by the profit motive, needs to be gradually replaced by an alternative model, the most promising being that of agroecology. This is a model that gives precedence to the needs of small-scale farmers. Its output is at least equal to that of industrial-scale farms, yet it preserves the natural environment, centers the diet around vegetables and fruits rather than meat, and reduces the enormous carbon footprint generated by industrial agriculture. Whether we make the changes needed will mean, for many millions, the difference between a death sentence and reprieve.

Covid-19 and Hunger: A Double Crisis of Inequality

The coronavirus pandemic is causing a hunger crisis, and at the same time revealing vast wealth inequality

By Randy Rosenthal

Buddhist monks distributing food parcels at a temple in Sri Lanka

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a recurring headline that hardly anyone is talking about. It has never been the main story, up at the top and in large font. But it’s been there on page two or three, first in April, and then again in June, and more recently in September. I’m referring to the impact of COVID-19 on hunger, both in the U.S. and globally.

Before the pandemic began, there were about 135 million people in the world who faced crisis levels of hunger. According to a report by the UN World Food Programme’s executive director, David Beasley, that number will double over the next year, to some 270 million who will be “marching towards the brink of starvation.” In a briefing to the UN Security Council on September 15, Beasley stated that the World Food Programme (WFP) needed about $5 billion in order to prevent 30 million people from dying of starvation. Not over the next few years, but by the end of this year. Now.

Back in April, Beasley warned the Security Council that the world was on the verge of a hunger pandemic. People in India, Colombia, and Kenya were more concerned that they would die from hunger than from the coronavirus. Donors and countries heeded the call and passed a $17 trillion fiscal stimulus package, and the UN was able to help 100 million people in 88 countries. For this work, the World Food Programme was recently awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet in September Beasley warned that a new wave of hunger would sweep the globe and overwhelm already unstable nations reeling from violent conflict, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. Specifically, he mentions the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Yemen, currently the site of the gravest humanitarian crisis in the world.

Along with food insecurity, overall poverty rates are also drastically increasing, a reversal of three decades of progress. Nearly every nation’s economy has shrunk since April, but it is the poorest countries that have been hardest hit, those that cannot afford large setbacks. India, for example, suffered a 24% shrinking of its economic output between April and June, with about 120 million jobs lost. The Asian Development Bank estimates that 160 million people in Asia alone will be under the poverty line this year. Latin America, too, is seeing hunger rise due to economic disaster. There, according to a UN study, 45 million more people will fall under the poverty line, prompting warnings that Latin America must brace for “a lost decade.”

Yet most of the news we read regarding the pandemic is about the U.S. and Europe. There are reports on unemployment and death tolls, but many articles have headlines like these: “Can our summer vacations still be saved? What will restaurants do to stay in business once winter comes? Is it safe to fly? Or to take a train?” These questions and topics are all valid concerns, as the virus has affected each of us in our own way, and we’re all just trying to survive and stay sane. And yet these lifestyle issues clearly pale in comparison to the threat of starvation faced by 270 million people.

Seeing that nations have hesitated over committing more funds, David Beasley pivoted and addressed individuals to help. Specifically, he appealed to billionaires to pitch in, calling out those who have made “billions upon billions” during the pandemic. What does he mean by this reference? Well, just recently, a survey by the Swiss bank UBS and consultancy group PwC showed that the combined worth of the world’s 2,189 billionaires now stands at $10.2 trillion. The survey also showed that since March, when the coronavirus lockdown began, their wealth has surged to ever higher levels. How can this be possible, when so many people around the world are unemployed, sick, and suffering? The answer is stocks. Most of the gains are due to investments in technology and healthcare companies involved in developing vaccines and therapies against the coronavirus. The gap between the wealthiest .01% and everyone else has been steadily growing over the past decade, but in the words of the survey’s authors, “the COVID-19 crisis just accentuated the divergence.” In fact, the wealthiest Americans have become 170% richer.

Interestingly, and somewhat reassuringly, there has been a corresponding increase in donations by billionaires to charitable causes, with $7.2 billion given between March and June. Nearly $5 billion came from U.S. billionaires, who dwarfed their counterparts in China, India, Australia, and the UK—the survey made no mention of Russian billionaires, despite Russia having more billionaires than any other country. This philanthropy is perhaps why Beasley emphasized that he is not criticizing billionaires—after all, he’s only asking for $5 billion. “I am not opposed to people making money,” he said in his UN briefing, “but humanity is facing the greatest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes.”

