Category Archives: Buddhist social ethics

Tackling Global Hunger at its Roots

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Tackling global hunger requires that we identity its fundamental causes and remove these at the roots. This requires not only the adoption of transformative policies, but a fundamental change in our own values and attitudes.

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

The Buddha teaches that to effectively solve any problem we have to remove its underlying causes. While the Buddha himself applies this principle to the ending of existential suffering, the same method can be used to deal with many of the challenges we face in the social and economic dimensions of our lives. Whether it be racial injustice, economic disparities, or climate disruption, to resolve these problems we have to dig beneath the surface and extricate the roots from which they spring.

A recent media report from Oxfam International, The Hunger Virus Multiplies, adopts just such an approach to global hunger. While the COVID pandemic has driven world hunger to the outer margins of our awareness, the report points out that more people are actually dying each day from hunger than from the virus. The death rate from COVID is estimated at 7 lives per minute, but hunger claims 11 lives per minute. The reason this statistic does not get the attention it deserves is that, unlike COVID, global hunger is perpetually with us, fluctuating only in degrees of severity.

Since its arrival, however, the coronavirus has pushed the mortality rate from hunger even higher than under pre-pandemic conditions. COVID not only takes lives directly, through its attack on the respiratory system, but imposes the economic downturns that intensify hunger. This threat is particularly ominous for those already struggling to make ends meet. Over the past year, according to the report, the pandemic has driven 20 million more people to extreme levels of food insecurity, while the number living in famine-like conditions has risen sixfold, to more than 520,000.

The report traces the death rate from acute hunger to three deep causes, which it calls “the lethal Cs”: conflict, COVID, and the climate crisis. Conflict is the single most potent driver of global hunger, pushing nearly 100 million people in 23 countries to crisis levels of food insecurity and even to famine. Conflict not only disrupts agricultural production and blocks access to food, but in a war of attrition it is common for the hostile parties to use starvation as a deliberate weapon to crush their opponents. They may block humanitarian relief, bomb local markets, set fields ablaze, or kill livestock—thereby depriving people, especially hapless civilians, of access to food and water.

Violent conflict also aggravates hunger by siphoning funds away from food supplies to the purchase of weapons. Last year alone, global military spending rose by $51 billion, more than six times the $8 billion that the UN has requested to provide food for the hungry. The U.S. continues to spend over $700 billion annually on its military programs, almost a hundred times what is needed to alleviate extreme hunger.

Economic hardship, the second major factor driving global hunger, has been exacerbated over the past two years by the COVID pandemic. The pandemic has forced lockdowns around the globe, driving up poverty levels and causing sharp spikes in hunger. Last year, poverty increased by 16% and over 40 million people in 17 countries faced severe hunger. As food production has declined, food prices around the world rose last year by almost 40 percent, the highest rise in over a decade. This has made food, even when available, unaffordable for many people. Those hit hardest have been women, displaced populations, and informal workers.

Not everyone, however, has suffered economic pain during the pandemic. While billions of people around the world have lost their livelihoods and struggle to subsist from day to day, the corporate elite have turned the pandemic into a windfall, reaping unprecedented profits. In 2020, the wealth of the ten richest people increased by $413 billion, and the trend toward increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the privileged few continues this year as well.

Though no region has been spared the scourge of COVID, in the economically advanced countries the virus’s negative economic impact has been blunted by the ready availability of vaccines. But in the poorer nations, the vaccine remains largely inaccessible, mainly because the pharmaceutical giants in the North have refused to share their formulas with their counterparts in the global South. While antivaxxers and skeptics in the affluent nations refuse to take the shot, billions of poor people around the world who clamor for the life-saving vaccine are told it’s not available.

The third driver of global hunger is the climate crisis. This past year extreme weather events related to climate change have caused unprecedented damage. According to the report, climate disasters—storms, floods, and droughts—pushed nearly 16 million people in 15 countries to crisis levels of hunger. Each climate disaster, the report states, leads us downward into deepening poverty and hunger. Tragically, the countries hit hardest by climate shocks are those with the lowest levels of fossil fuel consumption.

To strike a hopeful note, the Oxfam report proposes seven “urgent actions” needed to stop the hunger crisis and build more just and sustainable food systems. The seven, briefly stated, are:

1. Provide emergency assistance to meet the UN’s global food security appeal, scaling up social protection, and supporting small-scale farmers and pastoralists.

