Celebrating 40 years of ending hunger and unleashing the human spirit
by Connor Lie-Spahn
This past weekend, 16 FeelGooders came to New York City to celebrate The Hunger Project’s 40th Anniversary at their annual Fall Event. The Fall Event is always a highlight of the year for many FeelGooders–an opportunity to connect with our partner organization, hear some of the stories of ending hunger and unleashing the human spirit from the people experiencing the transformation themselves, and of course, dance our hearts out on the banks of the Hudson at the end of the Gala. Get a FULL recap on the Fall Event celebrations here. But I must confess, something felt weird about saying we are “celebrating” 40 years of The Hunger Project. I mean…that’s a long time! And the longer that time gets, the more tragic it is that this project of ending world hunger only seems to persist, right?
This celebration also comes as the NYTimes reports that, for the first time in the last several decades, the number of people living in conditions of extreme poverty has actually increased, from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016. In other words, the progress that we have all seen in development over the past few decades, the progress we as a movement have pointed to as a reason to be optimistic about the future, is beginning to be undone. The report points to two primary causes of this reversal, and it’s no surprise to us here at FeelGood: climate change and geopolitical instability. And if recent history (from hurricanes to famines to wars) provides any hint at what’s to come, we can only imagine this decline may be the new direction of things to come.
Of course, it’s not like this contradicts the message FeelGood and our partners have been putting out in the last few years, urging all of our stakeholders that, despite the progress, it is all vulnerable progress that is at serious risk of unravelling due to climate change and geopolitical instability. But just because it comes at no surprise doesn’t mean it’s not extremely disheartening to see that this is already proving to be true!
But it’s important to be present to the incredible progress that our partner organizations have made in recent years, despite this news. Just last year, The Hunger Project declared 15 epicenters self-reliant and reached many other milestones. The FeelGood trip to Peru with CHOICE Humanitarian this summer demonstrated that, in spite of catastrophic flooding in northern Peru, the communities there that had worked with CHOICE were more resilient than they otherwise would have been. In other words, our work and our partners ARE making a difference, and the bad news would be MUCH worse if it were not for the Commitment 2030 Fund organizations.
Indeed, the locations where progress has been stopped or reversed are in countries our partner organizations do not work, namely: Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. What opportunities does this news create for FeelGood to expand our partnerships to address poverty in further, darker corners of the world? To take on climate change more directly? To advocate for peace and prosperity more systematically? To me what feels clear the more I reflect on all of this is how badly we all need to stay grounded in the importance of this work! Don’t let up, and most importantly don’t give up. Keep the commitment.
The Hunger Project’s Executive VP John Coonrod spent Saturday morning walking us through four decades of THP’s history, going year by year talking about the progress and growth they experienced each year starting in 1977. What I learned from this presentation that I hadn’t realized before was that back in the 70s there were catastrophic famines almost every year that claimed the lives of millions of people: the Sahel Drought (’72), Ethiopian famine (’73), Bangladesh famine (’74), Cambodian famine (’75). This was the context in which The Hunger Project was formed, and they quickly learned that in order to address famine, we needed to address the underlying root causes that made communities so vulnerable to such catastrophes in the first place. Thus, THP’s revolutionary approach to ending hunger, which famously had nothing to do with simply giving people food, was born. The Hunger Project would become one of the leading organizations in the world doing gender-focused, community-led development by the 90s.
In that light, I see that there is something to celebrate here on the 40th anniversary of The Hunger Project: it is a moment to celebrate our movement of people who are taking a stand for the end of hunger and making a commitment, against all odds and despite what society tells us about the feasibility and the importance of it. That stand is certainly something worth celebrating — not to pat ourselves on the back, but to honor our commitment and re-ground ourselves in it so we can move forward with increased effort. Take a moment this week to think about how long you’ve been involved in this work yourself and to somehow celebrate your sustaining commitment to a world that works for all; how significant it is to take such a stand when you could be doing anything else with your life, your time in college or as an alum, your weekends, your capacity and resources. You will never know the massive impact you’ve had on an individual and global level, but we are all pieces of a puzzle that is incomplete without you. So make no mistake: this 40+ year hunger project has a hope because of you and the FeelGood movement.