And yet for many of us, it doesn’t feel like the greatest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes. Why is that? Is it because we don’t actually see hunger? That our news media endlessly covers Donald Trump and political pundits, but not devastated areas in Africa? If we saw just a few of the 20 million people in crisis in Yemen, would we demand our government do more to stop the fighting there?

Again, don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming the media, especially because these stories on hunger are out there—that’s how I’m compiling this article. But these are not sexy stories. The crisis is often happening to other people, people far away, in parts of the world that are in dire situations anyway. And the causes of the global hunger crisis are complex—a combination of lost wages, disruption of food supply chains, the collapse of oil prices, the evaporation of the tourist industry, and continued disasters arising from climate change such as droughts, floods, and locust plagues are all contributing factors.

It’s so complicated, it seems like there’s nothing we can do. So, we think, we might as well meditate, read more articles about politics, watch sports, and plan our next vacation. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But we can also donate to organizations like Buddhist Global Relief, which since the COVID crisis erupted has been providing monthly donations of $3,000 to Feeding America, a central hub for U.S. food banks. This is in addition to its regular projects assisting poor communities around the world.

We can share stories about global hunger on social media. We get ourselves riled up at systemic racism and political maleficence, but we can express outrage about the hunger crisis too, condemning the larger economic system that allows a few to live in luxury while millions starve. We may not be billionaires, but each of us can help in our own way.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.

Urgent Aid to Women and Children in Cambodian Prisons

By Patricia Brick

LICADHO, a Cambodian human rights NGO

A BGR project with LICADHO (the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights) provides critical aid to incarcerated pregnant women and new mothers and their children.

The Cambodian prison system is plagued by overcrowding, squalid conditions, and widespread corruption. Detainees’ rights are often neglected, and Cambodian prisons do not provide detainees with essentials, such as nutritious meals, clean drinking water, quality medical care and sanitary living conditions. Children under the age of 3 are allowed to live in prisons with their parents, where they are exposed to gruesome prison conditions and lack essential nutrients at a crucial point in their physical and mental development. As of June 2020, more than 100 children were known to be imprisoned alongside their mothers.

A BGR project with LICADHO (the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights) improves the quality of life for incarcerated pregnant women and new mothers and their children. The Early Years Behind Bars (EYBB) project provides food, including rice, dried fish, and soy milk, as well as hygiene materials such as soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and laundry detergent, to pregnant women and mothers with children. The project team also interviews the women to monitor the conditions of the prisons, ensure that the materials provided meet the women’s needs, and determine if any additional medical or legal support is needed. In the project year that ended in June 2020, the project had benefited 205 children and their mothers as well as 90 pregnant women across 16 prisons.

According to figures from our partner, the prison population in Cambodia has increased from 21,900 in 2016 to nearly 39,000 in March 2020, the result of a crackdown on minor drug offenses; nearly three-quarters of people in detention had not yet been given the opportunity to stand trial. In a prison system with a capacity of 26,593, overcrowding was a grave problem even before the Covid-19 pandemic began spreading among incarcerated people worldwide. With as many as 530 prisoners forced into a single cell, with limited access to clean water, “Covid-19 safety measures such as physical distancing and frequent hand washing are impossible,” our partner reports. Government reforms announced this summer to potentially lower the number of prisoners have been slow to take effect.

Our partner reports that following the outbreak of the Covid pandemic in Cambodia in March, for several months the project teams’ access to the prisons was curtailed. Team members were required to leave the food and hygiene materials with prison staff to distribute, and in one case were not permitted to leave food and materials for the incarcerated women for several months. Access was reopened as of late July.

Our partner shared three stories of incarcerated women who benefited from this program. Their names have been changed to protect the women’s identity.

Kunthea, a 32-year-old mother of two, was two months pregnant when she was arrested without a warrant on drug-related charges in July 2019. Our partner writes: “She was forced to confess and thumbprint the record without knowing what the document said … In April 2020, a judge sentenced her to 10 years in prison and fined her 20 million riel, which is equivalent to approximately U.S. $5,000.” She gave birth to her daughter in March 2020 and brought the infant to prison, where she is serving her sentence in a cell shared with seven to twelve other detainees. Kunthea was unable to provide sufficient milk to exclusively breastfeed her daughter, and her family cannot afford to provide additional food for the new mother or her infant. The EYBB project provided milk powder, food, and other essential items for Kunthea and her baby.

Leakhena was arrested on drug-related charges in September 2019 and received food from EYBB during her pregnancy and postpartum to supplement the meager food provided by the prison. She gave birth to a healthy daughter in June 2020. Her sister is currently caring for the baby outside of prison.

