Category Archives: Engaged Buddhism

Supporting Sustainable Livelihoods for Women Farmers in Kenya

By Patricia Brick

Tending a vegetable garden using eco-friendly techniques

BGR’s partner, the Grow Biointensive Agriculture Centre of Kenya (G-BIACK), works to address food insecurity and malnutrition in Kenya and to raise the income of poor farmers through environmentally sustainable agricultural methods. Responding to a crisis of soil degradation in the project areas in Machakos County, G-BIACK teaches farmers methods to reclaim depleted soil while facilitating the cultivation of cash crops that will provide the greatest improvement to their livelihoods.

A BGR project titled “Enhancing Capacities of Rural Women in Kenya” provided training to 840 women farmers and kitchen gardeners, many of whom reported that their children had been hungry before and now have sufficient food. The project had four objectives:

  • to improve the livelihoods of poor women living in rural communities in Machakos County;
  • to share information related to family health and nutrition;
  • to link the women to local organizations to support them in their livelihood development;
  • to teach ecologically sound principles and techniques.

During the project period, drought struck the region, and partway through the year Covid affected in-person trainings. Our partner reports that the trainings were nevertheless highly successful at achieving the stated goals. A majority of participants created home gardens that were drought-resistant and that incorporated swales and terraces to limit water runoff. Many utilized Grow Biointensive compost methods to rejuvenate depleted soil. Participants reported feeling more independent as they grew their crops for food and income.

Graduation after completing the program

Kaloki Virginia appreciated learning about the value of composting organic materials to use in her garden. “I had been burning all the trash after harvesting my crops,” she said, referring to the vegetation left over after harvesting. “I didn’t know that trash was gold. Now I know. I have piles of compost from my farm, which I am using to grow my food.”

Jenifer Kamene spoke about the value of using organic fertilizers and pesticides rather than the heavy chemicals she had used in the past. She said: “Chemicals destroyed my farm and I became very poor. I was wondering what was happening in my farm because I could not produce any food due to poor soils. But just a few months after G-BIACK came, I am rich. I have food. This is my joy!”

Mary Mutheu, a resident of the Mithini community in Machakos County, also participated in the trainings this year. “The biggest need of people in Mithini is food,” she said. “A year ago, I was buying vegetables for my family every time. But now see my kitchen garden: It is flourishing with indigenous vegetables. This is what I needed. Nothing else.” She added: “May G-BIACK reach out to all of this region with this knowledge. May they continue teaching women until all of them create a kitchen garden like mine.”

Patricia Brick is a staff writer for Buddhist Global Relief.

Improving Children’s Health and Education in the Himalayan Foothills

By David Braughton

Providing food support to undernourished students in the Arunachal Pradesh branch of the Maha Bodhi Maitri Mandala not only improves their health, but also enhances their capacity to succeed in their studies.

Praying for world peace before classes begin

The Arunachal Branch of the Maha Bodhi Maitri Mandala is situated in a remote corner of northeastern India at the foothills of the Himalaya mountains. The branch falls under the umbrella of the Maha Bodhi Society of Bengaluru (Bangalore), founded by the late Ven. Acharya Buddharakkhita and currently administered by Ven. Buddharakkhita’s monastic disciples. Ven. Buddharakkhita had long wished to start a branch of the Maha Bodhi Society in Arunachal Pradesh, where most of the inhabitants are traditional tribal Buddhists. The Mahabodhi Maitri Mandala (MMM) was founded in Diyun, a remote place in Arunachal Pradesh, on 3rd January 2003 with a primary school and hostel. 

The branch was established to serve the poor and needy people of the region, most of whom are members of the Chakma tribes. Originally residing in the Chittagong Hill Tract region of what is now Bangladesh, since the early sixteenth century the Chakmas have struggled for sovereignty and stability. After centuries of conflict with Muslim invaders, their plight only worsened with the colonialization of the Indian subcontinent under the British. From 1777 to 1789 the Chakmas waged war with the East India Company, which ended when the king of the Chakmas agreed to accept the company’s hegemony and pay tribute in the form of cotton.

