Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane Addresses Hunger No More: An Interfaith Convocation, Washington National Cathedral

(Washington, June 6, 2005) It is a great joy to be with you, on the eve of National Hunger Awareness Day. Thank you for your invitation. It is a privilege to be here among so many leaders from the different faith communities.

In the Book of the Revelation to John, at the end of the Christian Scriptures, there is a picture of heaven, in which there is a great multitude, too numerous to count. They come from every tribe and nation, every people, every culture, every language. And it is promised ‘never again will they hunger, never again will they thirst’ (Rev 7:16).

The promise of heaven is no more hunger. But the message of all our readings is that the plight of the hungry must not be left for heaven.It is to be our concern, as God’s instruments in his world. As the verses from Qur’an reminded us, virtually every religious and ethical tradition calls us to feed the hungry.

The shocking statistics demonstrate that hunger is far more widespread than we might at first imagine.

The American Scene

It is a profound irony that there is extensive hunger and poverty in this, the world’s richest nation. Despite this country’s enormous wealth, there are 36 million people in the United States who are food insecure. That is, 36 million people who, some or all of the time, do not know where their next meal is coming from. Of them, almost 13 million are children.

Hunger in the US has been on the rise for the last four years, according to federal government reports. Private food suppliers struggle to meet this increase in hungry people.

America’s Second Harvest, the Nation’s Food Bank Network, reports that in 2001, 23.3 million people turned to the agencies they serve – an increase of over 2 million since 1997. And forty percent of these were from families who work.

Latest federal figures show that in 2003, 12.5% of the US population was poor – up from 12.1% a year before. This means that in those twelve months, an additional 1.3 million people actually became poor.

We acknowledge that the federal government’s nutrition programs provide about 20 times more food assistance than charities. Yet with such need, proposals in the current budget debate to cut these programs, and deprive hundreds of thousands of working families of food support, cannot be justified – and must be opposed.

The Global Picture

The global picture is also shocking. For thirty years, global hunger was falling – but it is now rising again. Between 1999 and 2002 it increased by over 10 million people; now 852 million people face hunger every day.

How can hunger be so widespread, when there is such growth in the global economy? How can there be such vast need in a country like the United States?

The Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen has pointed out that hunger is not caused by food shortages. Indeed, often it happens when food is abundant.

Hunger arises when people become economically alienated, unable adequately to participate in the buying and selling of labor, goods and services, so as to be able to access enough to eat.

This is why poverty and hunger are often found in rural areas.

People may live in the midst of acres of fertile food production, but if the nearest grocery store is 10, 20, even 30 miles away, then for those without access to affordable transport, they might as well be living in a barren desert.

On the international front there are other factors at play – some of which also challenge the policies of the US government. Trade policies are still geared far too much to the advantage of the rich, and make it far harder for poor countries and their populations to escape poverty.

Of this we can be sure: the poverty that brings hunger is evil.

In all its ramifications and consequences, it mars the image of God within humanity: it mars the image of God in the poor as it deprives them of opportunities for abundant life; and it mars the image of God within those of us who have more than enough, but who, through greed, complacency or even ignorance, fail to do the justice, to embrace the loving kindness, that our God asks of us.

Personal Reflections

I have seen too much of the effects of poverty and hunger in my life.

As a young man, I spent three years as a political prisoner on Robben Island – I will not begin to tell you how hungry we sometimes were there.

Yet it was in those conditions of inhumane brutality that I felt the call of God to be ordained in his Church.

And it was there that so many of today’s leaders found faith in a common humanity, united by a belief in justice and freedom for all South Africans, and the conviction that this could only be achieved through reconciliation.

Years later, I became Bishop of the very rural Diocese of Kimberley and Kuruman. There I encountered poverty and hardship on levels I had never seen: women spending five hours a day fetching water, and wood for the fire; laboring beneath pylons that carried electricity to the opulent white homes, which alone had running water.

After becoming Archbishop, I was a commissioner for South African national poverty hearings. We listened to the voices of the poor, who told their stories with dignity. It was an emotionally and physically draining exercise – but hugely rewarding, in that those who told their stories recognized that there were people ready to listen to their plight, people who cared about them and their situation.

I saw the face of poverty in the eyes of far too many men, women, children, the elderly, people with disability. Their message was ‘Archbishop, take our voices to the corridors of power, and say for us, “We do not want hand-outs; we have brains; we have hands; give us the capacity to eke out our own existence.”‘

The peaceful transition to democracy in 1994 has been a cause for continued celebration and thanksgiving. But now we are facing a long hard struggle to overcome the economic gulfs of apartheid, which built on the inequalities of colonialism.

Yet our achievements are a basis of hope for humanity about the possibilities that exist under God for people to rise above narrow ideologies or personal agendas, and be united by a common desire to seek the good of everyone.

The Political Climate

The good of everyone is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now over 50 years old, it clearly states that every human being has the right to enough to eat. Yet hunger has grown, and is growing again.

Over 40 years ago, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., in the lecture following his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, said: We have the resources to get rid of poverty. … There is no deficit in human resources. The deficit is in human will. Now, at the beginning of the third millennium, the resources are still there.

The political will – well, we are still working on that.

And that is why gatherings like today’s convocation are so very important.

And that is why gatherings like today’s convocation give me optimism.

Let me explain why.

The Jubilee 2000 campaign was the greatest global mobilization of public opinion – bringing together people of every faith community, from Non-Governmental Organizations, from civil society around the world.

We generated so much pressure on politicians, that the wheels started turning. A process began whereby the odious debt of the poorest countries of the world is being written off.