Bopha was also arrested on drug-related charges last autumn and also was “forced to confess and thumbprint the record without knowing what it was.” She gave birth to a baby girl in June. With her husband also incarcerated and lacking family outside of the prison who could care for the baby, Bopha had no choice but to keep the infant with her. She shares a cell with thirteen other detainees. The EYBB project provides her with hygiene items and food, which she described as being enough that she doesn’t feel hungry.

Patricia Brick is a staff writer for Buddhist Global Relief. This story is based on reporting from our partner LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.

The Persistence of Poverty is a Political Choice

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Embed from Getty Images

In a report issued on behalf of the UN’s Human Rights Council, Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, explodes the comforting myth that humanity is finally on the verge of eradicating extreme poverty. The report, titled “The Parlous State of Poverty Eradication,” insists that the belief that we are making good progress in eliminating poverty “is unjustified by the facts, generates inappropriate policy conclusions, and fosters complacency” (p. 1). The author maintains that our good intentions to promote greater economic justice are constantly being undermined by false assumptions about the extent of poverty and stymied by flawed decisions about the most effective means to vanquish it.

The report points out that the optimism among policy professionals and thought leaders rests on the use of a deceptive standard to define extreme poverty. The official standard, the World Bank’s international poverty line (IPL), is arrived at by averaging the national poverty lines employed by the world’s poorest countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa. The line, currently set at U.S. $1.90 in purchasing power parity, is “a standard of miserable subsistence rather than an even minimally adequate standard of living” (p. 1).

On the basis of the IPL, the U.S. in 2016 had a poverty rate of 1.2 percent, though the rate was actually 12 percent. On the IPL South Africa would have a poverty rate of 19 percent vs. a real poverty rate of 55 percent, and Mexico a poverty rate of 1.7 percent vs. a real rate of 42 percent. Setting the line so low, the report maintains, is bound “to guarantee a positive result and to enable the United Nations, the World Bank, and many commentators to proclaim a Pyrrhic victory” (pp. 4–5).

The report points out that much of the progress in eliminating poverty under the Bank’s IPL is due not to any upward global trend but to developments in China, where between 1990 and 2015 the number of people below the IPL dropped from over 750 million to 10 million. If a more realistic poverty line of $5.50 were adopted, the number of poor people globally held almost steady between 1990 and 2015, declining merely from 3.5 to 3.4 billion. That is hardly a reason to proclaim an end to extreme poverty.

Even under the Bank’s line, between 1990 and 2015 the number of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East rose by 140 million (p. 9). Using this weak criterion, some 700 million people worldwide live under $1.90 a day, which is morally abhorrent in itself, but if we were to take a more realistic measure the extent of global poverty would turn out to be vastly higher and current trends discouraging.

According to the report, efforts to eliminate extreme poverty are bound to run up against two factors that will inevitably increase the numbers of the poor. One is accelerating climate change, which we are hardly addressing with the urgency required. Over the next decade an altered climate is projected to push 100 million more people below even the weak standard of the IPL.

The other major threat is COVID-19, which over the next three years will drive 176 million people into poverty at the $3.20 poverty line. The report calls COVID-19 “a pandemic of poverty” which lays bare the parlous state of social safety nets for low-income people around the world. Rates of illness and mortality expose racial and class divisions, and access to health care and financial assistance is also skewed along racial, gender, religious, and class lines. Those hit hardest by the pandemic are the “essential workers” who do not have the luxury of “sheltering in place” but are compelled to work under precarious conditions, becoming “sacrificial lambs” to keep the economy functioning (p. 9).

The primary guideposts the international community relies on for tackling poverty are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The first of the goals is an “end to poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030. Taken in isolation the goal sounds ambitious enough, but the specific targets proposed to meet this goal are “patently inadequate to actually end poverty, and the prospects of achieving them are rapidly receding” (p. 10). The tenth goal calls for reducing inequality, but the plan of implementation relies on the premise that the key to reducing inequality is continued economic growth—a shaky assumption, since history shows that the benefits of unregulated economic growth disproportionately go to the affluent.

The only viable way to end poverty, according to the report, is wealth redistribution, which would require more aggressive governmental control over the economy. However, the reigning paradigm of neoliberal ideology dictates that the market must be allowed to operate on its own, without government interference. Current attempts to achieve the SDGs therefore marginalize government action in favor of private investments and “public-private partnerships,” which usually optimize the interests of the investors over the needs of the poor (p. 12).

