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Haverford Conversation: Ruth Messinger

For four decades, Ruth Messinger has been an agent for social change on a community, national, and global level. A graduate of Radcliffe College with a master’s in social work from the University of Oklahoma, she spent 20 years in public service for New York City, serving on the New York City Council and as Manhattan Borough President, and becoming the first woman nominated for NYC mayor by the Democratic Party in 1997. In 1998, she became president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a faith-based international human rights organization working to relieve poverty, hunger and disease in developing nations.

October 6-9, Messinger will come to Haverford as the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. Her visit is part of the President’s Social Justice Speaker Series, and is co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. She’ll address classes, meet with students, and deliver a talk called “Fighting Global Hunger in a World of Plenty: A Grassroots Approach” on Thursday, October 8 at 4:30 p.m. in Sharpless Auditorium. Recently, she shared her thoughts on the most effective ways to end hunger, empower women, combat genocide, and make a difference in the world today.

Haverford College: Tell us more about the American Jewish World Service’s “Fighting Hunger from the Ground Up” campaign. What needs to change for society to end global hunger?

Ruth Messinger: This campaign is essentially in recognition of work that we already do. About 80 of our over 400 small grassroots project partners try to improve agricultural yield, open up access to markets through farmer collectives, fight for farmer land rights, and look for and create improvements in water technology. A lot of good work that we’re already supporting in the field turns out to be about agriculture, nutrition and food security. We decided to make that a more explicit part of our work, and run a multi-year campaign on the importance of fighting hunger from the ground up, recognizing that this issue requires changes in both public policy and budgeting. The campaign is just rolling out, but it will include, on an ongoing basis, a great deal of educational material for our individual donor constituents and our much broader congregational and school constituencies.

Global hunger is a world problem that has significantly and dramatically increased in the last couple of years. Having more than a billion people go hungry when there’s enough food in the world to feed everybody is just unacceptable. In order to end global hunger, the world needs to decide that ending hunger is a basic human right. That would mean providing easier access to improved technology, significant investment in supporting local agricultural efforts, a long-term commitment to providing access to water in all of those parts of the world where there is little or no access, and an ongoing sensitivity to the needs of farmers in a particular country or area.

HC: The AJWS’s “Just Aid” initiative focuses on reforming U.S. foreign assistance, reducing red tape and putting the focus on alleviating poverty and protecting human rights. How can this be accomplished?

RM: U.S. policy interferes directly with the provision of sustainable food security in many parts of the world. Our first instinct is often to ship U.S. food surplus to a part of the world that’s in need, which we see as a boon to U.S. farmers and an assurance that people in other countries have food. But in fact, this shipment undercuts the capacity of local farmers to take the food they grow to market. This model of responding to an emergency hunger situation is not only unsustainable, but also destructive.

There’s an important Congressional commitment to a serious re-write of the foreign assistance bill. Among the issues that will come up when that happens is what kind of aid the U.S. provides, and how we provide it. We also need to address such questions as why the U.S. subsidizes the production of huge food surpluses by U.S. farmers, why we use that surplus and pay the tax dollars for its shipping. It’s not impossible to think that’s the correct response to some immediate situations; I’m not suggesting that we don’t respond, but I am saying that too often, that’s the level of the response. We need a change in U.S. policy that eliminates food dumping in poor communities around the world, where the provision of our surplus ends up being sold—not given away—at prices lower than what a local farmer could draw if she takes her food to market.

It’s a complex policy that will need a lot of attention, but I must reiterate that a child dies from hunger every six seconds, and there’s enough food in the world to feed everybody.

HC: How does the AJWS help to promote women as “critical drivers of community development and change” per one of the organization’s central tenets?

RM: We support the women who are making change: women who have put themselves into some sort of microfinance fund, and have now decided they want to learn to read, or women who are trying to figure out how they can always have the best options in their communities, maybe by trying to keep girls in school; research shows that an extra year of education for women in the developing world makes more change than anything else. We are delighted to see that women have started, and are running, many of these grassroots efforts and from our point of view, it’s obviously wise to support them.

HC: You have been very involved in trying to end the genocide in Darfur. What is the situation there now? How is AJWS working on this issue?

RM: Over the last five years, we’ve provided about $6 million of direct humanitarian aid on the ground in Darfur and in Chad, where it’s a little easier to respond right now because you don’t have the president of the country trying to stop aid from being delivered. We’ve also done a great deal of public policy advocacy, trying to get people to not only acknowledge the fact of a genocide, but to impose tougher penalties and sanctions on the government of Sudan. Right now we’re pushing the Obama White House pretty hard to develop and articulate their full Sudan policy, and we’re also working with many other Darfur advocacy organizations to be sure that the White House pushes the president of Sudan to enforce the provisions of the formerly negotiated peace agreement between North and South Sudan. Unless that agreement is really recognized and strengthened, worse chaos will break out again in Darfur.

HC: You see some pretty dire situations—extreme poverty, oppression, violence, disease, hunger—in your travels around the globe. What keeps you hopeful as you and your colleagues try to address these issues?

RM: The groups that we fund. We have a very unusual perspective because where we work, yes, there is a universe of problems and there are sometimes communities where, no matter how hard they try, disasters keep setting them back on their heels. But we’re working with some of the world’s best change agents in those countries: women who have found a way to take school to children who beg on the subway platforms of India, groups that are helping farmers form collectives, and pool their resources in order to make more money in the markets. What keeps me hopeful is that people always have vision and ideas about how to improve the quality of their own lives, and what they need is a combination of emotional, financial, and technical support to help them continue their work.

HC: What advice would you give emerging grassroots activists and agents of social change?

RM: Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep pushing the rock uphill. That’s the way change gets made every day.

Interview conducted by Brenna McBride

The ramp from Magill Library with Ryan Gym and Sharpless Hall in the background.

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