What are the best books on...

Politics & Society

The best books on Hunger

recommended by Roger Thurow

The Wall St Journal reporter and member of The Chicago Council For Global Affairs talks on Hunger. Selects illuminating further reading on the subject including a technical analysis of micro-lending as well as the Bible

Roger Thurow

Roger Thurow joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs as senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy in January 2010 after three decades at The Wall Street Journal. He is the editor and principal contributor to the Council’s Global Food for Thought blog, part of the Global Agricultural Development Initiative. For 20 years he served as a foreign correspondent, based in Europe and Africa. In 2003, he and Journal colleague Scott Kilman wrote a series of stories on famine in Africa. Their reporting on humanitarian and development issues was honoured by the United Nations. Thurow and Kilman are authors of the recent book ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.  In 2009 they were awarded Action Against Hunger’s Humanitarian Award. 

Save for later

Roger Thurow

Roger Thurow joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs as senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy in January 2010 after three decades at The Wall Street Journal. He is the editor and principal contributor to the Council’s Global Food for Thought blog, part of the Global Agricultural Development Initiative. For 20 years he served as a foreign correspondent, based in Europe and Africa. In 2003, he and Journal colleague Scott Kilman wrote a series of stories on famine in Africa. Their reporting on humanitarian and development issues was honoured by the United Nations. Thurow and Kilman are authors of the recent book ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.  In 2009 they were awarded Action Against Hunger’s Humanitarian Award. 

Save for later
 

Tell me about The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century by Gordon Conway.

Gordon was the President of the Rockefeller Foundation, and earlier the Rockefeller Foundation had been one of the backers of the original green revolution, started by Norman Borlaug, a plant breeder from Iowa. This book basically takes a look beyond the green revolution and at what needs to happen next in terms of securing food supplies and ending hunger. So, it explores the next stage of the agricultural revolution that must go beyond just responding to demand and has to take into account both productivity and natural resource management.

I’m incredibly ignorant and don’t even know about the green revolution, so will you tell me about that first?

Sure. The green revolution was in the 50s and 60s and at that time the epicentre of hunger and famine was in Asia, in India and Pakistan. There was tremendous hunger in that part of the world. Norman Borlaug, from Iowa, was working for a research institute in Mexico, developing and working on wheat strains to help the agriculture productivity in Mexico. This was end of the World War II period and these new strains were coming to fruition as this horrible hunger and famine was going on in the subcontinent, and he decided that these wheat strains might be just what they needed over there. So they did indeed take his seed technology to India and Pakistan and that took off and really helped the small farmers, increased their yields and, within a reasonably short time in terms of agriculture, those countries became fairly self-sufficient and made progress on hunger and malnutrition and became emerging agriculture powers. The green revolution spread to other countries in Asia and to Latin American but never got to Africa for various reasons – we go through all this in our book. One criticism that arose from the green revolution is that the increased use of fertiliser created new pollution problems. So, The Doubly Green Revolution is saying that, if the green revolution is to continue in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, we need to look at these other aspects, not just productivity but also natural resources management and working with the farmers themselves – what would work best on your farms with your soil conditions? Looking at everything that is required to deal with poverty, hunger and environmental degradation.

Is it an optimistic book?

Yes, it is. and it provides inspiration. I selected this because Gordon brings all this knowledge from the Rockefeller Foundation and from his work in science and development circles in the UK, which was focused on increasing food production and ending hunger. The book says: here is what we need to consider to make a second wave of the green revolution, putting the farmers at the centre of efforts. The inspiration aspect is that it’s all achievable. When you talk to people who are on the frontline of the fight against hunger, many say that one of their inspirations is this book.

Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus.

I chose this book for the power of the story that he tells – the founding of Grameen Bank and the success that it has had and the implications of the whole micro-lending aspect to improve agriculture, to reduce hunger, to advance this green revolution; looking at what he was doing, the importance of making capital available to the very poorest people who need help to get started on the climb out of poverty.

On the cover of my copy there’s an old wooden ladder, and the symbolism of that when you are so poor, for the $1, $2-a-day people, is so important – that ladder to get started and climb out of the poverty they are in. That book helped me understand the importance of micro-finance so that the small farmers can access the improved seed varieties, the little amounts of fertiliser they need and can share the risks of farming. Financing and lending is the lifeblood of agriculture for farmers anywhere in the world because you are planting and doing the work before the harvest comes in. You need something to get started. For so long the small farmers of Africa have had very little access to financing, so micro-lending coming to rural areas of Africa has been and is becoming increasingly important.