The report does not reject the SDGs themselves, but calls for reflection on “ways in which the overall package, including targets and indicators, can be re-shaped and supplemented in order to achieve the key goals which otherwise look destined to fail” (p. 14). One flawed premise that underlies the formulation of the SDGs is the idea that the most effective way to achieve them is through economic growth. While this premise is considered sacrosanct in neoliberal economic circles, the fact remains that the benefits of growth disproportionately go to those in positions of wealth and power. While the poor may see some small improvements in living conditions, economic disparities widen to a still greater degree and thus the old bugbear of inequality remains.

The staggering levels of wealth and income inequality in today’s world should dispel any inflated notion that the world is moving toward greater economic equity. The bottom 50 percent of the world’s population now owns less than 1 percent of total global wealth, while the top 1 percent holds 45 percent of the total (pp. 15–16). Reduction in economic inequality requires a redistribution of wealth, but figures like these remind us how far we have to go to overcome global poverty.

The report recommends global debt forgiveness as a critical factor in establishing a just international economic order. Another measure the author proposes is fair and equitable taxation, which “must be front and center in any set of policies to eliminate poverty.” Fair taxation has a significance that transcends mere economic pragmatism, standing as “a symbol of solidarity and burden sharing” and “a reflection of deeper values” (p. 16). Just tax policies would call upon wealthy individuals and successful corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, and this would require an end to tax evasion through the use of tax havens, for which the U.S. has been “the global trendsetter.” At present there are hundreds of thousands of tax havens worldwide, depriving states of as much as $650 billion in tax revenue (p. 16).

On the positive side, the project of ending poverty calls for the implementation of programs that provide universal social protection, helping people deal with the adversities brought on by sickness, disability, unemployment, and old age. Shockingly, four billion people—over half the world’s population—completely lack any level of social protection, while for many others the support available to them is far from adequate. This, according to the report, is “an extraordinary indictment of the global fight against extreme poverty” (p. 17)

The report sees this abdication of social responsibility on the part of governments to stem from the pressure of neoliberal policy agendas, which favor minimal taxation and result in the imposition of harsh austerity measures as a way to balance budgets. When governments are denied the resources they need to serve their populations, the task of providing social services falls upon private or institutional philanthropy. This relies on the good will of the donor agencies, but fails to establish a genuine systemic solution to the persistence of poverty.

According to the report, the dependence on philanthropy as the main way of helping the poor perpetuates a vicious cycle. Billionaires amass their fortunes through policies that tax labor more than capital and facilitate tax avoidance. Deprived of the funds they need to maintain programs of social uplift, governments are compelled to rely on private charity to provide for the needs of their populations. The wealthy philanthropists then demand more favors for themselves to compensate for their charitable expenditures, which in turn strengthens their influence over the government.

The outcome is a weakened public system, a more powerful role for the rich, and dependency of the poor on handouts. The effort to address poverty through philanthropic giving “is no replacement for an equitable tax system or robust publicly funded programs that fulfill the human rights of all people and work to eliminate extreme poverty” (p. 18).

An adequate standard of living and social protection against the slings of adversity are, according to the report, basic human rights. From this perspective, extreme poverty becomes a violation of human rights. If effective measures were adopted, the international community would have at its disposal the resources required to effectively lift impoverished peoples up to a decent and dignified standard of living. The reason poverty persists is because governments and international agencies have been reluctant to stand up against the powerful global financial and political forces that resist a wider and more just distribution of wealth and political power. As increasing percentages of global wealth are siphoned off by a small, super-wealthy elite, while billions live on the edge of survival, we are gradually reverting back to the social conditions depicted in the novels of Charles Dickens.

In the end, the report holds, it is up to governments to take back their capacity to fulfill the needs of their populations. Government is, in theory, our collective voice, and its institutions are the hands through which we express a sense of national and global solidarity. The stubborn persistence of poverty, the author writes, is not a decree of fate but “a political choice” that is also an affront to our sense of social justice. It is, he concludes, “only when the goal of realizing the human right to an adequate standard of living replaces the World Bank’s miserable subsistence line [that] the international community [will] be on track to eliminate extreme poverty” (p. 19).

From Tragedy Springs Hope: Reflections on the Killing of George Floyd

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

The police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis, ignited protests and marches around the country under the banner of Black Lives Matter. To fulfill this aspiration will require extensive changes both in our institutions and in our ways of thought.

Photo: Samuel Wagner, Flickr

The police killing of George Floyd this past Memorial Day has set off a stream of protests in cities and towns across the U.S., and even around the world, united under the banner of “Black Lives Matter.” The murder, captured on video by a passing pedestrian, reveals the horror of racism in its terrible immediacy. Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” followed by his silence, leave us shocked at witnessing such a naked display of cruelty taking place in broad daylight in a major American city, committed by an officer of the law.