2. Guarantee that humanitarian assistance reaches people, ensuring immediate humanitarian access to save civilians from starvation.

3. Forge inclusive and sustainable peace by bringing hostile parties to the negotiating table.

4. Build fairer, more resilient, and sustainable food systems, especially by increasing investments in small-scale and agro-ecological food production.

5. Promote the participation of women and giving them a greater role in repairing our broken food system.

6. Support a people’s vaccine, ending patents on COVID vaccines and helping poorer countries vaccinate their populations.

7. Take urgent action to tackle the climate crisis, cutting emissions in the rich polluting nations and helping small-scale food producers adapt to climate change.

Looking at the crisis of global hunger from a Buddhist point of view, I would hold that beneath the three causes of hunger outlined in the Oxfam report there lies a deeper web of causation that ultimately stems from the human mind. At the base of conflict and war, extreme economic inequality, and ever more deadly climate devastation we would find the “three root defilements”—greed, hatred, and delusion—along with their many offshoots. Although we cannot expect that these dark dispositions of the human mind will ever be extirpated on a global scale, if we are to solve the interwoven problems of hunger and poverty, we must mitigate, at least to a sufficient extent, their collective manifestations.

Ultimately, the persistence of hunger in our world is a moral failure as much as a sign of flawed policies. Just consider a few hard facts. Each year the world pours out close to $2 trillion on military spending, yet it would take just a tiny sliver of this to eradicate world hunger. Billionaires throw away multiple millions of dollars on vanity flights into outer space, while hundreds of millions of people here on earth languish from lack of food, housing, and medical care. Corporations make exorbitant profits but pay little or no taxes, forcing governments to cut back on basic social services. These facts mark not merely blunders in public policy but moral travesties, an inversion of priorities that ultimately harms everyone. To significantly reduce global hunger we need not only wise policies—as critical as these may be—but a fundamental reorientation in our values that cuts at the roots of economic injustice, militarism, and environmental destruction. Without such inner changes, policy changes will inevitably be limited in impact and diluted by those opposed to them.

I would posit two internal changes as most crucial to our efforts to eliminate poverty and hunger. One is a widening of our sense of empathy, a willingness to embrace in solidarity all those who daily face the harsh struggle to subsist. The other is an intelligent grasp of our long-range good, the wisdom to see that our real common good extends far beyond narrow economic indicators, that we all flourish when we create the conditions for everyone to flourish. We already have at our disposal the means of tackling each of the drivers of global hunger identified in the Oxfam report. What we need is the foresight, the compassion, and the moral courage to enact them and promote them on a sufficiently wide scale.

With a strong commitment to peace, the world’s major powers could bring conflicting parties to the negotiating table and help them resolve their differences. By sharing the COVID vaccine with reliable drug companies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, we could ensure that the world’s poorest people are inoculated and thereby end the pandemic. By adopting fairer taxation policies and investing more in public spending, we could level economic disparities. By making a rapid transition to clean and renewable sources of energy, we could create carbon-neutral economies that preserve the health and vitality of the natural environment.

In short, the means of countering the causes of hunger are already at hand. We fail to adopt them not because they’re beyond our reach but because formidable vested interests stand in the way. Arms manufacturers, military contractors, and security firms benefit from international tensions. Corporate elites benefit from a skewed economy that increasingly concentrates wealth in fewer hands. The big pharmaceutical companies benefit from patents on life-saving vaccines. The fossil fuel industry benefits from an economy dependent on fresh sources of oil and gas. And most of us, when poverty and hunger don’t affect us personally—at least not directly and visibly—simply slouch back into complacency and a benign indifference to the plight of others.

To sustain a movement for social and economic justice, national leaders and ordinary citizens alike must be led by long-range vision, moved by empathy, and bolstered by moral courage to stand up for people and the planet. Empathy is indispensable, and for this we need to expand our sense of identity, to learn to regard those facing daily hardships not as mere abstractions—as statistics or distant “others”—but as human beings fully endowed with inherent dignity. We must see them as essentially like ourselves, sharing our basic desire to live, thrive, and contribute to their communities. We must see that their lives matter to them—and to those who love them—as much as our lives matter to each of us.

But empathy on its own is not enough. We also need a clear insight into our true long-term good as a species sharing a common planet. This means we must look beyond profits and stock values as our criteria of success, taking other standards than rapid economic growth and returns on investments as the ends of global policy. Instead, we must give priority to the values critical to social solidarity and planetary sustainability. These should include, at minimum, providing economic security to all, pursuing racial and gender equality, and protecting the natural environment from reckless exploitation and destruction by commercial interests.

