Between Bites of Steak, Pledging to End World Hunger

World leaders will gather this coming week at the United Nations and proclaim their passion for ending poverty and hunger around the globe.

In that week, approximately 90,000 children under the age of 5 will die, mostly of preventable causes.

As leaders discuss their goal to end hunger, over steak, children will be starving — to the point that 148 million will be forever stunted from malnutrition.

Then, after a flurry of cocktail parties, the leaders will clap one another on the back, congratulate themselves for confronting global needs and go home to fret about their waistlines.

OK, that’s a bit unfair: Some leaders do genuinely work to address these issues. If I sound dyspeptic, it’s because over the decades I’ve watched so many of these U.N. sessions with their motorcades and $1,000-a-night suites, and I haven’t seen nearly enough of the hard work and difficult commitments that save children’s lives, ease hunger and end atrocities. Sometimes it feels like an annual orgy of hypocrisy.

In 2015, at this United Nations gathering, leaders embraced “sustainable development goals” — such as “no poverty” and “zero hunger” — that they pledged to achieve by 2030. Now we’re more than halfway to the deadline, and it’s clear we’re going to miss these goals by a mile. Millions will needlessly die as a consequence.

When the goals were adopted, the U.N. secretary general at the time, Ban Ki-moon, pronounced them “a defining moment in human history.”

The British prime minister, David Cameron, outlined the mission: “to reduce preventable deaths to zero, to eliminate illiteracy and malnutrition and to eradicate extreme poverty.”

Jim Yong Kim, then the World Bank president, proclaimed that all this “will be one of humankind’s greatest achievements.”

Results have not matched the rhetoric. In an update on the sustainable development goals, the U.N. says that progress toward 80 percent of the targets has been “weak,” “stalled” or “gone into reverse.”

Instead of ushering in “zero poverty,” the year 2030 is now forecast to have 575 million people living in extreme poverty. Instead of ending illiteracy, the world is on track to have 84 million children out of school in 2030.

We were also supposed to end child marriage by 2030. Oops. The U.N. now warns that this may take 300 more years.

The sustainable development goals were unrealistic; they were never going to be fully achieved. After all, we still allow child marriage in 41 states here in America (to our shame).

Lofty goals could be forgiven if they inspired progress, but I worry that they were sometimes less a spur to action than a substitute for it. Yes, the pandemic created setbacks, but let’s be honest: We dropped the ball.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was an excitement about overcoming global poverty. Global organizations were formed to promote vaccines and fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Bleeding hearts from left and right worked together to save lives. Bono caught the spirit in a powerful 2004 commencement speech proclaiming that “we can be that generation that says no to stupid poverty.”

That passion brought results: Since 2000, the share of the world’s people living in poverty has plunged by more than 70 percent.

The excitement has faded. Countries turned inward, and leaders moved on (That includes the news media; count this column as self-criticism.) There has been progress since 2015, but not nearly as much as was possible.

The failures aren’t only in the rich countries. Sudan has collapsed into a maelstrom of killing and rape, which amplifies poverty. Ethiopia’s leader — a Nobel Peace Prize winner, no less — has presided over mass atrocities while making plans for a palace that may cost $10 billion.

We know what to do. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has outlined a path to save the lives of some two million mothers and children over a decade. We have the tools and experience; we lack the resources and political will.

“Successes in nutrition show what’s possible, making failure to go to scale even more unacceptable,” Shawn Baker of Helen Keller Intl told me.

Developed countries quietly dropped their bold promises to increase aid. The World Food Program faces such funding shortfalls that it has had to cut 10 million hungry Afghans from food support.

“Now we need to make choices about who still gets food and who not,” Hsiao-Wei Lee of the World Food Program in Afghanistan told me. “How do I tell a mother with a hungry child on her hand that her family will not receive any assistance anymore, that her child may not be hungry enough?”

It’s maddening to see leaders proclaiming in ringing tones their passion for humanitarian goals that they don’t actually work to achieve. Instead, we could have a week of silence to honor those 90,000 children who will die during these festivities.

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