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Blog: Humanist Voices

Global Hunger IndexWe live in a world in which hunger and starvation exist. 1 in 8 people go hungry in the world right now, according to the 2012 Global Hunger Index (GHI). That hunger exists in the world is hardly news. A part of our background awareness, it's a fact that has lost its power to shock conscience. This too is hardly news. Global hunger also has little power to function as a contradiction to the self-regard of Western society, the global north, or the so-called "Washington consensus." That hunger undermines the legitimacy of the current political and economic order goes without saying. What is to be done?

Answering that question must first begin with a comprehensive analysis of the causes of hunger. One potential category of analysis would be factors largely external to or imposed upon countries with higher levels of hunger. Under this heading we might place things like the "Washington consensus," the history of colonialism and imperialism, the actions of the World Bank and IMF, under-regulated financial markets, and the sometimes unethical and even criminal predations of global corporations. (There's also an argument, of course, for how international trade has helped relieve human problems.)

I mention the above to note a weakness of the GHI. By not mentioning known factors involved in hunger, the GHI adds another layer of invisibility to the problem. Is this a fair criticism?

Let's look at the idea behind the Global Hunger Index: 

"The Global Hunger Index (GHI) is a tool designed to comprehensively measure and track hunger globally and by region and country. Calculated each year by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the GHI highlights successes and failures in hunger reduction and provides insights into the drivers of hunger. By raising awareness and understanding of regional and country differences in hunger, the GHI will, it is hoped, trigger actions to reduce hunger." 

There has been criticism that commodities speculators have driven up the price of food for vulnerable people. Certainly this would seem to qualify as a "driver" of hunger. Given the ethical urgency of this problem, no significant factor involved in hunger should be ignored in high profile reports like the GHI. Given how important this and other indices have been for advocacy, ignoring an opportunity for enhanced public education is a mistake. 

A second weakness of the GHI is that it excludes the so-called developed countries. For example, the United States isn't on the GHI's list. It's apparently successfully transitioned into the ranks of countries that are beyond the scandal of childhood underweight. Or has it? According to the CDC approximately 3.5% of American children suffer from underweight. According to the United States Department of Agriculture 14.5% of U.S. Households were 'food insecure' in 2012, which the FDA defines as: 

"At times during the year, these households were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food." 

Is it a political embarrassment for countries like the U.S. to have significant hunger problems? Is it politically and/or financially risky for the publisher of the GHI, the International Food Policy Research Institute, to include statistics on the more financially privileged countries? 

Here's a key chart from the 2012 Global Hunger Index showing hunger trends since 1990 until 2012. Despite the apparent progress, this is now time for complacency. Need is still great, and the combined effects of increasing population, resource overshoot, and climate change portend potentially severe challenges to reductions in hunger in the future.

Global Hunger Index Trends by Region

So, what can we do? One estimate holds that we could raise up to $175 billion per year from a Wall Street transaction tax. Ending global hunger is estimated to cost $30 billion.  The math is elementary, and the moral calculus easier than that.

What's the relevance of the Global Hunger Index for humanism? Humanism, much more than just a philosophical body of critique against religious traditionalism and the supernatural, is an ethical philosophy that champions and prioritizes human flourishing. Indices like the GHI are profoundly moral documents. They symbolize our ethical commitment to the entire human family--a central moral pillar of humanism.

Humanism also prizes the 'evidence of existence,' believing that in order to make the best decisions we need to do so on the basis of the best knowledge available. By providing us with some of the best knowledge and analysis available, the GHI and other indices increase our understanding and in so doing increase our ability to take effective action. 

The Human Development Reports, the Happy Planet Index, the Global Peace Index, and many others, are all laudable intellectual achievements in themselves and demonstrate what human reason guided by ethical concern can accomplish. Humanism looks to a future in which needless and counterproductive religious, tribal, ethnic, and national divisions are transcended and our common humanity and common future become the platform on which we relate to each other in order to better pursue our progressive evolution as a species. In their global and ethical scope, in their evidence-based approach, these indices can be seen as preeminent humanist documents. They deserve much wider attention. As a movement humanism will grow and have influence, not by how often it offers critiques of religious belief (which still has undeniable importance), but by how well it offers leadership and vision pointing towards a future where all humans and the environment in which they live are flourishing.

-Eric Snyder

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