June 10, 2013

Rev. John L. McCullough Addresses 2013 Bread Gathering

Rev. John L. McCullough: Bread Gathering 2013
We need people like YOU in the pews, in the community organizations, working for change. Don't lose heart. - Rev. John L. McCullough Photo: Robin Stephenson/Bread for the World

CWS President and CEO, the Rev. John L. McCullough, was asked to address a joint gathering of Bread for the World and Scaling Up Nutrition June 10. Download a PDF copy or read his full remarks below.

In the days of “Leave It to Beaver” a couple of common expressions were that children are made to be seen and not to be heard, and, children should speak only when they are spoken to. Fortunately America has matured in many ways since the 1950’s and 60‘s, and it has become a more sophisticated and complex society. Family and community life in America has changed, and we are challenged to be more consciously accepting of the many new ways in which they are being redefined as distinct from the Cleaver family and the world they knew. We live in a “post-Leave It to Beaver world”. Technology has advanced dramatically, and with it has come the opportunity to embrace the realities of a world much greater and broader than our own neighborhoods or the programmed images that television and radio would have us emulate. The quirky neighbors next door, the Eddie Haskell’s, are no longer our window to the world, and in fact few of us even know very much about our neighbors anymore. For many Americans, we live in times that are almost without limitation and boundary; and our ability in a digital age to gather information and share it in all kinds of venues and platforms helps to define who we are, and how we see and engage the world we live in, in ways most of us never could have imagined.

If anything, it is no longer acceptable for conversation to so easily be suppressed. Wouldn’t you agree that today children learn how to use mobile phones even before they learn the three “R’s”!

Many of the episodes of “Leave It to Beaver” centered around the table. There are two prominent expectations when people take a place at the table. One is the consumption of a good meal; and the second, is a lively conversation while doing so. The absence of either can cause the experience to be more than just a little disappointing. In fact, a bad conversation can ruin a good meal; and equally so, nothing makes a meal taste better than a really good conversation.

For too many of the world’s population, however, having a place at the table, let alone finding any food, or nutritious food on it is at best an uncertainty:

  • Almost 1 billion people in the world today are hungry. Almost 7 million children under 5 years old die each year of preventable causes -- 60 percent of them due to hunger and hunger-related diseases.
  • A billion people, one in seven are under nourished, and even more are over nourished.
  • Nearly 1 billion people still lack access to clean water and 2.5 billion people are without basic sanitation. Eighty percent of sickness in the developing world, and the deaths of 4,500 children daily, trace back to contaminated water and inadequate sanitation. 
  • There are tens of millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees worldwide, who are fleeing persecution or have been forcibly uprooted from their homes due to conflict or natural disasters, and often require humanitarian assistance to meet basic survival needs. 
  • The effects of climate change are already being experienced by impoverished communities around the world, as arable land and drinking water are undermined, conflicts arise and people are displaced from their homes.

Indeed, for many of the world’s population there may not even be a table. When there is, there isn’t enough food to feed their family and that, increasingly, when there is enough food it's unhealthy food. These are three huge negatives. As we gather around the Bread for the World table this is something we should have some lively conversation about.

No public policy issue is so important, so urgent, so deserving of our attention as hunger and malnutrition around the world. The reason is really quite simple: because every single day the survival of billions of our sisters and brothers remain at risk. And sadly, as recent reports of expanding hunger and food insecurity in the United States reveal, no one nation is exempt, even the most developed.

When it comes to accompanying the sustainable repatriation of Burmese refugees from the Thai border; advocating alongside the indigenous peoples of the Chaco for land rights and food security; partnering with the Feed the Future Initiative, and lunch programs in School Safe Zones; or promoting the 1,000 day campaign for a healthy start for the world’s children, the common denominator is that this work reflects the stories and lives of individuals and families helped by our intentional collaboration: as Church World Service, the U.S. Government, and the wide range of churches, organizations, and movements that are associated with Bread for the World. It is all about making our voices heard, and making our voices count.

Humanitarian organizations and churches are engaged in extensive relief and development efforts, all together providing billions of dollars in private funding for neighbors in need around the world. Common amongst the many faith traditions in the United States is the embraced responsibility: to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty; to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked; and to visit those in prison, the widows, orphans, and the poor. Faith communities are working. Do I think we have maximized our potential? Emphatically, “No!”  But even if we do, still the issue is of such a magnitude that we can’t do it all. In fact, neither can government; but governments part is so essential that without its continued investment in humanitarian and poverty-focused development assistance we would be talking about a lot more of us falling through the social safety net, including most of us in this room.

