The war in Ukraine entails not only death, injury, and destitution for millions of people, but is also precipitating a major food crisis with global ramifications.
The scenes of widespread destruction and devastation coming out of Ukraine remind one of the kind of post-apocalyptical world depicted in graphic novels where the unthinkable has happened. Bodies littering the street, entire residential neighborhoods decimated, safe havens—hospitals, bomb shelters, daycare centers—bombed, and hastily dug mass graves scarring the landscape. One photo shows a woman mourning over her young child who was killed in a missile strike. Another shows an elderly woman desperately clawing at the rubble of what was once her home, hoping to find her loved ones still alive beneath the broken bricks and shredded timbers. In still another, men look futilely at an apartment building with flames pouring out of rooms that, until yesterday, people called home.
Over 4 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland to neighboring countries. They are the lucky ones. Another 7.1 million Ukrainians have been dislocated and thousands have perished. What these images do not show is the starvation that many Ukrainians now face, while at the same time warehouses stand filled with thousands of metric tons of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil. Farms, which once grew enough grain to feed 400 million people, have become battlegrounds just as the growing season begins. All these are portents of an even more widespread catastrophe for people around the globe who depend on Ukrainian grain and oil for their daily diet.
Even before the war broke out, an estimated 881 million people, approximately 10% of the world’s population, experienced chronic food insecurity. Local conflicts, climate change, supply chain disruptions, rising fuel prices, and chronic unemployment caused by COVID, had already pushed many of these individuals to the brink of starvation. As a result of the war, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that as many as 250 million more of the world’s poor will become food insecure.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the cost of wheat rose by 80% between April 2020 and December 2021. Recently, a UN report said that food prices across the globe rose by 34% this past year. For people in poor countries such as Egypt, who might spend as much as 50% or 60% of their income on food, this increase has put many essentials, such as bread and other staples, out of their reach. Four months ago, five Egyptian pounds (roughly 30 cents in U.S. currency) would have bought ten loaves of bread, but now they can buy only seven.
The WFP reports that the countries most dependent upon Ukrainian exports include Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Sudan. But the effects are being felt globally, even in places as remote as Peru and Sri Lanka, where the ever-increasing cost of food is contributing to political unrest and instability. In both countries, people have turned out for mass demonstrations and, in some cases, have rioted to protest the scarcity and cost of staples such as wheat and corn and gasoline.
Western nations have responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by imposing harsh economic sanctions and supplying Ukraine with primarily defensive weapons. The result has been even more costly fuel, the loss of another important source of basic foodstuffs, and a drastic reduction in the export of fertilizer, which many farmers depend on to grow their crops. Add to this the drought that has reduced wheat yields in the western United States and elsewhere, and the situation looks even more dire.
The World Food Programme, which feeds approximately 250 million people daily, reports that prior to the war, it purchased 50% of all its grain from Ukraine. Now it must spend $71 million more each month due to shortages and rising shipping and operating costs. David Beasley, the program’s Executive Director, has stated that the WFP may have to cut rations in half as they turn their attention to also feeding the millions of Ukrainians who have been displaced and the millions more people elsewhere around the world who now face food insecurity and the threat of starvation. This means taking food from undernourished infants in Africa to ensure that people whose homes and lives have been destroyed, along with those who live far from the conflict, do not starve to death. Beasley goes on to say that “we’ve got now 45 million people in 38 countries that are knocking on famine’s door.” And the price increase in places like Syria will be 100% or 200%. In Yemen, the WFP has already cut rations to 8 million people and about 50% to people in Chad, Niger, and Mali.
The terrible irony, according to Beasley, is that there is $430 trillion in wealth around the world today, so there is no reason any child should be dying from hunger. Without immediate action, he predicts that in addition to civil unrest and political instability, the world will witness mass migrations unprecedented in human history.
For its part, Buddhist Global Relief has decided to make one-time supplemental allocations to twenty-two of the direct food relief projects that it currently sponsors. These projects are located in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cameroon, Kenya, Haiti, India, Malawi, Mongolia, Peru, Uganda, Vietnam, and the United States. BGR is also intending to expand its emergency relief assistance in anticipation of more urgent requests in the coming months. If you would like to support these efforts, please consider contributing now. Our website is buddhistglobalrelief.org.
David Braughton is the vice-chair of Buddhist Global Relief.
As people are being pushed into deepening dependence on large-scale, technological systems, a reaction has set in that sees increased respect for indigenous wisdom, for women and for the feminine, and a growing appreciation for wild nature and for all things vernacular, handmade, artisanal, and local.
The most recent topic explored by the thinkers and activists who make up the Great Transition Network was “Technology and the Future.” As writer after writer posted their thoughts, it was heartening to see that almost all recognize that technology cannot provide real solutions to the many crises we face. I was also happy that Professor William Robinson, author of a number of books on the global economy, highlighted the clear connection between computer technologies and the further entrenchment of globalization today.
As anyone who has followed my work will know, globalization is of particular interest to me: for more than 40 years I’ve been studying its impacts on different cultures and societies around the world. From Ladakh and Bhutan to Sweden and Australia, a clear pattern has emerged: as people are pushed into deepening dependence on large-scale, technological systems, ecological and social crises escalate.
I’m not the only one to have seen this. In the International Forum on Globalization—a network I co-founded in 1992—I worked with forty writers, journalists, academics, and social and environmental leaders from around the world to inform the public about the ways in which “free-trade” treaties, the principal drivers of globalization, have eroded democracy, destroyed livelihoods, and accelerated resource extraction. In countries as disparate as Sweden and India, I have seen how globalization intensifies competition for jobs and resources, leading to dramatic social breakdown—including not only ethnic and religious conflict, but also depression, alcoholism and suicide.
