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.
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.
In late April, BGR’s Board approved 51 projects with potential partners around the world. These grants for BGR’s fiscal year 2021-22 amounted to $969,000. The Board provided $60,000 in additional emergency assistance to regions afflicted with the Covid pandemic–most in India–pushing BGR’s grant total to over $1,000,000.
During the weekend of April 23–25, 2021, the Buddhist Global Relief Board and staff members met via Zoom to review 51 project proposals from potential partners around the world. By the weekend’s conclusion, all of the projects for BGR’s fiscal year 2021-22 had been approved, with the Board awarding $969,000 in grants. The $400,000 increase compared to the previous year was made possible by several extremely generous donations we received over the past year. Decisions by the BGR Board in May to provide $60,000 in emergency assistance to regions afflicted with the Covid pandemic–most in India–pushed BGR’s grant total to over $1,000,000.
A majority of BGR’s projects are renewable projects with existing partners. Through the years, these projects have proven to be successful and aligned with BGR’s mission of fighting hunger, supporting sustainable agriculture, educating children—especially girls—and providing opportunities for women to start livelihood projects to support their families.
The projects support partners operating in countries around the world, among them Nicaragua, Peru, Haiti, Brazil, the United States, Uganda, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Malawi, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the challenges caused by the pandemic, most of the partner organizations have reported that they are staying on track with their goals as they adjusted their operations to ever-changing conditions.
This year, the Board approved eight new projects, half of which introduce new organizations into BGR’s circle of worldwide partners.
CAMFED, one of BGR’s new partners, is more formally known as the Campaign for Female Education. An international non-governmental, non-profit organization, CAMFED’s mission is to eradicate poverty in Africa through the education of girls and the empowerment of young women. CAMFED programs operate in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania, and Malawi. BGR awarded CAMFED a grant to address the urgent needs of female students in Malawi, one of the least developed countries in the world. For most families in Malawi, school costs are prohibitive and thus poor children, especially girls, often lack opportunities for education. The grant from BGR will support the education and basic nutritional needs of 1,333 girl students in Malawi.
In Myanmar, BGR’s new partner is New Eden Charity Foundation, which will provide school supplies to about 800 children of families in the Chin State who have been internally displaced due to the heavy fighting in the region.
Mahabodhi International Meditation Center(MIMC) is a new partner in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, India. MIMC operates a school for disadvantaged boys and girls from remote parts of the region. Thus far, every year during the admission period, MIMC’s selection committee has had to turn away many deserving boys simply because the present boys’ hostel can only accommodate 100 children. BGR’s grant will support the construction of a new hostel to accommodate an additional 80 boys. This will make a difference not only to the students but to their families and communities.
BGR will join an existing partner, CARE, in a new project this year that will expand a university scholarship initiative for female high school graduates in Afghanistan’s Khost province. More than 866,000 adolescents in Afghanistan are out of school, including 622,084 (71.8 percent) girls. Since 2012, CARE has helped more than 300 young women to continue their education, and as a result, the graduates have found job opportunities allowing them to support themselves and their families. This grant will provide scholarships to an additional 100 young women for the coming academic year.
Uganda Buddhist Centre is another of BGR’s existing partners. This year, in addition to the current UBC Peace School, the organization is introducing a new project to provide hunger relief for orphans in Bulega Village, Entebbe. In this Ugandan village, many children have been orphaned or abandoned due to HIV/AIDS, poverty, conflict-related violence, inadequate healthcare, neglect, and exploitation. This project will provide two nutritious meals a day for about 20 children for a year. The program also offers emotional support, yoga classes, and mindfulness training for the children.
A partner from earlier years, Sri Lanka’sKaruna Trust was awarded a grant to support the professional training of fifteen girls from low-income families to become graphic designers, a profession in high demand in Sri Lanka. Karuna Trust has run similar programs in the past, and all the graduates are either well employed or running their own businesses. BGR has also given Karuna Trust an emergency donation to provide dry food rations to families negatively impacted by the corona pandemic.