Anyone who attends to the news knows that such killings are not rare. The names of the victims repeatedly flash across the media, each time setting off a wave of public revulsion. Where the murder of Mr. Floyd stood out was in the rawness of the visual imagery that revealed the slow agony of his death.

In the aftermath of the killing, black leaders and their allies are demanding stricter laws regulating police behavior. While any effective response to these tragedies must include major changes in policing practices, a movement based on the maxim that “Black Lives Matter” cannot stop there but must seek to stamp out all forms of violence, obvious and subtle, that debilitate the lives of Black Americans in this country. These are often veiled behind a curtain of code words and thus must be brought out into the open.

The murder of George Floyd is a stark reminder of our legacy of racist violence, a legacy that includes slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and the prison-industrial complex. But racism also occurs in ways that are not blatantly violent but still leave black people stunned and gasping for air. These include poor quality in health care, education, jobs, and housing, all based on the premise that black lives are not really entitled to the same opportunities that white people enjoy. If we truly believe that our country stands for “liberty and justice for all,” we would reject that premise and provide neglected Black Americans and other groups in need with the critical building blocks of personal and communal well-being. These are human rights, and it is the job of the government, as expressing our collective will, to ensure they are made available.

We can’t fall back on the excuse that providing such benefits would bust the federal or state treasury. We spend close to a trillion dollars on the military, lavish battlefield equipment on police departments, and give whopping tax breaks to billionaires and giant corporations. If we got our priorities straight, we could easily provide everyone in this country with the basic requisites of a decent life. The real reason politicians and their constituents agonize about spending on such services is because in large measure they would benefit Black Americans and other people whose skin is a darker shade.

Among all economically advanced countries, the U.S. stands out in the paucity of the social services it offers its population, and a major factor behind these spending constraints is racism. In the name of social justice, this has to change. The social safety net, now badly frayed, must be repaired and widened, so that no one falls through the holes in times of illness, a job layoff, or old age. Those in need must be provided affordable housing, vocational training, and quality health care. The minimum wage should be boosted to the level of a real living wage, and the range of good-paying jobs expanded through the rapid adoption of a Green New Deal that simultaneously combats climate change and unemployment. We must guarantee all people access to clean drinking water and nutritious food, and make massive investments in public education at all levels, starting with pre-K.

Measures to establish social justice must be supplemented by efforts to restore political justice, especially by countering attempts by conservatives to undermine voting rights. These efforts have spread across districts with large black populations, especially in southern states, where devious tactics are used to diminish black turnout for elections. Instead of limiting the right to vote, we should make the process of voting as easy as possible. This will require people of conscience to stand up against the effort to distort elections through restrictive voting protocols.

While economic and social transformation is essential, to eliminate racism at its root we have to take the project deeper, bring it down to a more personal level. The racist policies and institutions that undergird almost every aspect of life in the U.S. stem from long entrenched prejudices that ascribe a diminished value to the lives of African Americans and other people of color. How else can we explain the vast gaps in income and wealth between whites and blacks, the hostility in Congress to food stamps and welfare, or the shorter life spans of black people compared to other racial groups? How else can we understand why COVID-19 fatalities among Black Americans are 2.5 times higher than among whites?

In the end, what is required to achieve a lasting resolution to racism in this country is a change in the perceptions and attitudes that allow these travesties to continue. White people in particular must make a deliberate effort to look beyond stereotypes and see every human being, regardless of skin color or ethnic origins, as worthy of care and respect. Just as we each cherish ourselves, so we must learn to see each and every human being as endowed with inherent value and thus as worth cherishing.

To change our perceptions is no easy task. The human mind is governed by a deep tendency to objectify others and subsume them under categories that reflect our personal biases and fears, particularly the fear of difference. To objectify others is to blind ourselves to their own intrinsic reality as persons who, like ourselves, wish to avoid suffering and seek happiness, who want to live and not to die, who aspire to realize their innate potentials.

What is needed above all to eradicate racism is, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “an unconditional love” rooted in an understanding of our shared humanity, our shared fragility and vulnerability. Such love would give rise to genuine compassion for those who suffer and a desire to ameliorate their pain, but would also affirm our common capacity for leading lives of meaning and purpose. It would thereby unite us in a collaborative effort to create a society—and even a world—in which everyone can flourish.

Given our history of racism and current cultural norms, efforts to forge such strong bonds of solidarity will run up against both internal and external obstacles. Not only must we deal with our habitual biases and the pressures of our peers, but we will inevitably face opposition from those who benefit from division and want to preserve their privileged status, even though, in the end, such divisions diminish us all.