Professor Robinson wrote that we are “at the brink of another round of restructuring and transformation based on a much more advanced digitalization of the entire global economy.” This is true, but the link between globalization and technological expansion began well before the computer era. Large-scale, technological apparatuses can be understood as the arms and legs of centralized profit-making. And while 5G networks, satellites, mass data-harvesting, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality will allow the colonization of still more physical, economic, and mental space by multinational corporations, technologies like fossil fuels, global trading infrastructures, and television have already helped to impose a corporate-run consumer-based economy in almost every corner of the globe.
For reasons that are increasingly evident, an acceleration of this process is the last thing we need in a time of serious social and environmental crises. What’s more, the technologies themselves—from the sensors to the satellites—all rely heavily on scarce resources, not least rare earth minerals. Some of the world’s richest corporations are now racing each other to extract these minerals from the deepest seabeds and from the surface of Mars. It has been estimated that the internet alone—with its largely invisible data warehouses (much of it manned by exploited labor in the “developing” world)—will use up a fifth of global electricity consumption by 2025.
And for what? So that we can all spend more time immersed in and addicted to virtual worlds? So that we can automate agriculture, and drive more communities off the land into swelling urban slums? So that drones can deliver our online purchases without an iota of face-to-face contact?
When thinking about technology from within an already high-tech, urban context, we can easily forget that nearly half the global population still lives in villages, still connected to the land. This is not to say that their way of life is not under threat—far from it. Ladakh, the Himalayan region where I lived and worked for several decades, was unconnected to the outside world by even a road until the 1960s. But today you can find processed corporate food, smartphones, mountains of plastic waste, traffic jams and other signs of ‘modernity’ in the capital, Leh.
The first steps on this path were taken in the mid-1970s when, in the name of ‘development,’ massive resources went into building up the energy, communications, and transport infrastructures needed to tie Ladakh to the global economy. Another step involved pulling Ladakhi children out of their villages into western-style schools, where they learned none of the place-based skills that supported Ladakh’s culture for centuries, and instead were trained into the technological-modernist paradigm. Together, these forces are pushing the traditional way of life to the brink of extinction.
While that process began relatively recently in Ladakh, in the west it has been going on far longer, with deeper impacts. But even here, more and more people are becoming aware that the technologization of their personal lives has led to increasing stress, isolation, and mental health struggles. During the pandemic people have been forced to do more online than ever before—from classes to conversations with friends and family—and most have discovered how limited and empty online life can be. There is a clear cultural turning, visible now even in the mainstream, that goes beyond a desire to spend less time on screens. People are also beginning to reject the posturing of the consumer culture and its work-and-spend treadmill, wanting instead to slow down, to cultivate deeper relationships, and to engage in more community-oriented and nature-based activities.
I see young people all over the world choosing to leave their screen-based jobs to become farmers. (This return to the land is happening in Ladakh, as well, which I find truly inspiring.) Informal networks of mutual aid are arising. Friends are gardening, cooking, and baking bread together; families are choosing to live on the land and developing relationships with the animals and plants around them. We are seeing increased respect for indigenous wisdom, for women and for the feminine, and a growing appreciation for wild nature and for all things vernacular, handmade, artisanal, and local.
There is also an emergence of alternative, ecological practices in every discipline: from natural medicine to natural building, from eco-psychology to ecological agriculture. Although these disciplines have often been the target of corporate co-optation and greenwashing, they have invariably emerged from bottom-up efforts to restore a healthier relationship with the Earth.
All of these are positive, meaningful trends that have been largely ignored by the media, and given no support by policymakers. At the moment, they are running uphill in a system that favors corporate-led technological development at every turn. They testify to enduring goodwill, to a deep human desire for connection.
When viewed from a big-picture perspective, the expansion of digital technologies—which are inherently centralized and centralizing – runs contrary to the emergence of a more humane, sustainable, and genuinely connected future. Why should we accept an energy-and mineral-intensive technological infrastructure that is fundamentally about speeding life up, increasing our screen-time, automating our jobs, and tightening the grip of the 1%?
For a better future, we need to put technology back in its place and favor democratically determined, diverse forms of development that are shaped by human and ecological priorities—not by the gimmicky fetishes of a handful of billionaires.
Steven Gorelick is Managing Programs Director at Local Futures (International Society for Ecology and Culture). He is the author of Small is Beautiful, Big is Subsidized (pdf), co-author of Bringing the Food Economy Home, and co-director of The Economics of Happiness. His writings have been published in The Ecologist and Resurgence magazines. He frequently teaches and speaks on local economics around the U.S.
Originally published on Common Dreams on February 2, 2022. Reprinted here under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).
King saw his commitment to racial justice and his opposition to the war in Vietnam as integrally connected aspects of a single moral and spiritual demand: “to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.” He joined the dots to see the triple evil of racism, poverty, and militarism as three manifestations of a pernicious scheme of values that prizes wealth above people.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known as the civil rights leader who, in the late 1950s and 1960s, led his fellow African Americans in their nonviolent struggle to end the oppressive Jim Crow policies that reigned throughout the South. His crowning achievement, in this period of his life, was the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. In recognition of his role in leading these campaigns, King was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
King’s victory in the fight for civil rights did not bring an end to his commitment to social justice. The same inner calling that drew him to the struggle for civil rights now beckoned him into new arenas that called for a conscientious response. One cause to which King devoted himself was opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, which had surged in the late 1960s, with a devastating rise in casualties. The other was the persistence of crippling poverty, which was particularly endemic among African Americans but also beset people of all races throughout the U.S. and around the world.
King saw these manifestations of human suffering—racism, militarism, and poverty—not as isolated and disconnected phenomena, but as overlapping, interconnected violations of inherent human dignity. In his view, they all sprang from a fundamental distortion in values that infected the depths of the soul. Thus the remedy for them—for all three at once—was not merely a change in political and economic policies but a far-reaching moral transformation of human consciousness that extended down to its base.