We still have some way to go. But we made a beginning, with tangible results. For example, there are now more children in schools, and more medicines in clinics, in Uganda and Ghana.

Politicians, as we know, respond to the opinions of their electorates. Politicians were left in no doubt that public opinion, domestic and international, demanded justice in relation to debt.

Now politicians need to be left in no doubt that public opinion, domestic and international, demands justice in relation to poverty and hunger.

This year public opinion is growing like never before.

It is coalitions like today’s that we need – coalitions that include everyone.

We have the Inter-Faith Anti-Hunger Coordinators – at whose initiative we come together. We have the hosts of today’s Convocation – Bread for the World, Call to Renewal, America’s Second Harvest, and Mazon. We have representatives, indeed leaders, from over 40 religious organizations. Every major faith group is here.

We have Christians of every type imaginable – if only Christian unity were this easy!

Perhaps we should learn the lesson that when we talk about doctrine and the abstract concepts of faith, we find far too many reasons to disagree. But when we put our faith into practice, look what we can achieve together!

As it says in Christian Scripture’s Letter of James – faith without works is dead!

And in our third reading we heard Jesus’ warning that we shall be judged not just on what we profess, but on how we live it out – clearly echoing the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.

But today we are more than a coalition of faith groups, and with them, representatives from every walk of civil society.

We are also forging new alliances along fresh and different lines.

I am delighted that we are a coalition from the bottom up, and the top down!

What do I mean by that?

We need to fight hunger on every front – global justice, national policy making, and support for every individual who is in need.

Today we bring together those who are working on an international level – to make a difference in the poorest regions of the world: those who channel the riches from this richest nation in the world, in projects that don’t just give charity, but open up new possibilities to achieve self-sufficiency and live with dignity. We salute you.

And we bring together activists, those whose work is advocacy, who do the research, hone the arguments, publicize the information, raise the profile, lobby the politicians; raising a voice for the voiceless in the corridors of power. We salute you also.

And we bring together the vast Armies of Compassion, fighting on the front line.

There are thousands of unsung heroes who are making a difference on the ground in this country – running soup kitchens, lunch clubs, school meals, nutritional support, healthy snacks, meals on wheels.

The Salvation Army, America’s Second Harvest, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, and the Society of St Andrew are just some of those groups — there are too many of you to mention you all. We salute you, every one of you.

Coalitions like this will make a difference.

Tomorrow many of you will lobby your elected representatives in the Congress, to ‘Make Hunger History’ in the US. This is God’s work!

And this is the year that we have an unprecedented opportunity to make a difference not just in the US but across the world.

Five years ago, the international community agreed the Millennium Development Goals – the most comprehensive development commitment ever made. The aim is to halve global poverty, and with it halve global hunger, by 2015.

This year, one third of the way through, we are reviewing progress. At the current rate, we will fail to meet our targets. The Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, has called a meeting of world leaders in September as the last chance to get the MDGs back on track.

All eyes will be on them.

Poverty and hunger are also top of the agenda of the G8 summit in July, and a major factor in the Doha Round of world trade talks which is due to be completed by the end of the year. In all these meetings, the spotlight will be on President Bush – how far will the US support these initiatives?

This year, everywhere politicians turn, they will find poverty and hunger on the agenda. They cannot escape!

Coalitions like ours, like the ONE Campaign and the Micah Challenge, must keep the pressure on them. We must take every opportunity to keep lobbying across the board– locally, nationally, internationally.

At every level, we must speak loud and clear.

Achieving these goals is not cost free — but at the moment it is the world’s poorest who are paying the price. Surely the US can afford a little more!

Within the US, the Blueprint to End Hunger calculated that it would cost between a nickel and a dime per American per day to end domestic hunger completely.

What a tiny price to pay.

On an international level, as long ago as 1980, the Brandt Commission in its North South Report first called for 0.7% of the national income of developed countries to be given in development assistance.

They hoped the percentage would rise to 1% by 2000. They thought these were reasonable, achievable, goals. Alas, the proportion actually given fell from 0.35% in 1980 to 0.21% in 2000. Today, only four countries reach the 0.7% level.

In 2003, the US share was a mere 0.14% – the largest amount in dollars, but the smallest percentage of all the developing countries.

However, in the last two years the US has begun to increase its poverty-focused development assistance.

I am sure it is in response to pressure like yours. Keep it up – we know this wonderful country can do better!

So now, in the run-up to the July G8 Summit and the September UN Millennium meeting, there is everything to play for.

We must all put our weight behind this growing momentum for change – because now we have the chance to make a difference – for the hungry of this nation, and the hungry of the world.

The New Testament has two Greek words for time: chronos, the time that ticks steadily onwards; and kairos, those special moments when opportunities occur, actions happen, turning points are reached.

Time has been ticking on and hunger has been getting worse. But this year for us, and for the hungry of the world, is a kairos moment.

Now it is time to grasp the opportunity, press for actions to happen, and make sure there is a turning point.

Now is the kairos moment when we start making hunger history.

Now is the decisive point to which we will look back when we reach our goal of ‘hunger no more’.

Amen. So be it.

  • World Hunger Education
    P.O. Box 29015
    Washington, D.C. 20017
  • For the past 40 years, since its founding in 1976, the mission of World Hunger Education Service is to undertake programs, including Hunger Notes, that
    • Educate the general public and target groups about the extent and causes of hunger and malnutrition in the United States and the world
    • Advance comprehension which integrates ethical, religious, social, economic, political, and scientific perspectives on the world food problem
    • Facilitate communication and networking among those who are working for solutions
    • Promote individual and collective commitments to sustainable hunger solutions.