09 Jun 2011

James A. Baker III Institute

The Politics of Hunger

Secretary Baker,

Ambassador Djerejian,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good evening. 

It is an honor for me to speak at the Baker Institute.

This visit is particularly special to me because of the connection to Secretary Baker.

Mr. Secretary, I know you spent a good deal of time with my late father, HM King Hussein, in your mutual quest to bring lasting peace to our region. I remember well how highly he respected you as a diplomat, and just as the rest of the world does, for your service as US Secretary of State.

I also remember how he looked upon you as a partner in the quest for peace in the Middle East. Some people feel, unfortunately, that the dream is unattainable….I disagree.

The foundation that you, my father and other statesmen like you put in place years ago is still there. What we need noware people who will build on that foundation — people who will heed the founding vision of this Institute and put ideas into action. People who are willing to cooperate with each other — and to compromiseand keep promises — for the greater good.

Peace is always a living process that needs to be maintained and nurtured once the foundation has been laid. And we still need America’s help and leadership to make it work.

We need America’s help and leadership, as well, on the problem I’m here to speak about this evening — hunger.

Before I do, I have to tell you all how pleased I am to make my first visit to Texas. I have long had a fascination with your state, for a couple of reasons.

One goes back to a childhood desire that I can’t really explain. For some reason, I always wanted to have an armadillo as a pet, although I have never even seen one. I know you have plenty of them in Texas. I have been reliably advised that I am most likely to see one flattenedon the roadway.

That is not really what I had in mind, but I’m on the lookout, anyway.

The other reason for my fascination with Texas has more substance and involves a cherished memory of my father. People around the world associate the word “Houston” with the American space program, but I feel a special connection in that regard.

I was sitting on the floor next to my father’s desk in 1983 when he spoke by ham radio with one of your astronauts, Owen Garriott, on the Space Shuttle Columbia. King Hussein was an avid ham radio enthusiast, as was Garriott. I can still clearly remember the excitement I felt as we waited to make contact with the space shuttle as it flew over the Red Sea in Jordan.

I also remember the sparkle of excitement in my father’s eyes as he listened to MrGarriottexplain that the ham radio on his spacecraft was built by an amateur ham radio club in the Houston area. You can still hear their conversation on the Internet.

As Houstonians, you know as well as anyone what humankind can do with American leadership. It has become a cliché to say…“If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we….”This city and this state exemplify the ‘can do attitude’ of this country.

The United States is the most powerful nation on earth. Its greatest power isn’t represented by weaponry, it’s represented by values. We have seen American values in action many times around the world.

Where you lead the world follows.

Now, more than ever, the world needs you to put American values into action in the fight against hunger. It is an issue that threatens our security, our economic well-being and the lives of our fellow human beings. And solving it is a prerequisite for peace.

The need to deal with hunger should be obvious, and yet, we are not making much progress. In the year 2000,leaders from nearly every country on earth, including the United States, made a promise — the biggest development commitment in the history of mankind.

In adopting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, world leaders pledged to achieve a set of specific objectives by 2015. The goals address eight issue areas, including Universal Primary Education; Gender Equality; Child Mortality; Maternal Health; HIV, AIDs, Malaria and other diseases; Environmental Sustainability; and a Global Partnership for Development.

The first Millennium Development Goal — and the one I am most passionate about —addresses Hunger and Poverty.

Our goal is to reduce by half the proportion of people suffering from hunger, as measured from 1990 to 2015. This is not going well.

There were about 830 million hungry people worldwide when UN delegates adopted the Millennium Development Goals more than a decade ago. There are now more than a billion.

Few people realize that hunger and malnutrition remain the biggest single threat to public health worldwide -- they claim more lives than heart disease, cancer or AIDS.

Hunger also causes significant economic damage. Anemia impairs the mental development of 40 to 60 % of children in developing countries, affecting roughly 2 billion people worldwide. Eradicating it would, according to the World Health Organization, improve national productivity levels by up to 20 %.

I could tell you heart-wrenching stories of starvation, like the tiny infant in Malawi whose lifeless body was taken away in a small, black plastic bag moments after I held her hand. It was the kind of bag you might use to take out the trash, but that bag contained a lost treasure — the unfilled potential of a human life with its future denied.

