Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, leads the center’s work on religion and global development. She is also a professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion in the Walsh School of Foreign Service, teaching diverse courses on the ethics of development work and mentoring students at many levels. She helped to create and now serves as the executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, an NGO that works to enhance bridges between different sectors and institutions. Marshall has five decades of experience on a variety of development issues in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, particularly those facing the world’s poorest countries. She was a World Bank officer from 1971 to 2006, and she led the World Bank’s faith and ethics initiative between 2000 and 2006.
“Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” James 2:17
“Where is the moral outrage?” A questioner at a recent Washington event demanded some explanation for the seeming indifference in the United States to hunger that affects tens of millions of people in Africa and the Middle East. Is it lack of knowledge? Citizens numbed by an unending deluge of horrifying news? A hardening of spirit accompanying Americans’ turning inwards?
In February this year, the United Nations declared a famine emergency (for the first time since 2011). An estimated 20 million people are in imminent danger of starvation in four countries (Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria). Several nearby regions also face widespread hunger. The UN has been appealing for urgent funds; notwithstanding support from various governments, they are nowhere near the level of financing needed. That means that even those who receive help see cuts in their rations.
A “famine emergency” has a technical meaning, measured in shares of populations facing starvation and severe malnutrition. But focusing on the technical definitions can mask the human realities of misery, death, and lifelong effects. Children are dying relentlessly, one by one. With famine comes disease, notably a devastating cholera epidemic in Yemen. All four famine emergencies are directly linked to bitter and complex conflicts as well as drought. People are moving in vast numbers in search of food and safety.
These crises are not easily solved, something that partly explains the seeming numbness of the response. They demand sharp, sustained focus by different actors: political leaders, international organizations like the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Bank, and UNHCR (the refugee organization), bilateral programs like USAID, private organizations like World Relief, Islamic Relief, Save the Children, and Catholic Relief Services, conflict resolution specialists, and private companies.
Both muscular political will and public support are vital if this “silent tsunami” of distant suffering is to win the fierce global competition for priority. The suffering is real and at a scale difficult to imagine, but because it is prolonged, dispersed over large and dangerous areas, and far from capitals, it is too easily forgotten. But the crises are horrific and dangerous, both in the short and the longer term. They should have top priority.
Among those who can and must respond are religious bodies. They share deeply held, ancient calls for compassion and action. Feeding hungry people is at the heart of what faith demands.
The famine emergency has indeed galvanized the attention of diverse religious institutions and leaders across the world. In the United States, where budget battles rage on Capitol Hill, a diverse coalition reminds lawmakers that acting on hunger is a deeply religious call and obligation, one at the heart of American values. Congress, with bipartisan support, has responded to this call. Fund-raising campaigns are in full force. The World Council of Churches, with several partners, organized a World Day of Prayer on May 21 that involved over a billion people. And a gathering in Nairobi in late June updated religious leaders on what was happening and identified paths to action: “It is our prophetic witness to overcome hunger, to sustain peace, justice and the care for creation, in the Horn of Africa and in all places…. We pray that God grants us the faith, hope and love to follow through with this Call to Action!”
When world leaders met first at the G7 meeting in Sicily, then the G20 in Hamburg, there were calls to action on the famine emergencies from groups where religious voices were prominent, though through the fog of priority agendas this topic did not receive the attention it deserved.
Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other leaders call repeatedly for action and have mobilized significant resources. Sadly security concerns forced the Vatican to postpone the Pope’s planned visit to South Sudan.
More broadly, religious communities are moving towards more concerted action on the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2, which calls for achieving Zero Hunger by 2030. Religious leaders from many traditions and the world’s leading interreligious and ecumenical organizations, each from a different perspective, offer a powerful combination of daily action (for example through soup kitchens and humanitarian programs) and advocacy. Organizations like Caritas Internationalis, World Vision, Islamic Relief Worldwide, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, and Tzu Chi provide food relief and support food security policies including nutrition and smallholder farmers programs. Bread for the World, a US faith-inspired coalition, is a powerful advocate for action against hunger.
The case to involve religious communities centrally and purposefully in national and international responses to the famine emergency and to the Zero Hunger challenge is compelling. Interfaith action on SDG 2, highlighted as part of the global agenda, can save lives, help revive a shared sense of common values, and speed progress towards Zero Hunger.