Certainly, we should continue to advocate for the policies and programs offered as antidotes to world hunger. But behind such policies and programs we need changes in our views and attitudes: a right understanding of the human good and a broad commitment to the well-being of all who share this planet with us. By widening our vision, we would see that we can only fully flourish when we establish the conditions for everyone to flourish. With a wide sense of empathy, we’ll strive to create a world in which no one has to go hungry.

BGR Offers Emergency Assistance during the Pandemic

By BGR Staff

In May 2021, BGR donated over $60,000 from our emergency funds to support communities, both globally and in the U.S., adversely impacted by the Covid pandemic. Most of our assistance has gone to organizations working in India, which has been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

Photo: International Medical Corps

In May 2021, BGR donated over $60,000 from our emergency funds to support communities, both globally and in the U.S., adversely impacted by the Covid pandemic. Most of our assistance has gone to organizations working in India, which has been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

BGR began its emergency assistance to India on May 6th with a donation of $6,000 divided as follows among four organizations:

  • $2,000 to CARE India, to provide essential hospital services, health workers, beds, oxygen supply, and more.
  • $2,000 to the International Medical Corps, which is working with its partners in India to meet the most urgent health needs, including medical supplies, personal protective equipment, sanitation, and hygiene supplies.
  • $1,000 to Ketto, a fund-raising platform in Mumbai, to purchase oxygen concentrators.
  • $1,000 to Akshaya Patra Foundation, which is providing food to thousands of needy people across India.

Shortly after making this donation, BGR received an extremely generous donation from an individual donor in the amount of $20,000, for which we are deeply grateful. This was distributed to five organizations, in the amount of $4,000 each. The five beneficiaries were:

  • UNICEF-USA,  the US branch of the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, to ensure that children around the world are vaccinated against Covid-19.
  • World Food Program USA, to provide urgently needed food aid to Yemen and the Central African Republic.
  • CARE India, for emergency medical relief, in addition to the $2,000 given earlier.
  • Akshaya Patra Foundation, for food assistance, in addition to the $1,000 given earlier.
  • Cambodian League for Promotion of Human Rights (LICADHO), to provide food and hygiene supplies to women and their young children in Cambodian prisons.

On May 16th the BGR Board decided to donate an additional $1,000 to UNICEF-USA, the World Food Program USA, and LICADHO, to bolster their donations to $5,000 each. CARE India and Akshaya Patra had already received additional funding under our earlier donation.

At its meeting on May 16th, the Board agreed to provide $2,500 in emergency assistance to the Karuna Trust, a social service organization in Sri Lanka, to provide parcels of dry food rations to poor families left desperate and hungry because of the pandemic.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dry-rations-distribution-1.jpg
Dry rations distribution by Karuna Trust

The Board also decided to offer a donation of $5,000 to UNRWA-USA, the U.S. branch of the UN relief agency assisting Palestinian refugees. The organization is currently providing shelter, food assistance, health care, and other life-enhancing programs to Palestinians in Gaza left hungry and often homeless on account of the recent Israeli air raids.

In mid-May, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote to his friend, Ven. Bhante Ananda, general secretary of the Maha Bodhi Society, Bengaluru, to inquire about the condition of the monastery in Bengaluru, where he taught in 2019. The Maha Bodhi Maitri Mandala, the humanitarian service wing of the Maha Bodhi Society, operates a hospital in Bengaluru. Bhante Ananda wrote back to Ven. Bodhi to inform him that the hospital desperately needed five ventilators, each costing almost $10,000. They had received funds from supporters in Switzerland for one ventilator, but needed funds for the other four.

Ven. Bodhi proposed that BGR provide funds for a ventilator; a donation of $10,000 from the Buddhist Association of the United States (BAUS) to BGR enabled us to cover the costs of a second ventilator. Ven. Bodhi requested his publisher, Wisdom Publications, to donate for a third ventilator. And Indian Buddhists living in the greater New York area offered to raise funds for the fourth ventilator. In this way, by May 21st, the Mahabodhi Maitri Mandala had acquired the funds needed to purchase the four ventilators, which would be used to preserve the lives of their hospital patients.