King is best remembered for his poignant “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the famous March on Washington in August 1963. The speech envisioned a future when people would embrace each other without regard for the color of their skin, when even in Alabama, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Despite its popular appeal, however, in my view “I Have a Dream” was not King’s most potent and incisive speech. That distinction belongs, rather, to the speech he gave at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his assassination.
It was in the Riverside speech that he publicly announced his opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam. For a long time, he had inwardly opposed the war but had never previously spoken against it in public. Now he felt his conscience demanded he speak out, and he thus titled the speech “A Time to Break Silence.”
King’s decision to declare his opposition to the war drew pointed criticism. Many of the American political leaders who supported him on civil rights turned against him; some even tried to smear him as a communist agent. But criticism also came from his fellow leaders in the civil rights struggle. They pleaded with him to reverse his decision, asking him not to risk jeopardizing their cause by stepping outside his proper domain. In their view, further progress in securing civil rights required that, with regard to the war, King continue to remain silent.
King, however, had a different view about his responsibilities. He saw his commitment to the cause of racial justice and his opposition to the war as integrally connected aspects of a single moral and spiritual demand, a demand that swelled up from the depths of his being as if by divine decree. In the speech he offers seven reasons for his decision to speak out against the war. Of these, the one he felt most pressing was his conviction that as a preacher and a man of God, he was obliged “to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy” (p. 234). Whether it was Black Americans denied their civil and political rights or Vietnamese peasants decimated by U.S. bombing raids, it was the need to defend the full humanity of the victims that pricked King’s conscience and brought forth words of eloquence from his mouth and pen.
After explaining in detail his reasons for opposing the war, he next offers a sharp but salutary diagnosis of the underlying forces that drive American policy. This diagnosis takes us beyond politics into the spiritual domain, into “the soul of America,” which makes King’s critique even more cogent in relation to our own time. He decries the war, not only for the violence it inflicts on innocent lives, but because it is “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” He identifies this malady as a pernicious scheme of values that gives priority to “things” over people; specifically, a code of values that endorses the quest for wealth, profits, and property rights even when these pursuits lead to the oppression, death, and devastation of millions of our fellow human beings.
King locates, at the root of our cultural pathologies, “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” The unity of these three evil forces figures prominently in King’s thought throughout his later years. He declares, in his Vietnam speech, that “this business of burning human beings with napalm … of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.” Then he delivers a stark warning: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” (p. 241) This message is especially crucial for us to heed today. Here in America we falter over a bill that would provide urgently needed programs of social assistance to poor and low-wage families, on the grounds that they are “too expensive”; yet we gladly heap close to $800 billion annually on our bloated military machine. Such a disparity is surely an offense to the moral consciousness and a betrayal of our constitutional obligation to provide for the common welfare.
In the final portion of his speech, King lifts his gaze from its focus on the immediate crisis of the Vietnam war and extends it to the broader dimensions of the human situation as he viewed it under the conditions of his own time; these conditions are still very much with us today. He speaks of how, all over the globe, people are turning against old systems of exploitation and oppression and are aspiring for new models of governance marked by justice and equality. He denounces the role of the Western nations, whose leading philosophers first envisaged the ideals of revolutionary justice, but which have now become the defenders of oppression, the foes of systemic transformation. He declares, with a provocative flourish, that “our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism” (p. 242).
King goes on to sound the call for “a genuine revolution of values,” which entails that “our loyalties must become ecumenical [that is, universal] rather than sectional.” To preserve the best in our societies, he contends, “every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind [that is, humankind] as a whole.” And that means we must heed the call “for an all-embracing and unconditional love” for all people everywhere. King clarifies that what he means by the often-diluted word “love” is not “some sentimental and weak response,” but “that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life, the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality” (p. 242).
Despite the passage of 56 years since King delivered his speech at the Riverside Church, the message he conveys still rings true, indeed with astonishing prescience. Particularly astute was his insight into the deep, hidden, inextricable connections that unify the multiple crises we face in today’s world, even right here in our own country. King’s triple scourge of systemic racism, poverty, and militarism has to be extended to include ecological devastation (especially climate change), the drift toward authoritarian forms of government around the world (even here in the U.S.), and the rise of repressive, reactionary religious sects that encourage violence and seek domination through political alliances.
Even the supreme triumph of the civil rights era—the gain of voting rights by Black Americans—is now in grave danger. These gains were already weakened by the Supreme Court decision of 2013, which removed the need for “preclearance” of changes to voting rules in states with a history of racial discrimination. Over the past few months, the right to vote is being seriously eroded by new laws that permit voter suppression, election subversion, and partisan redistricting in ways that diminish the impact of voters from Black and other minority communities.
Another major Supreme Court decision, the Citizens United ruling of 2010, also delivered a blow to genuine democracy. The ruling lets corporations and wealthy individuals spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, thereby giving disproportionate weight to the interests of the ultra-wealthy over the concerns of ordinary citizens. The result has been to hand control over our political system to giant corporations and moneyed groups, with a corresponding reduction in the role the people have in determining who represents them and what kinds of programs are enacted. This has allowed vast disparities in wealth to grow still wider, such that here in the U.S. roughly 40% of the population is poor or low income, while just six men possess between them over $900 billion.
With the increasing rise of autocratic tendencies in American politics, the replacement of the rule of law by the rule of wealth, and the persistence of poverty and new manifestations of racism, our situation becomes increasingly dire, the future of American democracy ever more fragile. Since currents in American politics do not remain confined within our own borders, the impact of an autocratic takeover of the U.S. would inevitably spread across the globe, encouraging other aspiring autocrats to take control of their countries. Already strange partnerships are emerging among autocrats in distant lands.
All these worrisome developments call for a determined moral response, a response ultimately grounded in compassion and the affirmation of human solidarity. Delay is not an option. Here King’s words, toward the end of his Vietnam speech, become especially piquant: “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time” (p. 243).
