Jim Whitton knows exactly when he decided that being a banker wasn't for him. "In 1982 I was doing international banking in China, for Chase Manhattan. I went to this Ending Hunger briefing that went on for four hours, led by volunteers. It was by far the most educational moment of my life. It woke me up -- that it's possible to end hunger." (Here at HuffPo Living, we call this the "light bulb moment.") "I was a reluctant banker -- I was a history major in college. I wasn't very good [at banking], I didn't find it at all compelling. I knew it wasn't going to be what I did long-term."
I spoke with Whitton, Regional Director of the Hunger Project, a global initiative that aims to empower those living in abject poverty and starvation to feed themselves, without first world arrogance. After all, as their website explains:
"A dangerous and patronizing cliche we often hear is, 'Give a man a fish and feed him for a day -- teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.' People living with chronic hunger have generations of wisdom about 'fishing' -- the problem is the barbed wire around the lake."
Talking about the role that race and geo-political strife play in keeping people hungry, Whitton maintained, "What we've found is that people's dignity and sense of self and sense of equality is really so critical in the entire process. It's like a team sport, the lion's share is already and always been done by Africans, Indians and Bangledeshis, but we can always be on the same team, working together."
While race may seem to play a large part in what parts of the world are hungry and, without help, will stay hungry, Whitton patiently explained to me that no other force was more powerful in keeping people starving than deeply entrenched sexism, particularly in Greater Asia. "There is no social condition more primary to the persistence of chronic hunger than unimaginably severe discrimination against women and girls," says Whitton.
India is an amazing case in point. Most people are not aware that the highest level of malnutrition is in India, not Africa. Even with the a successful Green evolution India has - -they have GDP growth seven, eight, nine percent. But 46 % of their population is malnourished; in Africa, it's 30-35%. UNICEF conducted a report that was called 'Asian Enigma,' and what they concluded was that an extreme discrimination against women and girls was responsible.
Firstly, parents pray not to have a girl child - sons are currency. Girls leave and become laborers in their in-laws houses, so they bring in no money. If a girl is born, then she's breastfed 6-8 weeks less that brother, which compromises her immune system for the rest of her life.
Growing up, she eats with her mother and the other women in the family, after the boys and men, which means less food for her, even when food is already scarce. Eventually she'll be held back from school to labor in the fields, and all the health care will go to the boys, if there is any. When she enters puberty, when a girl needs it most, she gets the least medical attention. The she's married young, she's pregnant young, and gives birth to a malnourished child, usually pre-mature, and if it's a daughter the cycle continues."
This puts my getting ticked off about Axe Body spray adverts in perspective. You can watch a video about this cycle here.
In order to "empower" people to feed themselves, which seems to be a favorite word of The Hunger Project, in a sustainable, independent fashion, there has to be some level of infrastructure and relative peace. Because of this the Hunger Project is not in war zones:
"I love the Hunger Project's strengths, but also its humility. This work does not happen over night. It's a multi year process, some would say generational. We don't go into countries where there is an insufficient level of political stability. We're in India and Bangladesh, but we're not in Pakistan."
Speaking with Jim, I was fascinated by the emphasis he was placing on the big picture -- if India won't be able to feed itself until it thinks of women differently, then we need to focus on the national image of women. By backing political change ("like the civil rights movement in the US," says Whitton) the Hunger Project focused on the political empowerment of women as the best starting point to expose that entrenched misogynism. They supported a proposed amendment in the Indian constitution that reserved 1/3 of all seats in a decentralized councils for women. "Five million women stood for election," Whitton notes, pride evident in his voice. "One million were elected. So, in the last place on earth you would have thought it could happen, you have more women elected to office than the rest of the world combined."
But that wasn't enough. Just because these women were put into office doesn't mean that anything had changed, "No one took it seriously - and no one should have. These women were illiterate, they were only proxies for their husbands and their father-in-laws."
To empower these women to become their own leaders, the Hunger Project began a program that brought women together (for some, it was the first time they'd be able to gather with other women). 65,000 women have gone through the program.
Organizations like The Hunger Project show that not only is the empowerment of women necessary for sustainable relief and a pathway out of abject poverty, they also show that the future of activism and humanitarianism is a global approach to global issues Says Whitton, "In the past thirty years, we've seen a real growth in our understanding that we are not islands. Global is local. It's easier and easier to see that we're all in this together."
To see video about what the Hunger Project is doing, click here.