As a nation we presently stand at a crossroads where we can either go forward in creating a “beloved community” of mutual affirmation, or we can retreat backward into the bunkers of suspicion, resentment, and racial violence. We can come together to create a society that serves the needs of all, or we can struggle to prevail in a zero-sum game.

The unity among young people of all races and backgrounds marching along the streets of our major cities shows that the seeds of a society centered around human solidarity are blowing in the wind. The tragedy of George Floyd’s killing is starting to blossom in new flowers of hope. Our task now is to realize the potential of this moment and enhance its power until it becomes the dominant ethos of our time.

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and the founder and chair of Buddhist Global Relief.

 

Emergency Relief Assistance to Sri Lanka

By BGR Staff

On March 31st BGR donated $1,000 to the Karuna Trust in Sri Lanka, which has been distributing parcels of dry rations to poor families hit hard by the strict curfew imposed in the country on account of COVID-19. The Karuna Trust is working together with the the Divisional Secretariats to feed poor children and elders in orphanages and elders’ homes, which now have no way of obtaining food from their regular donors. A few days ago we received the following account from Mr. Mahinda Karunaratne, founder of Karuna Trust, along with several photographs of a food distribution.

On March 30th I sent an email to my donors, well-wishers, and friends requesting funds to help the daily wage-workers who had lost their earnings due to the curfew. In response I collected LKR 3.3 million, including the donation I received from Buddhist Global Relief. I am happy about the trust the people have placed in me. Apart from this amount, Karuna Trust also allocated LKR  1 million, which we will use for the second stage of COVID-19 relief work.

Within this period we have given 3312 dry ration parcels to people who have lost their daily income due to the curfew, in fifteen Divisional Secretariat Divisions. Consumer items have been given to eight orphanages, two bhikkhu training centers, fifteen  Buddhist temples, four temples of Buddhist nuns, and eight churches. All these activities were done under the supervision of the Divisional Secretaries and a representative of ours participated in each and every distribution.

Yesterday we had our last distribution of dry rations in Moratuwa where we gave 150 parcels to mostly poor families in a fishing village. I also participated in this distribution but I did not hand over the parcels to the people.

As a result of COVID-19, over 200,000 people in Sri Lanka have lost their jobs, the majority of them minor employees. Many of these people live in rented houses. They don’t have any other income. Usually these families have three or four children and now they will face difficulty sending their children to schools, and thus these children’s studies will be affected.

Our second stage of COVID-19 relief work will be to give a short-term scholarship for these students. We plan to give a minimum of LKR 1000.00 ($6.00) per student, and at the beginning, 200 scholarships from the interest of Karuna Trust funds. We will increase the number of scholarships according to the donations we get.

The last distribution of dry rations took place on May 18th at the Buddhist temples of Deegawapi, China Bay, and Lunawa temples. The Deegavapi distribution was organized by the Governor of Eastern Province, at China Bay by Ven. Aluthoya Saddhathissa Thera, and at Lunawa by Ven. Agalakada Sirisumana Thera.

The photos show the distribution of parcels at the Lunawa and Deegawapi temples.

Whose Lives Matter?

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Embed from Getty Images

Even though Covid-19 has been taking a heavy toll on workers in the meat industry, late last month President Trump issued an executive order demanding that meat-processing plants must resume operations. The effect of this order is to confront workers with a horrendous choice: either risk losing their jobs or risk losing their lives. With meat-processing plants becoming hot spots for Covid-19, many workers are terrified about going back to work.

The Priority of Profit

The well-known saying of Jesus, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,” might be reformulated with regard to the economy: “The economy should serve the needs of people; people should not be made to serve the economy.” Yet the logic of modern corporate capitalism often dictates just the opposite, that people be subordinated to the demands of the economy, an omnivorous giant that feeds off a steady stream of human sweat, blood, and tears.

With the profit motive as its driving vector, the mammoth corporation directs all the components of its complex operational system toward profit maximization. When profits stagnate or decline, the company may freely adopt whatever measures are needed to change course and push earnings back on an upward curve, often without regard for the physical well-being of its employees. While labor unions earlier formed a bulwark against corporate abuse, the decline of unions has given corporations license to get their way without fear of resistance.

A particularly egregious example of this inversion of ethical priorities came to light at the end of April when President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel meat-processing facilities to resume operations. In March and April, these plants had become hot spots for Covid-19. By the end of April, at least twenty workers had died from the disease and over 5,000 were infected. Since then even more workers have been infected and died, but a shortage of testing equipment prevents us from knowing the exact numbers.