The question we face here in the U.S.—as we flounder in our struggle against poverty, racism, devastating climate change, the erosion of voting rights, and the drift toward authoritarianism in politics and religion—is this: “Will we act in time, or will we look back, as King put it, ‘naked and dejected with a lost opportunity,’ forced to admit that we let the chance slip by and now it’s simply too late?”
 All references are to the text of the speech in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington (HarperSanFrancisco, 1986).
The dominant economic model followed by virtually all major economies is inflicting severe injuries on the planet’s fragile ecosystem and causing glaring economic and social inequalities. Can a diagram of a doughnut offer us a key to resolving our predicament?
The human community today faces two momentous challenges that will loom ever larger in the years ahead. One is to establish the social and economic conditions necessary for everyone on this planet to flourish: to live with dignity and purpose and fulfill their life’s potentials. The other is to safeguard the natural environment on which we depend from the harm caused by an economy dependent on unrestrained extraction and consumption. These challenges to our collective well-being are bound to grow in severity and urgency over the coming decades. To meet them successfully calls for a transformation in the vectors that drive the economy both nationally and globally. Our current dominant economic system is pushing us toward a precipice, and we’re careening forward with hardly a thought for the plunge that lies ahead. It’s as if we’re in a car drawing ever closer to the edge of a cliff, and we continue to press down on the gas pedal while we argue over which station to listen to on the radio.
To resolve the double crisis facing us we must trace it to its roots, which means that we must look at the premises that ground the dominant economic system. The economic policies our governments pursue operate within the parameters of an economic model, which posits goals for the whole economy and prescribes what it believes to be the most effective means to realize them. This model is shared by the world’s major economic powers, whether they operate in capitalist or state-controlled modes. An economic model exerts a powerful influence over almost all our ways of thinking about our common lives, yet the validity of this model, its objective truth, is tacitly assumed, accepted almost as inevitable as the succession of day and night. Thus it’s left to stand unnoticed in the background, like the screen against which a movie is projected: omnipresent, indispensable, yet not seen in itself.
If the model conforms to the contours of the real world, the policies that flow from it will be realistic, constructive, and socially benign. But if the model is rooted in a distorted picture of the world—a picture that omits some crucial features while giving excessive weight to others—it will lead to unwise policies that damage both the social fabric of our lives and the natural environment. That the model we currently work within involves serious distortions of the actual world, distortions in both its human and natural dimensions, is the crux of our present predicament.
The model that reigns today is that of an industrial growth economy, which measures “development” in terms of expanded industrial production and increase in gross domestic product. The model is powerful, compelling, and logically rigorous, but as we can see from the global crises it repeatedly triggers, it is also terribly flawed, harboring inherent pathologies that infect both our social order and our relationships with nature. It fails to recognize that an economy that thrives by devouring the Earth’s natural resources undermines and debilitates the planet’s finite supporting capacity. And it fails to recognize that at the core of every economic model there are real people who are subjects of experience—people with hopes, fears, and aspirations who, by reason of their humanity, are entitled to the basic requisites of a dignified life.
The results of such oversights can be disastrous. In the social dimension of our lives, the model leads to glaring inequalities in wealth and income, to violations of basic social equity, to pockets of deep poverty in the midst of plenty. It consigns hundreds of millions of people to the edge of survival, perpetually struggling just to avoid destitution and premature death. It divides the world into rival military camps that spend billions on weapons of deadly power while millions in their own lands live in utter poverty.
Our relationship to the environment is just as vicious. This model promotes a purely utilitarian orientation to nature, an outlook that compels us to chip away at the fragile geophysical and biological pillars that sustain human civilization on this precious planet. If the destruction continues, everything we cherish is bound to collapse, and we ourselves will join the crash.
To successfully resolve these two problems—rampant social injustice and environmental exploitation—we need an economic model that can promote social equity and the protection of the natural environment. The model must be governed not by mere quantitative measurements of production, growth, and financial profitability, but by standards that reflect a moral point of view.
This calls for an expanded conception of ethics. It’s not enough merely to promote ethics as a code of individual behavior. Ethical principles must guide the larger systems in which our lives unfold, including the dominant economic model. This means that ethics must govern our relationship to each other at every level of our shared existence while also regulating our relationships with the physical and biological systems in which we are inextricably embedded.
But to invoke ethics as a critical factor in the economy, we have to ensure that ethics shapes economic and social policies that promote the common good. This is where the current system repeatedly falters. While individual companies and institutions may adopt codes of ethics for their members—and while some companies may adhere to codes of social and environmental responsibility—the dominant model operates with an ethics-neutral source code. The prevailing imperative for a corporation to succeed, especially one with a global reach, is to maximize profits, to increase returns on investments, and to provide higher dividends to its shareholders.
To meet these goals a corporation, even while espousing ethics for its workforce, may exploit the natural wealth of the Earth without constraint: clearing primal forests for timber and monocrop agriculture, polluting lakes and rivers with toxic chemicals, belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The drive for higher profits has profound human costs as well. It encourages giant companies to pay substandard wages, pressure politicians with lobbying campaigns, and transfer their bases of production to countries where labor is cheap and regulations weak and unenforced.
British economist Kay Raworth has proposed the outline of an alternative economic model that captures, in a clear visual image, the goalposts we must pursue to overcome the two interlocked hurdles facing humankind today. A Senior Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, where she teaches Environmental Change and Management, Raworth has designed a model she calls “doughnut economics.” She has presented this model at various conferences, in YouTube videos, on her website, and in a full-length book called Doughnut Economics, which the Financial Times selected as the best work on economics for 2017.
