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ELCA World Hunger

Bad News/Good News

Does it seem like each morning’s news brings a report about another global disaster? In my darkest “oh-no-not-another one” moments, I just want to turn the TV off, push the paper away, and set my internet news pop-ups to “entertainment only.”

But I can’t totally disengage. Even if I really wanted to, my colleagues and our ELCA doesn’t let me. News clippings sent inter-office, phone calls from pastors, gifts sent in by children with prayerful notes… all bring me back to the reality of our broken world.

Of course, there’s another reality as well, and that’s the promise of God’s abundance. I’m reminded of this as I read budget reports detailing spending plans for the overwhelming generosity we received last year for ELCA World Hunger Appeal. My World Hunger/Global Mission colleagues had made spending plans based on a modest increase in giving, but certainly didn’t know that an additional $2.5 million would arrive at the very end of the year! What amazing generosity sent on behalf of our neighbors- near and far- who live with hunger and poverty!

Many of these “surplus” plans focus on our response to the global food crisis, one of those awful ongoing disasters we hear about so frequently (read more and give here). Our gifts to ELCA World Hunger help alleviate this crisis through a two-pronged approach. First, we are providing funds to our partners for emergency food and other relief efforts. But even more importantly, we have made a concerted effort to invest in long-term sustainable development that will help our partners help communities better withstand the ups and downs of the food market. For example, because of the generous giving to the World Hunger Appeal last year, we were recently able to make a special gift to the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church to provide tools, supplies and irrigation for a community to grow nutritious produce for their use and for market. In the long-term, this will have a far greater impact that food relief alone, and we are grateful to be able to make this special gift possible through our companion church.

So, on the next bad news day, when I just want to pull the metaphorical (and literal) covers over my head… I’ll remember that God truly is at work in our world. God’s work. Our Hands. Thanks be to God!

Garment factories as role models?

I’ve decided to go out on a limb today. I’m writing about something I probably have no business writing about. I apologize in advance to all whom I offend with my ignorance, and I welcome your comments and corrections. But I’m curious about something: How should businesses (globally) respond to the food crisis? And what should we ask and expect of them?

My question arises from an article I read today on the BBC International web site about garment factory owners in Bangladesh. Factory owners there have started to distribute subsidized rice to their lowest paid workers as food prices force people to skip meals and some food groups. The government is doing something similar, but government purchasing locations are only open during working hours, so factory employees haven’t been able to participate.

I also learned that the garment industry accounts for 3/4 of Bangladesh’s export income. In my mind, that ranks the importance of the garment industry close to that of the government’s in some ways.

At this point you may be thinking, “Why don’t the factory owners just pay their employees a living wage and give them the time off work they need?” Certainly the thought crossed my mind, too, and certainly the companies aren’t acting from pure altruism when they subsidize rice for their employees. People who don’t get enough to eat, and who need to wait in government lines during the day, will be less productive and have increased absenteeism. That’s bad for business, especially when you’re competing with China, India, Vietnam, and other low-cost locations. What’s more, since the garment industry is such a huge part of Bangladesh’s economy, slowing its production and growth would cause even more problems, at least in the short term (though there’s certainly an argument to be made for longer-term diversification). And it won’t help a factory worker to lose his job in order to stand in line for cheaper rice. So even if these garment factories are not doing all they could do, and even if their motives are displeasing, they are bringing relief that’s not otherwise available.

So I ask myself, if businesses and industry have power and resources, and also have an interest in keeping people healthy, working, and buying their products, why are they not a larger part of the conversation about addressing the food crisis? At a minimum, people spending more of their income on food will have less to spend on other products and services. At worst, people who are starving will not be coming to work, and the business or industry will falter. Yet most of the reporting I hear involves the responses of government, globabl political bodies like the UN and WTO, and not-for-profits. That’s why today’s BBC article caught my eye – it seemed unusual. Buy why? Where are the voices of business and industry? Perhaps they are there, and I just haven’t been reading or listening to the right things (entirely possible!). But I also wonder if we don’t somewhat overlook the business sector when we look for solutions. Perhaps our initial reaction to a crisis should be not only “What are governments doing?” but rather, “What are governments doing and how are businesses assisting or complementing those efforts?” And then we should expect a real answer.