A longtime BGR partner, Oxfam America, was awarded a grant for its new project supporting women’s livelihood support and climate-smart agriculture in Uganda. This project aims to benefit 200 women and men farmers and their families by training them in climate-resilient agricultural practices and business skills related to farming, purchasing tools, and planting seeds for home consumption and income.
Finally, the Sahuarita Food Bank and Community Center, located in southeastern Arizona, is a second-year beneficiary of BGR funding. A BGR grant last year supported the construction of the center’s new facility with a commercial kitchen and classroom. This year, BGR is supporting a pilot project in which women will be trained in food preparation and other skills needed to operate a small food business.
BGR expresses its deepest gratitude to all its generous donors who allow us to continue our work of helping to relieve the suffering of the most vulnerable among us.
Kate Zemlo Rivas is a volunteer at BGR. She lives in Sacramento, California, and works for the University of California, Davis. Kate is awaiting admission to the California Bar and is hoping to practice in the area of human rights and continue supporting the immigrant community. She has been a student of Buddhism for over ten years.
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 →
On March 31st BGR donated $1,000 to the Karuna Trust in Sri Lanka, which has been distributing parcels of dry rations to poor families hit hard by the strict curfew imposed in the country on account of COVID-19. The Karuna Trust is working together with the the Divisional Secretariats to feed poor children and elders in orphanages and elders’ homes, which now have no way of obtaining food from their regular donors. A few days ago we received the following account from Mr. Mahinda Karunaratne, founder of Karuna Trust, along with several photographs of a food distribution.
On March 30th I sent an email to my donors, well-wishers, and friends requesting funds to help the daily wage-workers who had lost their earnings due to the curfew. In response I collected LKR 3.3 million, including the donation I received from Buddhist Global Relief. I am happy about the trust the people have placed in me. Apart from this amount, Karuna Trust also allocated LKR 1 million, which we will use for the second stage of COVID-19 relief work.
Within this period we have given 3312 dry ration parcels to people who have lost their daily income due to the curfew, in fifteen Divisional Secretariat Divisions. Consumer items have been given to eight orphanages, two bhikkhu training centers, fifteen Buddhist temples, four temples of Buddhist nuns, and eight churches. All these activities were done under the supervision of the Divisional Secretaries and a representative of ours participated in each and every distribution. Continue reading →
Even though Covid-19 has been taking a heavy toll on workers in the meat industry, late last month President Trump issued an executive order demanding that meat-processing plants must resume operations. The effect of this order is to confront workers with a horrendouschoice: either risk losing their jobs or risk losing their lives. With meat-processing plants becoming hot spots for Covid-19, many workers are terrified about going back to work.
The Priority of Profit
The well-known saying of Jesus, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,” might be reformulated with regard to the economy: “The economy should serve the needs of people; people should not be made to serve the economy.” Yet the logic of modern corporate capitalism often dictates just the opposite, that people be subordinated to the demands of the economy, an omnivorous giant that feeds off a steady stream of human sweat, blood, and tears.
With the profit motive as its driving vector, the mammoth corporation directs all the components of its complex operational system toward profit maximization. When profits stagnate or decline, the company may freely adopt whatever measures are needed to change course and push earnings back on an upward curve, often without regard for the physical well-being of its employees. While labor unions earlier formed a bulwark against corporate abuse, the decline of unions has given corporations license to get their way without fear of resistance.
A particularly egregious example of this inversion of ethical priorities came to light at the end of April when President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel meat-processing facilities to resume operations. In March and April, these plants had become hot spots for Covid-19. By the end of April, at least twenty workers had died from the disease and over 5,000 were infected. Since then even more workers have been infected and died, but a shortage of testing equipment prevents us from knowing the exact numbers.
As infections spread, state and local authorities used their power to order some of the most badly contaminated plants to close, a measure considered necessary to protect public health. In sum, during those two months, thirteen meatpacking and food-processing plants shut down, including some of the nation’s biggest. In response, the executives of the giant meat corporations mounted a campaign of opposition, claiming that the closing of the meat plants would endanger the national food supply. John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest meat processor, published a full-page ad in major newspapers, including the New York Times, warning that “the food supply chain is breaking.” Continue reading →