A New Exodus from Hunger

By David Beckmann

When I worked as an economist at the World Bank some years ago, a colleague, Deepa Narayan, initiated a major program of listening to the poor. Her first study, Voices of the Poor, was based on interviews with 41,000 poor people in fifty developing countries. One of the defining characteristics of poverty, these interviewees said, is hunger.

Globally, more than one billion people are hungry, and almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes every day. That’s one child every five seconds. In the United States, more than 14 percent of households struggle to put food on the table. Nearly one in four American children is at risk of hunger.

Most people think solving the problem of hunger is absolutely hopeless, an entrenched fact of life we can’t change. Trying to “end world hunger” seems quixotic, almost a bitter joke. But dramatic progress against hunger and poverty is possible – and there is evidence to prove it.

According to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty in developing countries – those living on less than $1.25 a day – dropped from 1.9 billion in 1980 to 1.4 billion in 2005.1 The fraction of the population living in extreme poverty dropped from one-half to one-quarter. The global economic crisis of 2008-2009 slowed progress against poverty, but the number of people in poverty is still below 1.4 billion.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which maintains the world’s official estimates on undernutrition, says that the number of undernourished people in developing countries declined from nearly one billion in 1970 to about 800 million in the mid-1990s.

Most people think solving the problem of hunger is absolutely hopeless. But dramatic progress against hunger and poverty is possible – and there is evidence to prove it.

Improvements in health and education have been unambiguous and dramatic. Twenty-six thousand children in developing countries die every day from preventable causes, but that tragic number has dropped from 55,000 daily in 1960.2

The ongoing suffering of millions of people around the world is terrible and requires our sustained attention and work, but it is important to identify where progress is being made.

Reducing Human Misery

Some of that progress stems from the work arising from the UN-sponsored Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the common goals countries share toward ending hunger and extreme poverty. Since the MDGs were adopted in 2000, many governments and people around the world have been using them to guide and measure their work – Bread for the World included. My organization focuses on hunger, but we understand that hunger is interconnected with the other aspects of poverty, so we have embraced the MDGs as a framework for our international advocacy. In the period from 2000- 2008, the MDGs helped inspire the industrialized countries to more than double the amount of their total development assistance from $53 billion to $121 billion.3

Although the MDGs serve to focus much of the world’s current development efforts, progress was already accumulating since the 1960s. The Green Revolution in Asia in the 1960s and the 1970s helped stave off massive famines in Asia as rice and wheat yields dramatically increased with new seed varieties and modern agricultural techniques. The Child Survival Revolution, led by UNICEF in the 1980s, resulted in a jump from 15 percent to an unprecedented 80 percent in the immunization rates for children all over the world. It also changed conventional thinking: instead of using infant and child mortality as measurements of a country’s development, a direct attack on mortality rates is now seen as an instrument of development.

Despite these advances against human misery, U.S. public reaction remains ambivalent. When the MDGs are described to Americans, about half of us find them inspiring. The other half regard the idea of a comprehensive, internationally agreed-upon strategy to reduce poverty as utopian. But if you ask about specific goals – letting all the world’s children go to school, for example – nearly all Americans are supportive.4

Where there is public resistance, the reasons are many. Other debates have crowded out development issues in the public discourse. Development is too often discussed in the abstract, not in human terms. And when goals are met or nearly met, we have often let our guards down – then a development problem we thought we had defeated a decade ago, like food production, is allowed to roar back into view again.

Misperceiving Foreign Aid

Previous successes have lulled us into a false sense of security. We need, frankly, to be better informed as citizens. When we asked the general public how much of our government’s budget is spent on foreign aid, their responses range from 10 percent to 25 percent annually. The reality is that we spend only about half of one percent of our national budget on foreign aid. This fact alone has activated our members to press for the reforms to make U.S. foreign aid more efficient, a campaign we started in 2009.

The UN has done a good job promoting the MDGs and monitoring how the world is doing in relation to the quantitative targets. I served on the Hunger Task Force for the UN’s MDG Project, led by Jeffrey Sachs, one of the world’s leading economists. The project developed strategies for achieving the goals, including estimates of what it would cost and how much of the cost could be borne by poor countries themselves.

