Joan Holmes, The Hunger Project and the Millennium Development Goals: A Global Citizen's Briefing

October 22, 2005


Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight we have the opportunity to open our hearts and minds to the 1.1 billion members of our family who live in abject poverty – the 1.1 billion women, children and men who live on less than $1 a day.

The vast majority live in the rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

For a lot of the world our brothers and sisters who live in abject poverty just don’t exist. They are in many ways invisible. Ignored. Bypassed. Forgotten.

If they exist at all they exist as objects of charity or sympathy or as a motto for a political campaign.

National policies rarely take them into account, international aid doesn’t reach them, and they have absolutely no place at the table when decisions are made that affect their lives.

Mothers and fathers living in abject poverty are just like mothers and fathers everywhere. They work hard every day to make a better life for their children.

The difference is in their case they work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week for their entire lifetime. They live without safe water, without sanitation and they have almost no access to healthcare. This struggle to survive is an everyday confrontation.

And yet, against all odds they keep the majority of their babies and infants alive.

Our brothers and sisters live in remote areas where the schools are too far away and the school fees too high. And yet, against all odds they send the majority of their children to at least primary school.

Separate the conditions in which they live from the people themselves and you’ll discover that the people are innovative. They’re creative. They’re intelligent. And they’re courageous.

Separate the conditions in which they live from the people themselves and you’ll be inspired by their ability. Their resilience. Their strength. And their unyielding determination day-by-day, hour-by-hour to create a better life for their children.

If you ever have the opportunity to meet with them you’ll come away with a genuine respect and you’ll have some idea of the contribution they could make to their families, their communities and to the world if they just had a chance.

The Millennium Development Goals

Today for the first time in history, our community of nations is giving them that chance. For the first time in history, ending abject poverty is on the world’s agenda as a priority. Our global community of nations is committed to a comprehensive set of goals.

The Millennium Development Goals are the world’s time-bound and quantified targets for addressing extreme poverty in its many dimensions while promoting gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability.

The world’s never had a framework like the Millennium Development Goals  And it’s this framework that every individual on the planet needs to know in order to participate potently as global citizens.

In all there are 8 goals. Let’s look at them one by one.

  • 1.1 billion people live in abject poverty. 852 million people are undernourished. And so the first goal is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
  • There are 121 million children out of school, the majority girls. And so this intention is to achieve universal primary education.
  • The third goal is to promote gender equality and empower women. And from my point of view this is the most fundamental issue.
  • 30,000 children a day, most from the developing world, die before their fifth birthday. So our next goal – reduce child mortality.
  • One of the most egregious injustices in the world is maternal mortality. This reflects the low status of women in society. In the industrialized countries one woman in 4,000 dies in childbirth. In Africa, it’s one in 16. Finally, the planet has a goal to improve maternal health – goal number 5.
  • More than 20 million people have died of HIV/AIDS. 39 million are living with it, and more than 13,000 people become infected each and every day. And with malaria, more than 300 million people are infected, with at least one million deaths a year. So our sixth goal is to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and a host of other diseases.
  • Twenty-five percent of the population in developing countries do not have access to safe drinking water. Sixty-four percent have no access to adequate sanitation. Number 7 – ensure environmental sustainability.
  • It will take potent, decisive, and coordinated action from both the developed and the developing world to end extreme poverty in its many dimensions. And therefore our final goal is to create a global partnership for development.


Now let’s take a look at the main challenges to meeting the Millennium Development Goals. The foremost challenge: gender.

Here’s the deal: if women had not been for centuries and were not still subjugated, marginalized, and disempowered, leaders from more than 150 countries would not have met at the United Nations, and you and I wouldn’t be here tonight trying to figure out how to meet peoples’ basic needs.

When we look at the Millennium Development Goals, they’re not just gender related. Gender inequality is often the root cause of the problem.

There’s now universal agreement that the single most important intervention for development is the education of girls. All studies indicate that when girls and women are empowered, these are the results: faster economic growth, less corruption in governance, there’s lower childhood malnutrition, there’s lower child mortality, we have increased agricultural production and we have more children in school including girls.

In other words, the overall health and wellbeing of a society is greatly improved.

The UN Hunger Task Force, on which I was privileged to serve, concluded that gender equality must be put into practice if the hunger goal, and all the other goals, are to be met.

Now, there are some other main challenges and I want to break them down by region.

Latin America — Indigenous people

As far as Latin America is concerned, only 10% of the population lives in abject poverty, and reducing poverty to that level is an extraordinary accomplishment.

That 10% is almost entirely comprised of indigenous and Afro-descendant people who are routinely excluded from full participation in society. This denies them the opportunities to end their own hunger and to build lives of self-reliance and dignity.

So the challenge for Latin America is to ensure equal rights and opportunities for indigenous and Afro-descendant people.

South Asia — Gender

The challenge for South Asia is gender inequality. South Asia has the most severe subjugation, marginalization, and disempowerment of women in the world.