Ventilators at the Maha Bodhi Hospital in Bengaluru
donated with help from BGR

Finally, on May 19th, BGR provided an emergency donation of $2,500 to the Foundation of His Sacred Majesty, an organization in India that renders services to the poor, deserving, and needy section of the Indian population without distinctions of caste, creed, race, sex, or religion. The Foundation urgently required outside assistance to help provide Covid relief.

In addition to these international donations, BGR continues to provide a monthly contribution of $3,000 to Feeding America, an umbrella organization supporting U.S. food banks, and a $500 monthly donation to the food program of Empty Cloud Monastery in West Orange, New Jersey.

As much as we lament the devastation that the Covid pandemic has brought to so many communities around the world, and the grief it has inflicted on countless families that have lost loved ones, we feel privileged to be able to offer tangible relief in the form of food supplies and medical aid and thereby save the lives of people who might have otherwise succumbed to illness or despair. We thank all of our donors for making this assistance possible, and we hope they rejoice in the good they make possible through their generosity.

Feeding Schoolchildren and Elders in a Himalayan Township

By Carla Prater

Since 2019 BGR has been funding the food program of the Mahabodhi Centre in Tawang, in the Indian Himalayas. The program provides three nutritious meals daily to over 200 people:165 children, elders, resident monks, and staff.

Students enjoy a meal at the Mahabodhi school, Tawang

Tucked into a valley more than 11,000 feet above sea level, in the Himalayan mountains of Arunachal Pradesh in northern India, there is a small town called Tawang. In this beautiful region, there is a side of life most summer tourists don’t see.

Because of heavy snowfall from November through March, during the winter Tawang is nearly cut off from the rest of the world. Few vegetables and fruits are available in the markets, and those that are are too expensive for most people to buy. For this reason, residents have to survive on cheese and dry vegetables until spring arrives, when the roads to Assam state, stretching 200 miles, again become motorable. Lacking nutritious food, children and vulnerable elders are subject to malnutrition and chronic health problems.

In 2010 Ven. Panyarakkhita, a monk who was born in Tawang and had come back to found the Mahabodhi Positive Living Society, met an eighty-year old widow living by herself in a bamboo hut. With no relatives to care for her, she was neglected and lonely. This encounter inspired him to found the Mahabodhi Old Age Home, where elders in need of care and protection would be treated with love and kindness and can live in safety, dignity, and peace.

Feeding elders at the Mahabodhi Old Age Home

On its six-acre campus, Mahabodhi Centre Tawang also provides housing, food, quality education, and health care to local children, with boys’ and girls’hostels housing over 160 children. There is a school for children in grades K-8, and a new effort supporting young women pursuing higher education.

The school offers a broad-based modern curriculum, while seeking to promote the development of compassion, self-knowledge, wisdom, and responsibility for others. Knowledge and skills are balanced with attention to attitudes and values.

The school children visit the elderly residents on Sundays and holidays, helping them with simple tasks. The elders are encouraged to continue their traditional customs, with a kitchen of their own where they can prepare their favorite dishes. Visitors enjoy hearing of the many experiences the elders have lived through.

Since 2019 BGR has helped to fund the center’s food program, which provides nutritious meals three times a day to over 200 people, including 165 children, the elderly residents, monks, and organization staff. With adequate food, the children and elders enjoy better health and are thriving in a supportive environment. Your generous donation will mean a great deal to the future of the children of Tawang!

Fruits are essential to good health

***

Beneficiary testimonies

Vayama, a 10th grade student:

Since 2014 I have been a student here. I am happy to know that food aid is provided by Buddhist Global Relief. Due to the food support, we are receiving healthy and nutritious food and all the children are fit and fine. We also get healthy fruit three times a week on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, such as apples, oranges, grapes, pears, plums, and pomegranates.

Your support is helping us immensely to keep physically and mentally strong. We feel deeply grateful and thankful to Buddhist Global Relief for your most important support in terms of education and food aid.

Suvaca, also in the 10th grade, writes:

I have been associated with Mahabodhi Tawang Centre since 2013. I am very happy to know that Buddhist Global Relief is supporting our education. We are getting tuition in such subjects as mathematics, science, English, and history. We also get to listen to Dhamma and practice meditation, which helps us to develop our mind and concentration. We go to study in a government school, but we are provided a good education with special classes by Mahabodhi Tawang Centre. Apart from special classes, we receive career counseling, personality development, health tips, and other self-development programs.