As infections spread, state and local authorities used their power to order some of the most badly contaminated plants to close, a measure considered necessary to protect public health. In sum, during those two months, thirteen meatpacking and food-processing plants shut down, including some of the nation’s biggest. In response, the executives of the giant meat corporations mounted a campaign of opposition, claiming that the closing of the meat plants would endanger the national food supply. John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest meat processor, published a full-page ad in major newspapers, including the New York Times, warning that “the food supply chain is breaking.”

Enter the Defense Protection Act

This message got through to the president, who invoked the Defense Protection Act to demand that the plants reopen. The DPA was originally adopted to grant the federal government the authority to order private industries to produce materials and equipment needed in times of war. But Trump used it, not for national defense against a hostile military power, but to protect the meat industry from declining profits.

The president’s executive order states that the closure of meat-processing plants by state and local authorities has been “undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” and he called on the Secretary of Agriculture to “take all appropriate action… to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA,” that is, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Trump’s decree puts in jeopardy not only the workers themselves, but their families and communities. Meat-processing workers often live in multi-generational households with scant opportunity for quarantine or social distancing. In such tightly cramped quarters, if a younger worker becomes infected with the virus, even if they remain asymptomatic, they might easily infect other members of the household; for older relatives infection may prove fatal. But for the president, such concerns are subordinate to those about the meat supply. In the words of Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union: “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products.”

Despite the rhetoric of “critical infrastructure” and a “national emergency,” a continuous supply of meat is in no way essential to meeting our country’s nutritional needs. Our obsession with meat may actually be harmful to our health. While reduced availability of meat might agonize those who crave the taste of beef, pork, and chicken, it’s not going to undermine their health. The demand to reopen the meatpacking plants is driven primarily by the wish to guarantee that profits from the sale of meat continue to flow into the coffers of the food corporations, sustaining the salaries of executives and the dividends of shareholders. The costs will be borne by those forced to return to work, who will be sacrificing their health and even their lives on the altar of the plant. To step into a processing plant at a time when many workers are carrying the virus, untested and undetected, is to place at risk one’s health and even one’s life.

Adding to the tension between management and the workforce, between capital and labor, is an underlying racial and ethnic dynamic. A large number of workers in the meat-processing industry are Latinos, Asians, and African Americans; many are immigrants or members of immigrant families. Thus the demand that the plants be reopened, and that workers return to their jobs, suggests that an unspoken premise behind the injunction is a judgment that black and brown lives—the lives of the workers—are of less value than the lives of the owners and managers and thus may be sacrificed to ensure the plants remain operative.

In the words of Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant organization America’s Voice: “Trump sees business owners as his people and he sees a diverse group of workers as expendable…. For ‘essential workers’ it’s ‘get back to work’ and ‘voluntary’ guidelines at pandemic hot spots. For a CEO class that’s white and wealthy it’s profits and legal liability protections.”

A Terrifying Choice

What the workers want and need is access to the federal stockpile of masks and other protective gear, daily testing, enforced physical distancing, and full paid sick leave during periods of illness. When protective equipment at the plants is in short supply, it’s hardly surprising that workers fear losing the most precious possession they have, their own life. As one local organizer in Iowa told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!:

I have family working across the board, across the state and into some other states, in the industry. So, you know, it’s very scary for my family, my immediate family, my extended family. I have cousins who now have tested positive because of these plants. My sister and her husband have tested positive here just recently because of these plants. And again, [we’re] just incredibly scared.

The president’s executive order does nothing to allay these fears. It does not make the protective guidelines mandatory, but instead shields the meat companies from legal liability in cases of workplace exposure to the virus. Any company legally challenged can claim that, in reopening during the pandemic, it was merely following a decree issued by the highest authority in the land.

The demand for the continued operation of the plants forces the workers to choose between their jobs and their lives—a terrifying choice that no one should ever have to face. If, from fear of contracting the virus, workers stay back from work, they may well lose their jobs and the income they need to support themselves and their families. If, to maintain their household, they report to work, they risk contracting the virus and losing their lives.

A Crisis of American Democracy

The perilous choice faced by workers in the meat industry represents, in microcosm, the crisis in American democracy, pointing to the big question too often hidden behind discussions of everyday social issues: Who does the government represent—ordinary people or the moneyed interests that contribute to campaigns and flood Congress with lobbyists?

The answer, which is obvious, underscores the need for a radical overhaul of the economic paradigm that currently reigns, that of corporate capitalism grounded upon an ideology of free-market fundamentalism. In the ultimate analysis, to preserve our political democracy, we must institute economic democracy, transitioning to a system that gives workers fuller control over their terms of employment. But such changes are long-term goals. In the short term, with a pandemic raging that has already taken more American lives than the Vietnam war, what is needed is a slate of workplace regulations, rigorously enforced, that ensures workers remain safe at their jobs.

