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PBS Show Offers Reflection on Past and Present of Fighting Hunger

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This week I wrote an article on the Great Famine in Russia which started in 1921. The PBS show, “American Experience,” will air a documentary about the Great Famine on April 11 at 9pm eastern.

Viewers can witness one of the early and most remarkable episodes of American humanitarianism. There are also many parallels to today with nearly 1 billion people worldwide suffering from hunger.

In 1921 when Russia called out desperately for help, it was the American Relief Administration (ARA) that answered the call. Led by Herbert Hoover, the ARA fed the hungry during the World War I era and responded to the urgent needs of famished Russia.

Today, when countries have food emergencies, they look to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to provide aid. WFP is the largest humanitarian aid organization in the world. It relies on voluntary funding from governments and the public.

Right now, a humanitarian disaster is taking place in war-torn Libya. WFP is responding with food for the hungry. When massive flooding struck Pakistan last year, WFP rushed in emergency food aid and is continuing to fight hunger there. As Haiti recovers from the earthquake, it is WFP feeding over 1 million school children as it helps the government build capacity.

WFP faces many of the challenges the ARA did when providing relief to Russia. The ARA had to ship food across the ocean to Russian ports. A main headquarters and a system of district offices and warehouses had to be quickly organized. Food had to be transported inland using a railroad system fraught with peril. In some cases camels were used to move food through snowy conditions.

WFP has a massive logistics operation that delivers life-saving food to many corners of the globe. This might involve ships, small boats, trucks or airplanes. But it sometimes even involves yaks such as in the mountains of Bhutan. It may also be elephants, donkeys and camels too. WFP has to arrange warehouses to store food, and logistical hubs to organize delivery.

In Haiti, for instance, WFP prepositions supplies for the upcoming rainy season so whole communities will not get cut off from food if roads wash away. Like ARA, the WFP meets up with many logistical hurdles caused by weather, conflict, or lack of infrastructure.

For the ARA to feed Russia in 1921-1923, it needed funding from Congress as well as donations from the public. It required the cooperation of partner charities as well.

In 2011, Congress is working on a new federal budget in which international food aid has been drastically slashed. There are intensive efforts to restore this funding as it impacts millions of lives around the globe.

If funding cuts pass, then the World Food Programme will receive far less support from the United States.  Partner agencies such as Catholic Relief Services, World Vision and Save the Children will also receive less funding.

During the Russian famine, funding from Congress allowed surplus corn to be purchased from American farmers and sent to Russia. In addition, the ARA received help from partner charities who were each assigned areas of Russia to carry out relief.

With current relief work, partnerships on the ground are critical between WFP and charities. WFP, as an example, provides logistical support for the whole humanitarian community in different countries. This allows all kinds of relief supplies to reach their destination. Partner agencies will often distribute food purchased by WFP.

When the Great Famine airs on PBS, you will learn the history of American generosity. You will see the lead food ambassador, Herbert Hoover, proving leadership is needed to fight hunger. This story can set an example for what is needed to continue that great American tradition as the world’s hungry call out for help.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.