With the partition of India following its independence from Britain, the Chittagong Hill Tract region was ceded to Pakistan, even though its population was 98% non-Muslim. The creation of East Pakistan, as the area was called, paved the way for ongoing war, violence, and conflict, and the first mass migration of Chakmas to India. Later, when East Pakistan was established as a separate country, named Bangladesh, the Pakistan government that still held sway in Chakma areas responded by building the Kaptai Dam to punish the Chakmas. Over 54,000 acres of Chakma farmland was submerged, leading to a second mass migration to northeast India.

Although the Chakma lands surrounding Diyun are rich in natural resources, the Chakmas lag behind the rest of India due to the prevalence of subsistence farming, a weak industrial base, poor infrastructure, political unrest and violence, and a reliance on public sector employment. The last major road building occurred over four decades ago, and the closest modern hospital is 13 hours away in the state of Assam. Most schools are government-run and may house as many as a hundred children in a single classroom. Children commonly drop out of primary school, resulting in an adult literacy rate of only 67%.

Surviving on subsistence farming, nearly 35% of the population falls below the Indian poverty line, which is equivalent to U.S. $361 US annually. According to a report published in 2013, over 50% of the area’s adult population is either unemployed or not participating in the workforce.

Given the area’s social and economic challenges, it is no surprise that the Maitri Mandala focused on opening a school for young children as its first venture. Classes and a youth hostel for orphans and the poorest students were originally housed in bamboo huts. Later, the organization was able to acquire land and build a school along with dormitories for girls and boys. Today there are 640 students enrolled in the school and 253 children living in the dormitories.

When the Maitri Mandala approached BGR for assistance in 2018, its leadership was struggling with a complex set of interconnected challenges. The children who came to the school were malnourished and grappling with a variety of health-related concerns that limited their ability to concentrate, study, and learn. Funds needed to operate the school and serve even more children had to be diverted to healthcare. Poor educational outcomes also meant that students would drop out and the school and other programs could lose community support.

Distributing fruits at meal time

In response to these many challenges, the Maitri Mandala developed a simple theory of change: provide three nutritious meals to students daily to improve student health, which, in turn, would improve educational outcomes. When they came to BGR for assistance, the BGR Board applauded their proposal and awarded the organization a grant to support their project.

Presenting schoolbooks to happy students

At the end of the first grant year, the Maitri Mandala reported that BGR support had enabled them to vastly improve both the quantity and quality of food served to the children. They had added rice, dal, fried vegetables, boiled vegetable curries, and fruit! In addition, they could now offer kids an afternoon snack. The impact was almost immediate. The number of children each month who complained of physical weakness, skin disease, and other illnesses related to malnutrition dropped by 50%, and more children were participating in sports and other physical activities than ever before. Equally significant, 94% of senior students passed the Central Board of Secondary Education exams, a standard test required in order to advance academically. The reduced cost of healthcare meant that the organization could increase teacher and staff pay by 1000 rupees a month, the equivalent of $13.38.

The onset of the pandemic required still more innovation on the part of the Maitri Mandala. Confronted with a nationwide lockdown, they used BGR support (which had now doubled) to provide rice, sugar, flour, milk, and other food items to the families of their poorest students. And when the children were finally able to return to school, the emphasis was on improving their health through a rigorous feeding program. As with the first year of funding, the results have been impressive with even more children passing their Central Board exams.

Often, it is hard, if not impossible to measure the good we do. Certainly, this is no less true for the over 45 organizations and projects that Buddhist Global Relief funds each year. Solving hunger is especially challenging because there is no single cause for hunger. If it were simply a matter of providing enough food to meet the nutritional needs of a child or its family today, we could do that. The issue becomes how to ensure that this same child and family continue to have sufficient food tomorrow and the day after, particularly when they are faced with the overwhelming challenges of civil strife, climate change, outdated farming techniques, poverty, illiteracy, natural disasters, inflated food prices, inadequate infrastructure, poor health, disease and now a pandemic.