Where in Africa has this been happening?

You see it in a number of countries. Certainly in Malawi, and with Opportunity International Bank – I followed them around in Malawi and saw how important it is for small farmers. You’re going to start seeing it in most stable African countries where the government is committed to boosting agriculture – Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and it is starting to spread. Then the next step is the new crop insurance. So, as these farmers are taking these loans, which implies some kind of risk because they’ll have to pay them back when the harvest comes in, they are taking out insurance. So, if there is a drought or something that ruins their crop they have this insurance – again, a financial instrument that has long been available to most farmers in the world. To have that kind of insurance to go along with the micro-lending then shares the risk, so you take the loan, you plant the better seeds, you use the fertiliser and then if something happens and the crop fails you have insurance to pay it back. The micro-lenders are introducing this insurance themselves because it’s also protection for them.

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. This is the book about the infectious diseases specialist, Dr Paul Farmer, who set up community health centres in Haiti?

Yes, and I have chosen this is in connection with social entrepreneurship and what Yunus does with social business. So, this is on the medical and health side, and poverty and hunger and malnourishment are distinctly a part of that. Mountains Beyond Mountains looks at the work of Dr Paul Farmer setting sail against the inequities in the healthcare world. It’s practical and inspirational. It’s practical in that it shows what one very dedicated and committed individual can achieve. You look at the issue and it seems so big that you think: how can we make any difference? But here’s Dr Farmer who has the dedication to tackle the inequities in health. Tracy Kidder tells the story in a human way and gets beyond the sterile aspects of what needs to be done. Here is an individual who makes a difference.

Is it also motivational?

Yes. You feel that you too can get out and change things. You look at health and poverty and they are immense, but with that come equally enormous opportunities to attack that, so when you look at Norman Borlaug, there’s the practical things that he achieved but he was inspirational, too. He said: ‘Hunger can be conquered.’ Then Muhammad Yunus with micro-financing and Paul Farmer with health – hopefully you can read these books and feel that you too can go forward and do something.

Changing the Face of Hunger by Tony Hall.

Tony was a long time Congressman from Ohio and, again, it’s an individual setting sail against the forces of political indifference and ignorance about the hunger problem. It’s about the importance of focusing on the need for raising agricultural productivity in all parts of the world, of not ignoring the potential of places like Africa to help feed the world. Tony represents the story of how in his time in Congress he tried to bridge political differences and to keep the hunger issues on the front burner, sometimes more successfully than others, trying to raise the clamour to get people to pay attention to this. This is one of the things we try to do in our book – to raise the clamour and to say enough is enough. So this is Tony doing that in the political realm. After leaving Congress he became the US Ambassador to the UN food agencies based in Rome, so he became an advocate to create political will to end hunger, to bring the green revolution to Africa. In his book, Tony describes going on a fast to get the attention of his colleagues in Congress and his constituents. He writes about his trips to hunger spots and he tells about being out in Ethiopia with doctors and going through a crowd looking for the most frail, the nearest to starvation, the most malnourished, and having to choose which ones will be treated with the limited resources. That anecdote, given the lack of funding we have, having to make those choices in refugee camps, is so tragic.

The Bible.

As Tony Hall and others note, there are more than 2,000 references to poverty, to ministering to the poor and the hungry in the Bible. The Bible is the scripture for Christianity, but hunger is an issue that is at the centre and core of all faiths and denominations – feed the hungry is a central command of all religions great and small. But the question is, if that’s the case, and it is, how have we come into the 21st century with one billion chronically hungry people?

How have we?

That’s one thing we try to address in the book. It is something I am still wrestling with. It is so important to get the entire faith-based community to address this issue. In the US, when you look at the formation of the Christian coalition and the moral majority as a political force in the 1980s, where was hunger on their list of so-called core values? It’s not there. Where’s the reduction of poverty? They were focused on issues of abortion, gay marriage, gay rights and those kinds of things instead of hunger and poverty.

Are you Christian yourself?

Yes, I’m a Lutheran. The Bible is very vocal on hunger. There is a multitude of passages in the Bible about poverty and hunger – how have they been missed? If we are to really have this grassroots movement to raise the clamour, to spark a momentum to end hunger, then the faith-based communities are very important – to say this is the essence of our faith. If you read the Bible, both the inspiration and the necessity are there, and the command to feed the hungry is a clarion call – Matthew 25/35: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food.’

What is more powerful than that?

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by visiting our site before you make purchases from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.