As a person of faith, I believe the future of this nation is intricately bound to the quality of our relationships with other nations. We cannot ignore their needs any more than we can afford for them to ignore ours. American hunger for independence has created greater dependency. Right now we are in the process of learning the lesson that compassion, common security, and concern for the prosperity of each other are critical characteristics of good neighborliness. As 6American people we may have a variety of frustrations with our government, but our government is not our enemy. Working in parallel with people of faith, the USG’s efforts have proven to be indispensable to the goal of saving lives and ending hunger. In our democracy and as “one nation under God” – government is a vital tool at our disposal, and it provides an effective means for us to get our act together, and for us to act together. If there is anything I have learned during my tenure with Church World Service, it is that people all over the political and socio-economic spectrum believe in the moral imperative to respond to hunger and poverty.

Often times when I ask friends about their Thanksgiving celebration they talk about the awful conversation they had with their family. Yes of course table talk can itself be disconcerting, depending on the range of views being expressed - and especially when politics are being espoused and debated - but we should not miss the good news in all of this, people are talking. We need to talk, even if we disagree, even if the views of others inflame feelings deep within us; because public policy is more than the purview of government, it is an expression about the values of a people. Family and public discourse is also about the intentional engagement of citizens in helping to shape and influence governmental policy. We need more people to be talking, not less; and people and communities that historically have felt disenfranchised or excluded from political process simply cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. Decisions are going to be made whether you participate or not; and I can think of no logical reason why any of us would believe that the best decisions for our lives, and those of our global neighbors, will ever be made if our voices are not heard.

The persistence of poverty is frankly perplexing, both in the United States and around the world as well. The abundance of resources at our disposal for fair and more equitable distribution of the essentials of life is astounding. No one should ever go hungry. Research has shown that virtually everyone on a personal level actually cares about this prevalence of poverty, but to the disadvantage of billions of people, few make their voices heard beyond the dinner table. As a result, government policy and appropriations have proven too woefully and shamefully insufficient. Without the public’s involvement at the table where these issues are debated, any bill emerging from the U.S. Congress for poverty-focused foreign assistance should immediately be stamped, “Insufficient Funds”. 

Insufficient, not because we can’t pay our bills, but because we are not committing nearly enough resources to actually win the war against global hunger. Presently, humanitarian and poverty-focused foreign aid only make up 0.6 percent of the total budget, and total foreign aid is barely over one percent. In fact, this is nothing new. Even during the time of the Marshall Plan (1947-52), described as the most effective of all American foreign aid plans, still only two percent of the federal budget was expended for foreign assistance. 

As a democracy and as “one nation under God “– government is a vital tool we have to act together as a people for the common good of our own people and of our neighbors around the world. We may have a variety of frustrations with our government, but our government is not our enemy; our silence is.  A member of Congress recently whispered to me about the importance of faith groups making their voices heard, and the need for strong and consistent advocacy. He was confiding in me that public discourse plays a vital role in shaping the political will.

International agriculture and food security programs and other forms of foreign assistance have received bi-partisan support in Congress and from Republican and Democratic presidents. They form an essential contribution to global human security and stability. It is a proven fact that US aid saves lives, helps people in need, and is a great investment:

  • Each year almost 4 million HIV-positive people with antiretroviral treatment and 200,000 babies are HIV-free by treating their mothers.
  • In 2012 more than 4 millions small scale farmers increased production because of the US Feed the Future program. This means more income for them and more food for their communities.
  • International Food Aid programs reached 66 million people in 2011, including 5.2 million school children. 
  • More than 1 million lives can be saved each year by funding programs that focus on adequate nutrition during the 1,000-day window from pregnancy to age 2.
  • Foreign aid is vital to global human security, as it helps avoid military conflict, save money, and lay the groundwork for future economic growth. By contrast, slashing foreign will create a vacuum in fragile nations.
  • Investing in other nations now reaps rewards for decades to come. Eleven of the 15 largest importers of American goods and services are former recipients of U.S. foreign assistance.
  • With the help of U.S. foreign assistance, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by 400 million since 1990. In the past 20 years, the number of children dying each year under the age of five from preventable or treatable conditions such as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, birth complications and newborn infections has fallen by 42 per cent. 

Advocacy has long been the premise for affecting real change. Think of it as ancient form of communication that has only increased in values over the millennia. It is the exact opposite of silence, which often times is conveniently interpreted as disinterest, or the result of people feeling disempowered. We intentionally use the language of advocacy, as distinct from lobbying, because it reminds us that we are standing for something of critical importance to children, women, and men; no matter how difficult it might be to even have the discussion.

It is not good enough for us to be seen, but not heard; and if we speak only when we have been spoken to, we are going to be waiting a long time; and at a human cost far too great for our hearts and our conscience to bear.