The “economic doughnut” has gone through several iterations. Here is a version on Wikipedia:
Like an actual doughnut, the circular model has two circumferences: an outer rim and an inner rim. The outer rim is what Raworth calls the “environmental ceiling.” It consists of nine “planetary boundaries,” among them climate change, environmental pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and land conversion. To pass beyond these boundaries is to push environmental degradation to dangerous levels, to push the Earth’s geophysical systems along damaging trajectories. The inner rim defines the “social foundation” on which a just society rests. It involves a set of twelve essential social standards that include such material goods as nutritious food, potable water, adequate housing, and energy; social goods such as health care, education, work, social equity, and gender equality; and political goods such as political representation, freedom of expression, and peace. Between these social and planetary boundaries, Raworth writes, lies the doughnut, “an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive.” The task for the 21st century, according to this model, is to bring all of humanity into that safe and just space.
This task, however, is not at all easy. It clashes with a political system that permits corporations and their lobbyists to write laws and block inconvenient regulations. It runs up against the reigning economic model, which is relentlessly propelling us across both the inner and the outer rims of the doughnut. The policies that flow from this model have given us a world in which a privileged few enjoy enormous power and material wealth while billions struggle just to survive—indeed, where millions fall through the cracks, unable to escape degrading poverty, hunger, illness, and early death.
If we are to achieve the common good, a world of economic justice and environmental health, we must place Raworth’s doughnut at the center of economic and social policy. Any viable, sustainable economy must be built around the recognition that true human value does not lie in rising amounts of wealth and power for the few and misery, poverty, and crippling anxiety for the powerless many. It lies in a stable natural world, thriving and regenerative; in fulfilling human relationships based on trust and equity; and in the leisure and opportunity to pursue our cultural interests and spiritual callings.
These are the goods that enrich and dignify human life, yet it is these that are being ignored and expunged by the system that prevails today. If we are to recover, we must seek out and expose the malignant forces that have infected our societies and are tearing away at our planet’s delicate geophysical and biological support systems. At the same time, with courage and determination, we must strive to create a future in which all have access to the sources of true human value and can thrive together in harmony with the natural world.
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is the founder-chairperson of Buddhist Global Relief.
An earlier version of this essay was published on Common Dreams. It is reproduced here under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).
This year, Buddhist Global Relief has launched a new partnership with CAMFED (Campaign for Female Education), a pan-African organization combating poverty, inequality, and injustice by educating girls and supporting young women to become leaders in their communities and nation. CAMFED’s collective efforts have helped almost 5 million girls go to school in Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and the movement intends to support 5 million more girls over the next five years. For CAMFED, education is a fundamental right and a matter of justice. The organization regards girls’ education as a key to tackling our most pressing global challenges. CAMFED catalyzes the power of the most vulnerable girls and young women to create the future they imagine—for themselves, for their communities, and for Africa.
The partnership between BGR and CAMFED is focused on a project in Malawi that will support the education of 1,333 marginalized girls and young women, providing them with the critical support they need to pursue their studies. In Malawi, a majority of people live in extreme poverty; 62 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 per day. Malawi is one of the least developed countries in the world, ranking 171 out of 189 countries in the 2018 UNDP Human Development Index. Many families are unable to afford school costs for their children, and when resources are available, they are generally allotted to boys, leaving girls without a formal education. Furthermore, when they reach adolescence, girls are pressured to marry in order to reduce the financial burden on the family.
The partnership between BGR and CAMFED delivers individually tailored support and crucial supplies for the girls to continue learning. These school-going costs are assessed on a case-by-case basis; they include food, school fees, uniforms, sanitary wear, bedding, medical costs, personal protective equipment, and remote learning resources for those without access to digital learning platforms.
CAMFED was founded in 1993 by Ann Cotton. It began in Zimbabwe with scholarships to a group of 32 girls. By 2021, the number of children served had grown to nearly 5 million. CAMFED post-secondary programs are implemented by members of CAMA, the CAMFED Alumnae Association. Established in 1998, the CAMFED Association now consists of 180,000 alumnae of CAMFED’s programs. They are women leaders who demonstrate how education can break the cycle of poverty. CAMA provides a structure for the women to continue their work and grow their activism and leadership. As CAMFED beneficiaries become professionals, they give back their time, expertise, and financial support to the association.
In implementing the BGR project, CAMFED Association members identify which girls in their communities need the most urgent support. Without this support, many girls will not return to school, especially those “invisible” school-age girls who are currently not being reached by—or falling through—existing services and safety nets. On average, each CAMA member is helping three girls go to school; this is what CAMFED calls the “multiplier effect.” Because the members live in the communities where CAMFED operates, they are uniquely equipped to identify and support the most at-risk children. Additionally, in 2017 the CAMA Fund was launched, bringing formality and structure to the Association’s initiatives. Many CAMA members also contribute directly to the fund with their own financial resources, joining a wide network of donors.
CAMFED also engages more than 300,000 teachers, parents, traditional leaders, local education officers, social workers, and magistrates known as CAMFED Champions. CAMFED’s grassroots-led approach means that communities take responsibility for girls’ well-being and success. The contributions of international donors are matched with local networks and resources for optimal outcomes.
The model used by CAMFED is highly cost efficient, as it provides individually assessed school-going costs for eligible children. The support ranges from tuition and exam fees to bedding, medical expenses, school supplies, and direct food aid, where necessary. Financially, it combines the transparency and rigors of centralized financial systems administered by CAMFED with its alumnae’s experience, insight, and activism.
CAMFED supports girls at the point of leaving secondary school, at a time when young women face a lack of opportunities. Many women are pressured to marry young or migrate to urban centers where they may be exploited and abused. CAMA provides women a six-month Transition Programme, including financial literacy, business planning, reproductive health information, and leadership training. After completing the initial training, women can gain further expert training in specialized skills, including climate-smart agriculture.