They’ve got more than enough food and yet the rates of low birth weight babies and severe child malnutrition are twice as high as in Africa and the reason is the severe inequality between men and women.

Action has to be taken to correct this unparalleled violation of human rights. Governments have to enforce laws (already on the books) that guarantee women their equal rights, their safety, education, health and their opportunity for income.

Africa — Leadership

In Sub-Saharan Africa the challenge is leadership.

Forty-six percent of Africa’s people live in abject poverty. Even though Africa has abundant natural resources and is blessed with a vibrant, resilient, and resourceful people, the majority of Africans are worse off today than they were at the beginning of independence more than 40 years ago.

It is shocking to realize that in 2005 rural Africa lacks even the most rudimentary physical infrastructure. There are virtually no health centers, no adequate classrooms, no roads to get from the village to the market, too little safe water and an almost total lack of sanitation. These are services that the governments can and should be providing.

There is corruption in virtually every part of the world but in Africa it’s particularly devastating. Corruption costs African economies more than $148 billion a year.

What’s missing is leadership – leadership committed to the well-being of their people.

Yes, there are notable exceptions but the truth is there’s no region of the world where there is a bigger disconnect between the political leaders and the people. And it is this disconnect that condemns millions of African men, women and children to lives of despair.

Leaders need to stop the corruption. They need to invest in their people and free up the environment so a civil society can thrive.

What’s needed now is to have political leaders and government bureaucrats upgrade their own leadership to match the strength, courage, resilience and the aspirations of their people.

Only Africans can lead Africa. Only Africans can shape Africa.

The developed world - aid, trade and debt

Now let’s turn to the developed world where the issues are aid, trade and debt.


I think we need to ask ourselves “Why do we give aid?” Well it’s because countries can really use and often absolutely need aid to get themselves on the first rung of economic development and on the path to self-reliance.

If there is enough aid used well, that’s what needs and wants to happen.

We need to give aid in a way that avoids paternalism and corruption, and in a way that doesn’t foster dependency, and ensures that leaders and governments are accountable to their own people, not beholden to the donors.

Development aid is not a long-term solution but at this point in history increased, effective and improved aid is absolutely necessary.


Worldwide development, particularly in the developing countries, can be stimulated by trade – vibrant and fair trade. One of the major obstacles to that is high subsidies for farmers in wealthy countries.

Here’s how it works: A cotton farmer in the United States produces a pound of cotton for 70 cents whereas a West African farmer produces it for 45 cents. The West African farmer should have the advantage but subsidies allow the US farmer to sell the cotton for way under production costs.

There’s about 20,000 cotton farmers in the US – many of them are large corporations. On average, the government pays them $200,000 a year. That’s a total of about $4 billion. The 10 million cotton farmers in West Africa who work 16 hours a day to earn $400 a year can in no way compete with the US subsidized farmers.

Rich countries spend $300 billion a year on farm subsidies.

There are high hopes that at the December meeting of the World Trade Organization a specific date will be set at which time agricultural subsidies will be reduced.

What’s needed is to have wealthy countries make these hopes a reality – to set the date and to have that date be as soon as possible.


Heavily indebted poor countries spend more on servicing their debt to wealthy countries than on health, education and social services combined. The Millennium Project calls for debt cancellation appropriate to meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

The Hunger Project would support the total forgiveness of debt for all African countries if every dollar not spent on debt repayment would be spent to meet the basic needs of people.


Ladies and gentlemen, The Hunger Project is committed to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. For our part, we’ve established a profound partnership with the oppressed, the subjugated, the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the disempowered. In The Hunger Project these are our partners.

When the governments of Africa gave no support to the women who grow 80% of the food, and the banks would not give them loans to improve their farms, The Hunger Project invested in them with a credit and training program. Their farms improved; their lives improved; the loan repayment rate is 98%.

When the government of India for the first time in 5,000 years mandated that women serve on village councils but provided them no support for their success, The Hunger Project invested in the newly-elected women. These women are now leaders impacting the lives of more than 12 million people.

When foreign aid flooded Bangladesh and created a culture of dependency, passivity, resignation, The Hunger Project created a program to transform this resignation to a spirit of “It can be done and I can do it!” The Hunger Project has mobilized over two million women and men – mobilized them to take self-reliant action to end their own hunger.

When economic progress in Latin America bypassed the indigenous people, The Hunger Project empowered them with information and skills. They now have voice in their governments and access to resources that are rightfully theirs.

Individuals, when they are given opportunities rather than obstacles, when they are seen as the solution not the problem, when they are recognized as the key change agents not beneficiaries, and when they are embraced as full citizens rather than relegated to second class status – then they end their own hunger – then they get out of the poverty trap and build lives of self-reliance and dignity.

In the final analysis, ending hunger and abject poverty is not a matter of charity. It is a matter of social justice. And so it is the privilege of The Hunger Project to embrace the people living in poverty, embrace them as our partners and as our brothers and sisters.

We are grateful for the opportunity to work with them and to invest in them always knowing that it is they who do the lion’s share of the work to improve their lives and the lives of their children, their communities and their world.