If there was no support from BGR and MTC, we would not have received a good quality education. I feel very lucky to have such support. On behalf of all the school children I express our big thanks and gratitude to Buddhist Global Relief for your invaluable support to us.

Norbu Drema, teacher at Mahabodhi School:

I have been closely associated with the Mahabodhi Society since my childhood days. I completed all my education from schooling to teaching profession in Mahabodhi centers across India. And I feel truly privileged and honored to be back in the same institution where I was brought up and educated. I have joined Mahabodhi School in Tawang to render my service as a teacher. I am blessed to be serving in this center because of what society has offered me till today. I am deeply grateful and thankful to Buddhist Global Relief for supporting our education and food project programs in Mahabodhi Tawang Centre.

The center is striving its best to impart good education with your committed support. Children are given extra tuition in various subjects. Educators and resource persons are invited to give career counseling, self-skill training, and other important educational information. Graduates of the school also visit and involve the children in sports, games, and cultural events to enhance their personal development and confidence level.

On the other hand, this center is also providing wholesome food to the beneficiaries. The novices, staff, children, and elders are living happily and taken good care of by the society.

I look forward to your continued support to Mahabodhi Tawang Centre through education and food aid projects.

Carla Prater is assistant director 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.

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.

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

BGR Projects Meeting Awards $600,000 in Grants

By Tricia Brick

Buddhist Global Relief’s annual projects meeting, typically held over the last weekend in April, usually brings all of BGR’s board members and staff together for an in-person gathering at Chuang Yen Monastery, in Carmel, New York. Members fly in from as far away as Washington State, California, and Florida, to put their minds and hearts together in the joyful task of approving the projects to sponsor over the next fiscal year. This year, however, because of the restrictions on travel imposed by the national lockdown, BGR held its projects meeting via Zoom. The meeting was divided into three sessions over the weekend of April 24–26. By the time the meeting was over, the BGR board had approved funding for 41 projects, offering more than $600,000 in grants to sponsor projects with our partners around the world.

These projects cover the four areas of our mission. They provide direct food aid to people afflicted by hunger and malnutrition; promote ecologically sustainable agriculture; support the education of children, with an emphasis on education for girls; and give women the opportunity to start right livelihood projects to support their families. The approved funding also included a $5,000 donation to support the construction of a new distribution center for the Sahuarita Food Bank in southeastern Arizona.

A new BGR partner this year is Shraddha Charity Organization, whose project in Sri Lanka will provide food, nutritional supplements, and hygienic supplies to women in need through their pregnancies and postpartum period.

New projects with existing partners include our first projects in Tanzania and Senegal. In Tanzania, BGR partner Action Against Hunger has created a nutrition program for the Dodoma region to address child malnutrition through a combined women’s livelihood and climate-resilient agriculture project. The project will provide agricultural training for smallholder women farmers to increase production of nutrient rich crops such as peppers, kale, cabbage, carrots, spinach, pumpkin, okra, eggplant, and papaya. The project also provides nutrition education for families and health screenings for at-risk children.

In Senegal, a project with Helen Keller International will construct boreholes and wells to supply clean water for drinking and agricultural irrigation. The project also provides seeds and agricultural inputs to improve the nutrition of approximately 900 people in need.

Other projects, renewals or extensions of existing projects, will be implemented in Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, India, Kenya, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Peru, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand (for Burmese refugees), Uganda, and Vietnam, as well as U.S. projects in Detroit and Easton, Pennsylvania.

At this year’s meeting, BGR was delighted to welcome Raimund Hopf and Karl Wirtz of Mitgefühl in Aktion (MIA), a new Buddhist aid organization based in Germany. MIA, whose German name means “compassion in action,” was established as a “sister” to BGR, with the aim of working alongside us in funding life-saving projects around the world. This year, its first year of operation, MIA will be co-funding three projects with BGR in the current grant cycle.

Learn more about MIA here: https://www.mia.eu.com/ .

BGR would like to express our deepest gratitude to all our supporters wherever they might be. It is through your generosity that these projects will relieve the suffering of thousands of people in need in the U.S. and around the world.

Rice Support for Girl Students in Cambodia

By BGR Staff

Through its partnership with Lotus Outreach International, BGR is helping provide poor girls in Cambodia–and their families–with rice support, thereby enabling them to continue their education through high school and even to pursue university degrees.

Lotus Outreach International (LOI), a trusted BGR partner since 2009, works to improve the lives of women and girls in Cambodia and India through initiatives that increase girls’ access to education, provide counseling and safe havens for victims of trafficking and domestic violence, and support women’s economic empowerment through skills training and other programs.