Expressing thanks to Buddhist Global Relief

The experience of the Maha Bodhi Maitri Mandala Arunachal Branch is proof that by joining together, we can make a difference, no matter how intractable or complex the problem. People of good heart, motivated by compassion and focused on what is essential, can open up the future to a child and to a community, if only they are focused on the fundamentals and are willing to try.

David Braughton is the vice-chair of Buddhist Global Relief. He has worked for over 35 years in human services related to a range of human needs including refugee resettlement, employment and youth services.

Global Health and Development Orgs: Biden Must Launch A Global Vaccine Program to End Covid Pandemic

News release from Public Citizen

Sixty-six global health and development organizations have appealed to President Biden to launch a global vaccine manufacturing program to end the pandemic. U.S. leadership of such a program would provide billions of additional Covid-19 vaccine doses to the world. Buddhist Global Relief was one of the signatories to this appeal.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen and 65 other global health, development and humanitarian organizations today called on President Joe Biden to announce and implement a global vaccine manufacturing program to end the pandemic and build a globally-distributed vaccine infrastructure for future pandemics.

 “Much more ambitious U.S. leadership is needed to end to the global pandemic,” said Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines Director Peter Maybarduk. “The U.S. government should establish, urgently, a manufacturing operation for the world, that would share vaccine recipes and work with the World Health Organization to alleviate suffering and bring billions of additional vaccine doses to humanity.”

 The People’s Vaccine Alliance, a movement of health and humanitarian organizations, has endorsed the letter. Some of the largest U.S.-based international groups, FHI360, International Rescue Committee, Helen Keller International and International Medical Corps, as well as advocacy organizations including RESULTS and PrEP4All, have also signed onto the letter.

 The letter noted the only way to get the pandemic under control is to immediately ramp up vaccine production across the world. The group requests Biden announce a new manufacturing program in his fiscal year 2022 budget and help produce billions more vaccine doses within one year. The U.S. can do so for about $3 a dose, a fraction of the cost of inaction, according to the coalition. Without a global manufacturing plan, the economic costs to the U.S. alone could be between $800 billion to $1.4 trillion in 2021 alone.

 The letter comes ahead of a fundraising conference this Thursday, hosted by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for the COVAX facility, dedicated to increasing equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines.

 “Given the increasingly connected nature of today’s world and the risks that we consequently share, it is vital that we act proactively and decisively to address those risks,” said Nancy Aossey, president and CEO of International Medical Corps. “The U.S. has the intellectual and financial resources necessary to help lead this initiative, working across borders with other governments, and with international health agencies, to end this and future pandemics.”

“Vaccine donations alone won’t end the pandemic,” said Abby Maxman, Oxfam America CEO, a signatory to the Biden letter. “The commitments planned for COVAX are critically important, and yet entirely inadequate to meet global need. Without urgent new manufacturing commitments, billions of people may wait years for a vaccine.”

 The groups said the U.S. government should not only expand production in the U.S. and abroad, but also work with the World Health Organization (WHO) to set up production hubs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These hubs would democratize production and improve global health security, particularly if they are accountable to the public and equipped with adaptable technologies, such as mRNA platforms, that could help defeat the next pandemic.

 “The U.S. government has helped produce hundreds of millions of vaccine doses for people living in the U.S., on a relatively short timeline. The same is needed—and within reach—for all countries,” Maybarduk added. The key missing ingredient is ambitious political leadership, to end the pandemic for everyone, everywhere.”

Here is the text of the letter, along with a list of the signatories:

April 13, 2021

 President Joseph R. Biden
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

 Dear President Biden,

 Thank you for your leadership strengthening the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic. We appreciate your administration’s commitment to COVAX and the recently announced Quad partnership, to support vaccine access abroad. Yet without much more ambitious leadership, the scale of global vaccine need will not be met.

