I’ve been an advocate for the world’s poorest citizens for almost twenty years. I’m fasting now because I have never felt as concerned about the future of our international assistance programs for the poor and hungry worldwide as I do today.
I am fasting because when we talk about the world’s hungry, we’re talking about women. Of every ten people going hungry today, six are women. They’re hungry not only because they’re the majority of the poorest people in the world, with the least access to schools, farmland and markets, but also because you can bet every mother out there will go to bed hungry before her child has to.
This week, I’m hungry not because I have to be, but because Congress is trying to make it even harder for the poor women and men who don’t have that choice.
I’ve witnessed firsthand the struggle of the ‘bottom billion’: people who have to survive on less than a dollar a day. I’ve tried it myself in Nicaragua, Burkina Faso, and Guatemala to really see what life is like on a budget like that. I quickly realized the painful choices women must make to feed their families when I was forced to forego meals in order to buy cold medicine my first day in Guatemala. I can’t imagine the sacrifice necessary when you have 10 mouths to feed instead of one.
With global food prices at an all-time high, there are more hungry women worldwide than ever facing increasingly tough decisions on how to feed their families. Just when it’s needed most, our lawmakers on Capitol Hill are considering slashing poverty-focused international assistance by almost half, even though these life-saving programs account for less than one percent of the federal budget.
Steep cuts to maternal and child health programs would mean that millions more women are at risk of dying in childbirth, and more children will contract malaria without mosquito nets to protect them. Cuts to basic education programs will mean that millions of girls will not go to school. Cuts to sustainable agriculture and hunger prevention efforts will mean even more children going to bed hungry.
Beyond costing millions of lives abroad, slashing foreign assistance will also hurt us at home. More hunger means greater desperation, and as we’re seeing right now in the Middle East, greater desperation means greater instability and violence. Failing to foster a stable and secure world outside our borders today means more troops going overseas tomorrow.
With these small investments, we could be creating a safer world for future generations and investing in our own financial wellbeing at the same time. Consider South Korea—poorer than most of sub-Saharan Africa just 50 years ago, U.S. assistance helped support the government and people of that nation to grow into the 8th largest market for American goods and services today. The world is a much smaller place than it used to be, and if we’re going to give our economy the boost it needs, we need more success stories like South Korea, not fewer.
Like all Americans, I want to see a balanced budget. Our country cannot float in a sea of red ink. But we make choices when we cut money in budgets, and it is not right to be focusing our cuts on programs that benefit those who do not have the means or voice to speak out against them in Washington—while not addressing much bigger costs. Today, the choice Congress faces is between letting the hungry go even hungrier, and putting aside a few pennies towards the federal deficit. From where I sit, the choice is not even up for debate.
Ritu Sharma is Co-Founder and President of Women Thrive Worldwide, which advocates for U.S. international policies that benefit the world’s poorest women and girls. www.womenthrive.org