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Until this February, the world went six years without a declaration of famine. Now, 20 million people in Somalia, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen face starvation, including 1.4 million children at risk of imminent death from severe acute malnutrition, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Despite its frequent, more commonplace use when speaking of widespread hunger, famine is a term of art to the United Nations, denoting an absolute humanitarian catastrophe. A declaration of famine does not automatically accompany extended periods of drought and crop failure. As Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Program said, before a famine is declared, “Bad things have already happened. Large numbers of people will already have died, and the situation spiralled out of control.”

Yet, despite the severity of starvation around the world, those in wealthy countries too often neglect the plight of those less privileged.

Called to action, the Muslim Students Association, African Society of Georgetown and Chinese Student Alliance came together on April 6 to host Fast-a-Thon, inviting the Georgetown community to participate in a day of fasting to raise awareness of worldwide starvation.

Fasting, the abstinence from food and drink, is a form of devotion and spirituality shared by nearly every faith tradition. The timing of Fast-a-Thon was anything but coincidental. In recognition of the fact that fasting brings social consciousness to the plight of the hungry, Fast-a-Thon was intended to bring awareness and raise relief for the worsening food security crisis in Africa and Yemen. Although Fast-a-Thon has come and gone, the grave need for the international community to provide relief to the nations of people threatened by famine has not. In a nation so blessed with wealth, we can no longer make excuses for inaction or indifference.

The emergence of the food security crisis in Africa and Yemen brings to mind the wise words of Martin Luther King Jr. After witnessing a humanitarian crisis in India, thousands of miles away from his hometown of Atlanta, Ga., Dr. King challenged his followers to adopt a global perspective when he said, “No individual can live alone. No nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution … Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood, and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.”

What does it mean to have the ethical commitment to make the world into a brotherhood?

It means we do not privilege through our generosity only those who are most like us. Malnutrition is excruciating — no matter where one lives. Malaria is just as soul-draining in Caracas, Venezuela as it is in Lagos, Nigeria. Given the opportunity, most of us would prevent the suffering of another.

Consider the following thought experiment from ethicist Peter Singer in his book, “The Life You Can Save.” Imagine walking past a pond, hearing a young child in trouble and drowning. You are wearing expensive shoes. You would not hesitate to jump into the pond and save the child, even at the expense of your shoes. Why, then, would you not make a small sacrifice to your lifestyle and donate a minimum of 5 percent of your income to an aid agency? Your contribution would save vast amounts of children from suffering disease and malnutrition.

Although no one can be expected to be perfectly generous, we still ought to recognize that humanity is now more interconnected than ever. When famine strikes, we may help avert a crisis or neglect the opportunity. Whether it is by raising awareness or donating our time and efforts, we all have the ability to help our fellow human beings through small sacrifices — small sacrifices that too often we fail to make, choosing instead to ignore the plights of others. When you hear the call for help, how do you respond?

Hasaan Munim is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.

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2 Comments

  1. Hasaan, thank you for this lovely piece! I am in deep agreement, which is why I ended up working at The Life You Can Save, founded by Peter Singer and named after his book, which you reference. The organization promotes effective giving, and recommends a list of vetted nonprofits that are especially effective at “doing the most good” with one’s donation dollars, which tends to be in work addressing global extreme poverty and its many horrible effects. I also love the graphic–did you create that?

    • Hasaan Munim says:

      Hi Amy — that’s incredible that you work for The Life You Can Save, your organization certainly does great work. As for the graphic, I did not make it and it was provided by the Hoya.

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