 Even as our country expands access to Covid-19 vaccines through the broadest vaccination campaign in U.S. history, for most of the world, there is no relief in sight. Few of the billions of people living in low- and middle-income countries will be vaccinated against Covid-19 this year. Many may not be vaccinated until 2024, if ever. Virus variants threaten to deepen and prolong the crisis.

 The only way to get the pandemic under control is to accelerate global vaccine manufacturing. The United States has capabilities to help the world make billions more doses of Covid-19 vaccine for about $3 a dose, a fraction of the cost of inaction, and shorten the pandemic.

 We urge your administration to announce in your fiscal year 2022 budget an ambitious global vaccine manufacturing program to end the pandemic and build vaccine infrastructure for the future.

 Proposal

 The United States should help the world produce billions more vaccine doses within approximately one year.

For example, modest capital investments (about $2 billion) can retrofit vaccine manufacturing facilities and install additional mRNA production lines. Doses can then be manufactured for less than $3 each. U.S. leadership is likely to inspire co-funding by other governments and international organizations. A total investment of less than $25 billion, including whole-ofgovernment efforts to source raw materials and provide technical assistance, can support the rapid production of 8 billion doses of mRNA vaccine, enough for more than half the world’s population.

 The U.S. should support a massive expansion of manufacturing and establish hubs for vaccine production with the World Health Organization, including hubs located in Africa, Asia and Latin America. These hubs will democratize production and improve global health security, particularly if they are accountable to the public and equipped with adaptable technologies, such as mRNA platforms, believed critical to defeating the next pandemic.

 The United States should ensure that technology is shared openly, including via the WHO Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, so that scientists and manufacturers worldwide can support vaccine delivery and development. Where necessary, the U.S. government should use its power under existing law to license technology, ensuring its availability and affordability now and for the future. Notably, taxpayers made substantial investments in Covid-19 vaccine research and development, and the U.S. government owns a key patent relied on by the major vaccine makers.

 Without a vaccine manufacturing plan of global ambition, millions more people may die, with tens of millions pushed into extreme poverty. Black and Brown communities will bear the brunt of this preventable suffering. The progress achieved through decades of U.S. overseas development assistance will be reversed. People living in the United States may feel the ripple effects with ongoing threats of virus mutations. The economic costs to the United States are estimated at $800 billion to $1.4 trillion.

 U.S. history demonstrates that by mobilizing extraordinary resources and the country’s full capabilities, while working closely with global partners, the country can solve complex technical challenges and support humanity in times of great need. This is one such moment, and there is no time to lose. We urge you to launch an ambitious vaccine manufacturing program in your FY22 budget to help end the global pandemic. 

Public Citizen
Access Challenge
Action Against Hunger
American Jewish World Service
American Medical Student Association
American Medical Women’s Association
American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene
Amnesty USA
AVAC
Be a Hero Fund
BRAC USA
Buddhist Global Relief (USA)
Center for Popular Democracy
Center for Policy Analysis on Trade and Health (CPATH)
ChildFund USA
Chinese-American Planning Council
Christian Connections for International Health (USA)
CORE Group
Doctors for America
Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, North America
Episcopal Relief & Development
Families USA
FHI 360
Foundation for Integrative AIDS Research (FIAR)
Friends Committee on National Legislation
FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University
GOAL USA
Health GAP
Helen Keller International
HelpAge USA
Human Rights Watch USA
Incentives for Global Health
International Medical Corps
International Rescue Committee
International Treatment Preparedness Coalition
Islamic Relief USA
Jesuit Refugee Service
John Snow, Inc.
JustActions
Last Mile Health
Management Sciences for Health
Marie Stopes International
Médecins Sans Frontières, USA / Doctors Without Borders
National Council of Churches USA
Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice
Oxfam America
Partners In Health
Pathfinder International
People’s Action
Physicians for Human Rights
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
PrEP4All
Prescription Justice
RESULTS
Right to Health Action
Salud y Farmacos
Social Security Works
Sojourners
SumOfUs USA
The Borgen Project
Treatment Action Group (TAG)
Union for Reform Judaism
Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM)
Yale Global Health Justice Partnership


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.

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) Continue reading

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