CAMFED’s studies have consistently found that the second-highest cause of school dropout for girls—after poverty—is low academic self-esteem. Therefore, CAMFED provides guidance and counseling support in every partner school by trained “Teacher Mentors.” Additionally, the “My Better World” school curriculum is designed to improve students’ confidence, resilience, self-reflection, and autonomy, as well as their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It also encourages girls to become more aware of their rights, responsibilities, and values.
“Learner Guides” are peer counselors tuned into children’s needs and social challenges in their communities and equipped with the tools and resources to support children academically and socially. The guides provide a bridge between schools, families, and local authorities, as they are exceptionally prepared to protect girls from early marriage and bring them back to school. They are able to deploy their first-hand knowledge and experience where others may lack the time, insight, or resources to persevere. Learner Guides are closely connected to school and local authorities and have child-abuse reporting systems in place. They are at the forefront of social activism and have been recognized by official agencies as essential during the Covid-19 crisis. To date, CAMFED has trained almost 11,000 Learner Guides and in 2020 there were over 4,000 such guides active in Ghana, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.
Beyond school, “Transition Guides” support young women to capitalize on their education to become leaders, entrepreneurs, and business owners; to obtain gainful employment; or to enter advanced studies programs. The Transition Guides themselves have access to interest-free loans in exchange for their volunteer work, allowing them to start their own businesses and earn a vocational (BTEC) qualification as a stepping stone to a teacher’s training or career employment. As a result, over 11,000 CAMFED Association members created their own businesses in 2020, notwithstanding the challenges of the pandemic—a true testament to the program’s resiliency and sustainability.
Through its partnerships with schools, district, and national education authorities and networks during the pandemic, CAMFED has supported the safe reopening of schools. In addition, CAMFED has been advocating for the prioritization of the most marginalized children, including those with disabilities, and for investment in a strategic transformation of the education system, ensuring that those without electricity and connectivity are not left further behind.
CAMFED recognizes that investing in girls’ education is one of the most powerful ways to address the climate crisis. Quality education and support for climate-smart livelihoods provide girls with the tools needed to sustain themselves and their families while facing climate change. It is well documented that developing nations with higher levels of female education suffer less loss of life, injury, and displacement due to weather disasters. Educated women are better prepared to champion climate-resilient technologies at the community level. They engage in national and international leadership for sustainability and make personal choices that reduce the level of carbon emissions.
CAMFED has received many awards from different agencies and organizations around the world. In 2021 it was announced as the recipient of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the world’s largest annual humanitarian award. The prize is given in recognition of extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering.
Peter Laugharn, president and CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, said: “CAMFED has revolutionized how girls’ education is delivered, tapping into local expertise in a way that is sustainable and scalable. The Jury’s selection … speaks first and foremost to its community-led approach and to the power of investing in girls. The pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on families and girls, with estimates that 11 million girls may not return to school as a result of the crisis. The time for the global community to learn from this model is now.”
Kate Zemlo Rivas is a volunteer at BGR. She lives in California and works for the University of California, Davis. Kate is also an attorney focused primarily on assisting immigrants, workers, and children. She has been a student of Buddhism for over ten years.
On October 15, the Nagarjuna Training Institute (based at Nagaloka in Nagpur) presented the Dr. Ambedkar Prabuddha Bharata Peace Award jointly to BGR’s chairperson, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, and our executive director, Kim Behan. The award is given, according to the Institute, “to appreciate those who have made significant contributions to the development of Buddhism and the welfare of humanity, not only in India, but throughout the world.” The award is named after Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, an Indian jurist, economist, politician, and social reformer, who inspired the Dalit Buddhist movement and campaigned against social discrimination towards the Dalits, formerly known as the “Untouchables.” A Dalit himself, Dr. Ambedkar became independent India’s first Minister of Law and Justice and is considered the chief architect of the Indian Constitution of India. On October 15, 1956, at Nagpur, he led a mass conversion of 500,000 Dalits from Hinduism to Buddhism. The Award Committee requested Kim Behan to give a short talk on the occasion. There follows here the prepared text of her talk.
It is a great privilege for me to join you today as we celebrate Dharma Chakra Pravartan Day. What an inspiring day of remembrance, on this anniversary of the conversion of Dr. Ambedkar, and of hundreds of thousands of people who found the Dharma under his leadership!
As we celebrate the dawn of the Buddhist revival in India under the guidance of Dr. Ambedkar, we see so clearly how the gift of the Dharma transforms not only our individual lives but the world. This is a beautiful example of the interconnection of all beings, and an opportunity for us to recommit to the work of “compassion in action.”
Dr. Ambedkar had a vision of a society, and a world, free from inequality and discrimination. As a leader, he also recognized that this vision of true compassion in the Dharma is not separate from the struggle for justice in our societies. The impact of the Dharma Revolution (dharmakranti) has resonated across time and around the world, sounding a call for all to act against oppression and injustice.
Dr. Ambedkar’s vision of action guided by love offered India a path toward equality and progress, and his notion of “compassion in action” has given Buddhists everywhere an example of how to build a better world. We see that aspiration continued at the Nagarjuna Training Institute, where you are bringing the dream of Prabuddha Bharat—an Enlightened India, an enlightened world—into reality.
At Buddhist Global Relief, our vision statement says: “We are inspired by the vision of a world in which debilitating poverty has finally been banished; a world in which all can avail themselves of the basic material supports of a meaningful life—food, clothing, housing, and health care; a world in which everyone can achieve a satisfactory level of education and freely pursue that which gives their life value and purpose; a world in which all people dwell in peace and harmony with one another and with the natural environment.”
Just as Dr. Ambedkar guided India toward greater justice through the Dharma, we at Buddhist Global Relief allow the teachings to guide us in seeking to transform the material conditions of those who are left behind by unequal societies—in the U.S., in India, and in many other nations in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
For example, a project with our longtime partner, the Bodhicitta Foundation, provides housing and schooling for thirty young women in Nagpur. These are young women, ages 14 to 23, who are at risk of having their education cut short due to poverty. Many belong to the Dalit caste and other groups with high dropout rates. Following their completion of the program, the young women are supported in returning to their home villages to create their own businesses and share their knowledge with other girls and young women.