It would certainly be desirable, too, if meat were to be knocked from its place as the centerpiece of the standard American diet in favor of plant-based sources of protein. Apart from its cruel treatment of billions of helpless animals and the merciless death it inflicts at the slaughterhouses, livestock cultivation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Raising animals for food requires vast amounts of land, water, and grain, a deplorable waste of food in a world where chronic hunger afflicts close to a billion people. Further, high intake of red meat and processed meats is linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death. Thus a nation-wide shift from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet would bring manifold benefits. To forestall unemployment, under a federal program workers in the meat industry could be retrained to take up more benign types of livelihood.

Nevertheless, such a pivotal change in the American diet is unlikely to be realized anytime in the near future, and we must therefore focus on protecting the welfare of workers in their present occupation. This requires both ethical commitments and regulatory enforcement. A company must fulfill its moral responsibility to the well-being of its workforce, ensuring that its employees do not jeopardize their health and well-being at the workplace. A company that treats its workers as disposable, as mere instruments of production whose lives can be imperiled to serve the company’s interest, has transgressed against a basic principle of workplace ethics.

Yes, Regulation Is Necessary

In face of the moral recklessness of modern corporate capitalism, the need for regulatory protection is particularly acute. Almost invariably, companies will seek to cut corners whenever they can get away with it. It thus becomes the obligation of the government to step into the fray and come to the defense of the workers, which means that the government must enact laws that safeguard workers and impose regulations that prevent industries from operating in ways that endanger their workforce.

A government that does not protect workers from the ruthless demands of industry has forfeited its responsibility to the people it purportedly represents. Despite their professed good intentions, industries can’t be fully trusted to regulate themselves. Regulation is the job of the government, a job that must be rigorously pursued to protect the well-being of the workers. It is only in this way that we can move, gradually, toward becoming a nation that gives everyone the chance to flourish.

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and translator of Pali Buddhist texts. He is also the founding chair of Buddhist Global Relief


This essay was originally published on the website of OneEarthSangha.

 

BGR Supports Hunger Relief during Pandemic

By BGR Staff

Embed from Getty Images

 

Over the past two months BGR has so far donated close to $40,000 to support communities, both globally and nationally, adversely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

To assist the international effort, BGR contributed $5,000 to the World Food Program USA to provide food relief to people in other countries afflicted by hunger worsened by the pandemic. While coronavirus is hurting everyone, it is hitting people in crisis zones the hardest. From Syria to Bangladesh, the virus is beginning to spread through crowded refugee camps and people living in extreme poverty. With its logistical and emergency expertise, WFP is ramping up its response to nourish and protect people already living in extremely vulnerable conditions.

We also donated $1,000 to the Karuna Trust in Sri Lanka, which is distributing food to poor families hard hit by the strict curfew currently in place in the country. The Karuna Trust is working together with the the Additional Government Agent of Matale, to assist them in feeding poor children and elders in orphanages and elders’ homes, which have no way now of obtaining food from their regular donors.

Further, BGR gave a donation of $500 to the Bangladesh Buddhist Missionary Society, a BGR partner, to support their efforts to combat the pandemic. The Society is using its spare space as a quarantine center; developing public awareness campaigns; providing hand sanitizer, masks, and other sanitation equipment; arranging for medical teams; and providing emergency food support. And more recently we donated $1,785 to White Lotus Charitable Trust’s Garden of Peace, in Tamil Nadu, India, to help the local community deal with the pandemic.

Here in the U.S., in early April BGR initially donated $7,000 to support food banks providing food relief to poor people affected by the pandemic. Donations of $1,000 each were provided to food banks in seven locations: New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, El Paso, Philadelphia, and central New Jersey. We also donated $500 to provide meals to front-line health care workers on Long Island through a project organized by the Center for Spiritual Imagination at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City.

In late April and on #Giving Tuesday in May, BGR made additional donations of $12,000 each month to twelve food banks working in New York City, Westchester County, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, South Florida, South Louisiana, Texas, southern Arizona, Los Angeles, and the World Central Kitchen. In each of those two months, donations of $1,000 were given to each of these food distribution centers. We intend to continue offering support to food banks here in the U.S., as well as to affected countries around the world. For a list of U.S. food banks, see Feeding America.

BGR is blessed to be able to contribute to the important work being done by these courageous organizations.

To help BGR continue putting compassion into action, please consider making a generous donation to BGR. We are a distinctive Buddhist organization helping poor and neglected peoples throughout the world.