There is another side of hunger that is harder to see — the degradation and loss of human dignity that the cycle of poverty and hunger forces on its victims before it extracts the ultimate price.

People who cannot meet the basic needs of their families lose their human dignity. And without human dignity, there can be no peace.

My father put it this way: “We need a sense of security in our private and national lives. We need hope for our children. We need opportunities for our own development and faith in the moral conscience of the world and in our own destiny.” He was right.

I think one of the most haunting sights I have ever seen is what happens when food is being distributed, and quantities areshort, or the demand too great. I have seen the mood change suddenly from the beaten and glassy eyes of the hungry as they wait docilely for food, tothe seething and menacing look of the panicked and desperate.

People will literally kill to feed their children and their families. To witness that transformation in a fellow human being is truly frightening. But it is equally disturbing to see the transformation that occurs when the last scrap of food is gone, and the faces that were contorted in fury become masks of shame.

To look at that, and know that those people are experiencing a sense of helplessness at the loss of their dignity is horrific.

That is what the lack of food does to people, and it occurs around the world every day.

Recent events have highlighted the complicated connections between food, poverty and politics. One of the driving forces as Arab youth took to the streets from the Maghreb to the Arabian Gulf was actually the price of food.

It is telling that one of the most common slogans in Cairo’s TahrirSquare was “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice” — in that order. A recent public opinion survey in Egypt, funded by the U.S. government, found that less than 20 % of Egyptians who participated in the protests were motivated by concerns about the lack of democracy.

Nearly two-thirds said they took to the streets because of frustration over poor living conditions and unemployment.

More than 40 percent of all poll respondents selected this statement to describe their life: “I have trouble feeding myself and my family and buying even the essential things for survival.”

To be sure, other factors contributed to the unrest. We can debate about how much of the turmoil of Arab Spring is linked to economics, religion or politics, but this much is clear: Food is the most basic human need. When it is not met, people take action.

And, by the way, this issue is directly related to the important goals of the Baker Institute’s Kelly Day Endowment on the Status of Women and Human Rights in the Middle East.

We all know that women around the world, whether they live in developing nations or prosperous nations, are the ones who literally put food on the table. They bear the burden of making do with what they have, no matter how little.

It is their job to stretch whatever money is available as far as it will go. And when there is not enough money or food to meet basic needs, women and children are almost always the first victims of poverty and hunger.

For people engaged in a daily struggle for survival, discussions about democracy, the empowerment of women and other issues that take center stage in developed nations are secondary to fending off hunger. We have to solve that problem first.

The recent events in theMiddle East have been described as a wake up call for the region, but they should be a wake up call for the world.

The Middle East is well fed when set against the daily suffering in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.In the rural villages of Cambodia I visited in February, as much as 70 % of household income is spent on food, compared to around 10 % here in the US.  Imagine life if the average Texan had to spend $25,000 a year just on food.

We saw more than 60 food riots from 2007 to 2009 alone, from Haiti to Indonesia. Late last month, rising food prices were an important factor behind protests that led to violence in the Republic of Georgia.

We can expect more food-related instability.

Figures compiled by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization show that global food prices have hit a record high.

The Financial Times recently reported that global consumer surveys were showing the price of food and its availability as the most reported concern of families -- even more than the precarious state of the global economy.

The implications of this disturbing trend go far beyond individual countries, or even specific regions,that suffer from food imbalances.

Extremist groups all over the world feast on hunger. Some use free meals as a magnet to attract and corrupt a captive audience of young people.  A hungry child is easy to mold — for good or for ill. Others simply exploit the desperation that hunger fosters by offering an illusory vision of a better future built on a twisted worldview.

In the hands of extremists, hunger can be aweaponfar more effective than a roadside bomb.

So, what do we do about this?

There are some specific policy prescriptions that deserve serious consideration in world capitals.

Redesigning or dismantlingagricultural subsidies would remove trade distortions and could make it easier for poorer countries to produce and compete.  These subsidies are enormous and expensive.  Each year, the world's donors provide a few billion dollars in food aid — while they spend more than that in a week on subsidies that hurt poor farmers in the developing world.

Weshould invest more in agriculture and increasing food output worldwide. There is truth to the proverb: “Give a man of a fish, and you feed him for a day.

Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

But unfortunately, we have neglected the cycle of poverty and hunger for so long we are now obliged to do both. We have to feed a man to give him the strength to be able to feed himself.

Remember the “Green Revolution” that raised food productivity so dramatically in South Asia? We need more of that type of investment.

We must also make sure that our political leaders keep their promises. Too many commitments are made, but not kept.

For example, at the G8 Summit in Italy 2009, the developed nations pledged to collectively invest $22 billion in agricultural development and food aid. Less than $5 billion has actually materialized. The United States is among those that have fallen short, and future US contributions are at risk because of political disagreements.

I understand the fiscal constraints that the United States and other developed countries face. We certainly felt the global recession in the UAE, but we have met the UN target of devoting at least 1 % of our GNP to foreign aid.

My husband, His Highness Sheikh Mohammad often asks, “How can countries around the world spend over a trillion dollars for armaments as we fight over land, ideology and religion and let 300 million children starve?”

The desire of the people of the Arabian Peninsulafor a better life led to the creation of the United Arab Emirates in 1971. Colonial rule came to an end in a bloodless struggle motivated by a dream shared by HH Sheikh Zayed, the late president, and HH Sheik Rashid al Maktoum.

At the time, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid was the youngest Minister of Defense in the world. He was passionate about meeting the needs of the people and he helped his father and Sheikh Zayed build the UAE. They were driven to ensure that their people had access to food, clean drinking water, education, healthcare, safety and opportunity – in that order. 

Now, in the modern UAE that remains the priority under the leadership of HH Sheik Khalifato give people the opportunity to achieve their full promise as human beings.

Many people are skeptical about the idea of cooperation in the Arab world. But the United Arab Emiratesshows what can be accomplished — seven emirates joined by a federal government in defense, internal and external policy, and united in anabsolute commitment to give their citizens a better life.

That is what it takes to deal with any problem — an unbending commitment to act…More than anything, we need to act against hunger. It has to become a priority.

We need a sense of outrage. The international community is rightfully outraged when a leader uses weapons against his own people, but where is the outrage when a leader lets his people starve?

That is where you come in. As people of intellect, education and influence, you help set the priorities of this great nation.

We have seen what America can do when it sets its mind to it.

During World War I, American food relief saved millions of Europeans from starvation. After World War II, the Marshall Plan rebuilt a devastated Europe and turned bitter enemies into reliable allies and economic partners. In the 1960s, Food for Peace saved millions from starvation in India.

Secretary of State George Marshall, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for the Marshall Plan, outlined the rationale for it in a speech at Harvard. His words in 1947 ring true today.

“It is logical,” he said, “that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.”

I saw American values in action after the deadly earthquake in Haiti last year when I traveled to Port au Prince with a planeload of relief supplies from the International Humanitarian City in Dubai. Amid all the chaos, two things were holding Haiti together at that point: The U.S. military and the United Nations.

American might and international cooperation can be a powerful force for good. The American soldiers were backed by UN peacekeepers from countries around the world, including a large contingent from Jordan.

Let me be clear: I am not asking for a massive bailout from Uncle Sam. This has to be a global commitment and a global effort. But America’s special place in the world gives it a unique ability to make a real difference in the lives of people around the world. All it takes is a commitment.

I know that many people in the developed world are not even aware of the Millennium Development Goals. But I can tell you this: The people whose lives depend on whether we keep that commitment know all about it.

That point became clear to me during a visit to the Kibera slum in Nairobi. I met two young children, a boy and a girl, who talked about the Millennium Development Goals in detail. They know about the goals because they are the best hope — perhaps the only hope — for their future.

The MDG’s are a promise the world has made to them, and so many others like them. They are the hopes and dreams of the poor and neglected. They are anxiously waiting to see if we will fulfill our promise or abandon them. The moment that your governments committed to the MDGs, was the moment we lost the ability to abandon these people.

Failure to meet their expectations will only result in the same frightening behavior I’ve seen when food distribution goes wrong — and that’s not the world we want to leave our children.


I conclude with this plea: No matter how hard things may be these days, please use your influence to encourage policies that support the Millennium Development Goals.  Help end the scourge of hunger and the pain and conflict it creates.

We can make a difference. If we put ideas into action, we can build on the foundation we have inherited from Secretary Baker and others like him and leave our children a world they can be proud of.

Thank you.