At the Garden of Peace School in Kurumbupalayam, Tamil Nadu, our partner Lotus Outreach International provides nutritional support twice a day for 175 children, half of whom are girls. The school is located on a small organic farm, and the children and their families are involved in farm activities, helping to grow a portion of the food served to the students.
In Punjab state, our partner Building Bridges India works to support and empower the widows of men who committed suicide because of poverty and indebtedness, leaving the debt to their widows. One Buddhist Global Relief project provides training in organic farming methods to 300 widows; another offers vocational training in sewing to 125 women.
In Diyun township of Arunachal Pradesh, BGR partners with the Mahabodhi Maitri Mandala on a project that provides 245 poor children with three nutritious meals a day as well as uniforms, health care, and school supplies. The children are from tribal clans and more than half of them are girls.
The coronavirus pandemic has created tremendous hardships and suffering for many of the people we serve. This pandemic reminds us that we still have much work to do to achieve Dr. Ambedkar’s vision of equality. Around the world, those most harmed by the pandemic’s impacts continue to be those who are already disadvantaged, while the wealthy and powerful remain largely protected.
And yet the pandemic also teaches us about the interconnectedness of all life. If highly-resourced countries do not make vaccines available to those with fewer resources, the virus will continue to spread and mutate, threatening all of us. Only when vaccines and other medical care are shared with all people will we be able to lessen the destructiveness of this pandemic. Our fates are powerfully intertwined with those of our sisters and brothers in our communities and around the world.
When Buddhist Global Relief provides a Covid-care ventilator to the hospital of the Mahabodhi Society in Bangalore, as when the Buddha Charity Covid Care Centre distributes food and sanitary supplies to poor communities during the pandemic, we act not only from compassion but also from an awareness of our profound interconnectedness.
The Dharma moves us to recognize and act from this interdependence. It offers a path to safety, peace, and contentment that we must travel together with others, realizing that all beings are worthy not only of our love but of having their fundamental needs met.
Our desire for happiness is not separate from our commitment to helping others who face hunger, poverty, injustice, illness, and any other form of suffering. And so we work, side by side, to build a world in which all people live in peace and harmony.
This month our Chairperson, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, and Executive Director, Kim Behan jointly received the prestigious Dr. Ambedkar Prabuddha Bharata Peace Award, granted by a Buddhist organization in India called the Nagarjuna Training Institute. The institute, based at Nagaloka in Nagpur, continues the heritage of Engaged Buddhism started by the Dalit leader, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956).
For those who do not know of him, Dr. Ambedkar was an Indian jurist, economist, and social reformer who rose up from poverty to become one of the foremost leaders of independent India. He was born into a poor family of the Dalit community, the people previously referred to by caste Hindus as “Untouchables”—those whose very shadow was considered inauspicious and whose touch was thought to pollute. In his youth, Ambedkar suffered the indignities inflicted upon Dalits by reason of their birth, but he was a bright and diligent student who overcame the obstacles he faced in pursuit of his education. He excelled in his studies and went on to earn two doctorate degrees, from Columbia Univerity and the London School of Economics. After independence, he became India’s first Minister of Law and Justice and the principal author of the Indian Constitution.
Dr. Ambedkar deeply opposed the Hindu caste system, with its degrading treatment of the Dalits, and he vowed that though he was born a Hindu, he would not die one. He embarked on a thorough study of the world’s major religions and in the end decided that Buddhism best met his aspirations. On October 15, 1956, at a large ceremony in Nagpur, he formally undertook the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, the twin gateway to the Dharma. Immediately afterward he led 500,000 Dalits in renouncing their Hindu heritage and adopting Buddhism.
Sadly, just two months after his conversion, Ambedkar died due to chronic poor health. But the revolution he started continued to roll on. In the years and decades following the initial mass conversion ceremony, millions of Dalits have followed Dr. Ambedkar in embracing Buddhism, and thus in India today there is a large Buddhist population drawn mainly from the Dalit community. Nagaloka in Nagpur is one of their primary religious and educational centers.
The Nagarjuna Training Institute (NTI) was established at Nagaloka to provide training in Buddhist teachings to young Buddhists from all over India. After completing the training program, the trainees return to their home communities to help in propagating Buddhism. Through its programs the institute strives to promote the ideal of Prabuddha Bharat—an Enlightened India—and to play a part in the global Buddhist family.
Every year the institute confers the Dr. Ambedkar Prabuddha Bharata Peace Award, which it presents on October 15, the anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s embrace of Buddhism. This date is also considered the anniversary of King Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism. The Peace Award is presented “to those who have made significant contributions to the development of Buddhism and the welfare of humanity, not only in India, but throughout the world.” This year the award committee saw fit to confer the award on Bhante and Kim Behan—to Bhante for his scholarship and contributions to human welfare through BGR and to Kim for her role as executive director of BGR.
The time that the celebration of the mass conversion ceremony took place in India was too late for Bhante to join online, so he recorded an acceptance speech, which was played at the ceremony. But Kim, in Colorado, participated online and submitted a short address, which will soon be published on the BGR blog. In accepting the award, Kim writes: “I would like to share the Dr. Ambedkar Peace Award with the entire team at Buddhist Global Relief in recognition of our work together in the Dharma.”
Carla Prater is Assistant Director of Buddhist Global Relief.
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.
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.