A foundation of LOI’s education programs is its policy of providing rice to impoverished female students and young children in rural Cambodia. This policy ensures reliable nourishment for people persistently affected by food insecurity while also freeing up limited familial resources for the girls’ education. Without such rice support, many of these young girls would need to work to support their families rather than complete their studies. The rice often feeds the girls’ parents and siblings as well, and the cost savings can benefit entire families, who may be able to invest a greater portion of their earnings into a farm or other business.

BGR has funded rice support for Lotus Outreach’s GATE scholarship program since we first made contact in 2009, and for the CATALYST program since it was introduced as a sequel to the GATE program. GATE (an acronym meaning “Girls Access To Education”) offers educational scholarships to girls in primary and secondary school. CATALYST, also supported by a grant from BGR, builds on this foundation by helping girls pursue higher education at universities and vocational training institutes across Cambodia. All participants in these programs commit to attending school for the duration of the year.

Last year, the BGR grant was expanded to support not only the female students in the GATE and CATALYST scholarship programs but also the families of 301 kindergarten students.

The distribution of rice is implemented through local organizations. The kindergarten students’ rice-support program is carried out in partnership with Khemara, Cambodia’s first locally founded and operated NGO, which works to support the health, education, and welfare of Cambodian women and children. The GATE rice-support program is carried out through the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center in cooperation with Local Education Working Groups in the students’ villages. These groups, consisting of teachers, parents, government officials, and other community volunteers, then deliver the rice directly to the recipients. The CATALYST program’s rice distribution is carried out by LOI staff.

In all, in the 2018–19 grant cycle, the rice support program distributed nearly 60 tons of rice to 464 students and their families, feeding a total of 1,067 people.

Younger students in class

Twenty-year-old Hao Pheara is the oldest of six children in an impoverished family in Soth Nikum district in Siem Reap. Her mother, who is herself illiterate, prioritized her daughter’s education, and so Pheara helped the family make ends meet. Working as a laborer, carrying and transporting bricks, in addition to her schooling, she struggled academically and considered dropping out.

After joining the GATE scholarship program Pheara was able to focus her attention on her schooling. In addition to rice support, the scholarship also provided her with a new bike, school uniforms, shoes, school supplies and other necessities, and a monthly stipend. Her grades improved and she has begun to imagine a hopeful future in business. “My family is very happy because of the support from the program, which is crucially important to reduce the financial burden of my education and livelihood,” she said.

Lunh Chainey is a twelfth-grade student in LOI’s GATE program and a recipient of BGR-funded rice support. Her father is a food vendor and her mother raises small livestock at home. Before she joined the scholarship and rice-support programs, the costs of education meant that her family often ate only two meals a day. “Our life is difficult; we have to devote everything to the children to secure their future, so they don’t have to suffer as we have,” her mother, Khim Keng, said. The rice-support program ensured that the entire family would have three daily meals.

In a conversation during her twelfth-grade year, Chainey told an interviewer, “In terms of academics, I am between fifth and eighth in my class of 50 students, and I’m 80 percent confident of passing my year 12.” Indeed, a few months later she reported that she had not only successfully graduated but had also secured a coveted seat at a premier IT institute in Phnom Penh, a pathway to a career in the high-growth technology sector.

Hong Rina is 17 and a tenth-grader. The second of seven children, she lives with her mother and five of her siblings in a small room on the outskirts of Phnom Penh City. Her father and older brother live elsewhere as they work to support the family and send the younger children to school. “Previously, it was hard for me to stay in school. I always wanted to leave school to work like my brother, but my parents didn’t allow me to drop out,” she said. She attended extra classes, but couldn’t concentrate well because she was always worried about her family’s struggles.

Since the sixth grade Rina has participated in LOI’s GATE scholarship and rice-support programs. She said, “The monthly rice support is a big support for my family as a whole. It helps to cover the daily consumption of every member of my household. Staff from the scholarship program and teachers often visit my home, to meet with my mother and encourage her to follow up on my study. They also check on my study performance and motivate me to go to school.”

Today Rina attends extra classes and volunteers in her community as leader of a Red Cross group at her school. She said, “I want to pursue my study to university. In the future, I want to become a doctor or have a good job that can help my family and support my six siblings.”

This article is based on reporting by Lotus Outreach staff.