Project aims to eradicate hunger around the world

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 18, 2011

By Kathy Chaffin
Center for the Environment
SALISBURY — Dr. John Coonrod, executive vice president of The Hunger Project, encouraged the 70-plus people gathered at the Center for the Environment facility Tuesday evening to “sustain their enthusiasm” in working to eradicate hunger and other problems in the world today.
“It is really easy in this world and in this media environment that we live in to get depressed,” he said, “but I tell you, the world can’t afford for you to do that. We really need to keep ourselves up for this.”
Coonrod said it’s easier for him to stay optimistic because he gets to travel all over the world and see what is being done to better humanity. “History is being made,” he said. “Hundreds of millions of people are moving out of poverty. Women who have been denied their rights for generations are finding their voices and standing up …”
In some 35,000 villages around the globe, Coonrod said, Hunger Project staff and trained volunteers carry out the organization’s mission — the sustainable end of world hunger — using three strategies: “mobilization for self-reliance; empowering women; and partnering with local government.”
The women in these impoverished villages, he said, “day by day solve more problems than I probably have to face in my lifetime … ” Yet, Coonrod said, they have a sense of powerlessness, hopelessness and a pattern of waiting to be rescued that’s deeply ingrained in them.
“So the first step has to be the awakening of people to the possibility of taking charge of their own lives,” he said.
The Hunger Project does that through a “Vision, Commitment and Action Workshop,” where villagers come up with their own creative vision and discover their abilities to create it. Coonrod said the organization’s representatives help prepare villagers to launch into action, stepping back to allow them to succeed at that first action with no outside help.
In doing this, however, Hunger Project staff and volunteers find that the men inevitably charge ahead and the women stay behind. “We learned in this study by UNICEF that this treatment of women is not just sad and terrible injustice,” he said. “It’s also the root cause of most of the hunger in the world.”
Little girls in India, for example, the country which Coonrod said accounts for the largest number of the 925 million people living in conditions of chronic hunger today, are taught to be last. “They’re kept out of school to help with the home,” he said. “They have children before their bodies are fully developed …”
And because half of child nutrition begins in the womb, Coonrod said the empowerment of women is crucial to the sustainable end of world hunger. The Hunger Project addresses the deeply entrenched gender issue in every impoverished village with which it works. “We’ve trained hundreds of thousands of women around the world to not only have a voice,” he said, “but to be organized … to be leaders in their villages and to be key change agents in the process of development.”
The third strategy, he said, involves teaching villagers to hold their own local government officials accountable, while at the same time training local government officials to be responsible and forge partnerships with the people they represent.
Coonrod asked people in the audience what image the word, “hunger,” conjured up in their minds.
“Starving children,” several responded.
“Starving children waiting in lines for bowls of gruel,” Coonrod responded in agreement. “That does tragically still happen, but that accounts for less than 8 percent of the hunger-related deaths in our world. Ninety-two percent of those deaths are from chronic, persistent hunger that looks like this …”
He moved to the next photo on his PowerPoint presentation showing a young woman working in the fields with an archaic-looking hoe, while carrying her baby in a cloth harness on her back. “A mother …” he said, describing her, “pregnant with her second, probably 15 or 16 years old. She’s never had a chance to go to school. She’s never had a chance to see a doctor.
“She’s growing all the food her family eats using tools that haven’t been improved for more than 1,000 years. She’s pushed onto marginal land by organizations, and one of the most important things about her is she is a food farmer.”
Coonrod said the vast majority of people in the world today are themselves food farmers so sending food to them — which is the first impulse of people wanting to help — is counterproductive because it lowers the price for them to earn for whatever surplus they can produce.
What The Hunger Project does instead, he said, is teach them to be successful farmers using such techniques as planting trees among farm crops to capture carbons taken out of the atmosphere and reduce the drudgery for women who in the past, have had to walk three to four hours to find firewood.
Drip irrigation for parched areas is another way the organization helps food farmers increase yields as well as micro-dose fertilizer placed in the seed hole upon planting.
Coonrod said The Hunger Project also brings together clusters of villages within walking distance, providing materials for villagers to build their own epicenters with a central food bank, microfinance institution and other programs to help meet their basic needs.
About 1.8 million people in eight African countries have access to epicenter facilities and programs. The 115 epicenters serve people in more than 3,000 villages.
The Hunger Project also has 7,000-plus epicenters in India, Coonrod said, along with more than 630 in Bangladesh. The organization has also helped create epicenters in Mexico and Peru.
For more information on The Hunger Project, log onto its website at or contact Regional Director Jim Whitton — who grew up in Salisbury and arranged for Coonrod to speak at the Center — at 806-236-7371.