Sachs concluded in 2005 that annual development assistance from the industrialized countries would need to increase by roughly $70 billion right away, with the increase rising to $130 billion by 2015.5 If the U.S. would provide a fourth of $130 billion (arguably our fair share for joint projects among the industrialized countries), the U.S. share of the cost would be roughly $33 billion.

Increased development assistance will not, by itself, cut world poverty in half and achieve the other MDGs. Hundreds of millions of poor people must – and will – work hard over many years. Corrupt governments need to be reformed or replaced. The quality of assistance and trade policies needs to improve. But the $33 billion figure gives us a rough idea of how much it would cost the U.S. to do its share to achieve the MDGs.

Despite remarkable advances against human misery, U.S. public reaction remains ambivalent.

Though progress on the goals has lagged far behind targets in some of the poorest countries and for some of the goals, the accomplishments of developing countries as a whole are striking:

  • The proportion of children under five years old who are underweight declined by one-fifth between 1990 and 2005.
  • Enrollment in primary school increased from 80 percent in 1991 to 88 percent in 2006. Much of this increase is because girls are now going to school.
  • The number of AIDS deaths fell from 2.2million in 2005 to 2 million in 2007, and the number of people newly infected declined from 3 million in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2007. 
  • Deaths from measles dropped by two-thirds between 2000 and 2006. The incidence of tuberculosis has stabilized or begun to fall in most regions. Malaria prevention is expanding rapidly.
  • 1.6 billion people have gained access to safe drinking water since 2001.6

If the pace of progress made against extreme poverty between 1990 and 2005 can be achieved for the decade between 2005 and 2015, the world will cut extreme poverty in half between 1990 and 2015. That is reason for hope.

People of faith are people of hope, and they have been instrumental in this work. The experience of Bread for the World and its partners over almost four decades demonstrates that faith-based advocates can change the lives of hungry and poor people.

Millions of Christians provide financial support, build schools and hospitals, provide food and medicine, and treat diseases all over the world. They work to address the systems and structures that perpetuate hunger and poverty, through advocacy organizations and by influencing their members of Congress. The U.S. government significantly affects the prospects of hungry and poor people worldwide, and we must shape how it deploys its massive resources and power.

The Politics of Hunger

I have come to see this generation’s promising struggle against hunger and poverty as a great exodus in our own time – the ambitious journey of achieving a new scale of success in meeting human need. Thousands of Christians and other peoples of faith are already engaged in this exodus, but we need more people to turn this exodus into a global movement and to hold governments’ feet to the fire so that we can change the politics of hunger.

In the biblical story of the Exodus, God did not send Moses to Pharaoh’s court to take up a collection of canned goods and blankets. God sent Moses to Pharaoh with a political challenge – to let the Hebrew slaves go free. Moses then led the Hebrew slaves in a great escape across the Red Sea and through a long wilderness journey toward the Promised Land.

God’s saving presence is at work throughout world history. May we draw strength from that as we work toward ending the suffering of hungry and poor people. 

David Beckmann ’70 B.A. is president of Bread for the World and a 2010 World Food Prize laureate. He is an economist and an ordained Lutheran minister. His new book, Exodus from Hunger: Changing the Politics of Hunger, will be published by Westminster John Knox in October.


1  Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion, “The Developing World Is Poorer Than We Thought, But No Less Successful in the Fight against Poverty,” Policy Working Paper (The World Bank, 2008). Also, conversation with Martin Ravallion, April 27, 2010.

2  United Nations Children’s Fund, State of the World’s Children 2008: Child Survival. http://www.unicef.org/publications/files/The_State_of_the_Worlds_Childre….

3 Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development, Development Assistance Committee, http://stats.oecd.org/wbos/Index.aspx?DatasetCode=ODA_DONOR. See also United Nations, The Millennium Development Goals Report 2009 (United Nations, 2009), p.48–49, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/MDG_Report_2009_ENG.pdf.

4 Lake Snell Perry & Associates, “Developing Messages about Humanitarian and Development Assistance,” April 2004, InterAction, Global Health Council, Bread for the World, and BetterSaferWorld, www.globalhealth.org/docs/summary_presentation.ppt.

5 U.N. Millennium Project, Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals (2005), http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/documents/overviewEngLowRes.pdf.

6 United Nations, The Millennium Development Goals Report 2008 and Addendum (United Nations, 2008).