For more than 30 years, the Asociación Grupo de Trabajo Redes (AGTR) has helped children in Peru empower themselves and escape child labor. A grant from BGR supports AGTR as it works to develop educational opportunities for girls in San Juan de Miraflores, one of the poorest districts of Lima. Over 55 percent of the people there live in poverty, and 10 percent live in extreme poverty; more than 80 percent of the children and adolescents have worked as child laborers. Child labor has a lasting effect on those involved, denying or delaying educational opportunities, exposing children to emotional and physical health risks, depriving youth of recreational and social activities, and putting them at greater risk for sexual abuse and trafficking.
Some families in poor neighborhoods in and around Lima see domestic labor as a chance to improve the lives of their children. Employers claim that they will provide educational opportunities to children, and that they will be welcomed into a loving household environment as “godchildren.” In reality, however, the children never become part of the families they serve. They devote their time to cooking, cleaning, gardening, and caring for young children. These affluent children often learn to objectify and abuse the child domestic workers by watching the actions of their parents. All the while, the young domestic workers are losing contact with their own families and communities and are falling behind educationally—often up to three years behind their peers.
AGTR offers a range of programs to help support former child workers and prevent other girls from becoming involved in child labor. Funding from BGR supports workshops that explore health, self-esteem, and communication and emphasize the importance of education in building future opportunities. In addition, AGTR provides food baskets to families who participate in the program and school supplies to students, helping alleviate some of the stresses that push children into domestic labor. The project currently serves 30 students.
The program stresses the importance of education and helps children cultivate a stronger sense of personal worth and self-esteem. AGTR relies on the experiences of former child workers to develop its programs, allowing them to celebrate the strength and perseverance of child workers without stigmatizing them while recognizing the dignity of their labor. “I felt very good,” one explains. “It is the first time that I hear that our work is very good, that we each have our stories as domestic workers: some are very ugly, but we’re strong enough to move on.”
Between 2012 and 2017 AGTR created five youth groups in poor communities around Lima. Led by former domestic workers, the youth groups provided tutoring and mentoring support for at-risk youth, and gave children a voice as AGTR worked to improve its ability to help children. The project in San Juan de Miraflores began at one of these youth centers.
Etsi is one of the children served by an AGTR youth center. She moved into a wealthy home in Lima, Peru, to work as a domestic servant when she was a child. The family refused to pay her for seven of the nine years she worked for them, and denied her basic rights granted to workers. After leaving the family Etsi made contact with AGTR, which helped her understand her experiences and reconsider the value of domestic workers.
COVID-19 has created challenges for AGTR’s programs. The lockdown has increased adult unemployment, heightening the risk that children will enter the workforce. Children who remain in school risk falling behind due to disrupted schedules. Although schools in Lima offer virtual classes, the range of subjects is limited and many students do not have reliable internet access. Officials have tried to fill this gap by sending assignments and relying on the government television program “I Can Learn at Home,” although many families feel the program is of limited value. Before the pandemic, AGTR offered tutoring services at their community center. Tutoring sessions helped students whose parents were unable to help them with homework, and gave them an extra edge in more difficult Math and English classes as they moved into high school. AGTR hopes to resume meeting face-to-face with students at its venue in the near future.
Government agencies have stepped in to provide additional support for families in the area during the lockdown. For example, San Juan de Miraflores lacks running water. Prior to the pandemic, families would buy water from trucks or fill jerrycans and portable tanks outside of the neighborhood. The lockdown cut household income and made it harder for families to meet vendors. The municipal government has agreed to cover the cost of water for residents during the crisis.
AGTR has continued delivering baskets of food to each of the 30 girls participating in the program, and staff members use the opportunity to meet with students and their families. Thanks to additional donations from friends and former volunteers, AGTR is also able to give food to other children in San Juan de Miraflores. This allows families in the district to pool their resources and prepare large common pots of food that are shared with the community. “Solidarity,” AGTR observes, “is a great resource in these difficult times.”
Shae Davidson holds a PhD degree in American history. His dissertation research explored the importance of inclusive community partnerships in building food systems. He has served as a museum director and taught history and public policy.
The following post is a message we received from one of our long-term partners in Haiti, the What If Foundation. Though we cannot know for certain whether Daymondy Dume was one of the children who received meals through our sponsorship of the food program, she exemplifies the kind of difference this program can make in the lives of people living on the edge of poverty. We therefore share it with our readers.
Daymondy is the first person in her family to attend school. She grew up in one of the tent camps set up for those displaced by the 2010 earthquake, and today she’s in her second year of Medical School at the University of Notre Dame in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She’s on the path to realize her dream of becoming a doctor — achieving a brighter future for herself while giving back to her community and her country. And it’s donors like you who made it possible.
Daymondy and her family began attending the Na Rive Food Program when she was little. Na Rive’s Program Director, Lavarice Gaudin, recognized her potential and encouraged her to pursue one of our academic scholarships. She graduated high school in 2018 and was accepted to the Medical School at Notre Dame University, where fewer than 10% of applicants make the cut. She is so excited to be on track to become a doctor, she still pinches herself.
“I’ve been studying around the clock to make sure I am the best student I can be. I want to make everyone who believes in me and supports me proud. I have come so far from when I first started school, so I try hard every day to stay on top of my studies. I am very interested in genetics and have great teachers here who push me to succeed every day. This last year has been difficult since the university had to close and transportation has become more dangerous, but I will find a way! Thank you for helping me pursue my dream.”
Students like Daymondy represent exactly what Na Rive hopes to achieve: giving children from Ti Plas Kazo the opportunity to transform themselves, their families, their community, and eventually, their country. “We are so proud of Daymondy. Her determination was always easy to see, but now she has grown to become a smart, motivated young woman who wants to give back. She is a wonderful example for our students and our community” says Lavarice.
Daymondy also represents the power of our partnership with Na Rive: the support your donations provide is put to the best possible use by those who know the community best. By investing in the future of children like Daymondy, we are giving them the tools to achieve their full potential, whatever that might be. And the impact of every single child we support has a magnifying effect across their families, classmates and community.