Millions of People Will Die Unnecessarily and No One Will Notice

In another life, I used to be a television commentator for a local news program. It was basically a weekly op-ed read aloud, except shorter and punchier. Think Andy Rooney without the bushy eyebrows. In November 2006, I delivered the following commentary:

Today’s segment is not sexy. It’s not breaking news. In fact, most journalists would say it’s not even newsworthy. I disagree.  

Josette Sheeran was recently chosen to become head of the United Nations World Food Program. She’s qualified, she’s brilliant, she’s tenacious. But you won’t hear her name on any other news station.

Why? Because her job isn’t sexy. She isn’t confronting radical dictators or preventing a nuclear holocaust. She’s giving people food.

Yet everyday 25,000 people die from hunger. The good news is that Sheeran reports that chronic hunger can be radically reduced. But if the United Nations can’t get anyone to agree to stop madmen with nuclear warheads, how are they going to focus on eliminating hunger?

That’s the exciting part. One of Sheeran’s first duties on the job was to weigh in on a panel designed to radically overhaul the discombobulated agencies of the UN. In the first real step toward long-awaited change at the UN, Sheeran’s panel recommended eliminating unnecessary agencies and beginning the process to make the United Nations work.

If Sheeran can work together with Ban Ki-Moon, the next Secretary-General, to enact these recommendations, they can jumpstart a revolution in global governance that can ultimately eliminate every problem from poverty to genocide to terrorism.

Now that’s a sexy job.

Almost three years later, Sheeran is finally in the news…well, the British news at least. Most Americans don’t really care about the UN. When you’re powerful enough, you can afford not to care about anyone else–especially, it turns out, those most in need:

Tens of millions of the world’s poor will have their food rations cut or cancelled in the next few weeks because rich countries have slashed aid funding.

The result, says Josette Sheeran, head of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), could be the “loss of a generation” of children to malnutrition, food riots and political destabilisation. “We are facing a silent tsunami,” said Sheeran in an exclusive interview with the Observer. “A humanitarian disaster is unrolling.” The WFP feeds nearly 100 million people a year.

…new data seen by the Observer show that food aid is now at its lowest in 20 years…

The US, by far the world’s biggest contributor to food aid, has so far pledged $800m less than in 2008…

“Even under our best scenarios, we will end the year $2bn short,” said Sheeran. “Many of our funders do not feel that they need to give on the level of last year. They think the world food crisis is over, but in 80% of countries food prices are actually higher than one year ago.”

So the only time Sheeran can get people to listen is when she’s saying that no one is listening. There should be a Yogi Berra joke for that. This is another instance of misallocated resources, every economist’s nemesis. But it’s more than that. Not all misallocated resources are created equal. Some economic mistakes reduce consumption or investment for otherwise rich nations and citizens. Some mistakes cost lives.

I can appreciate spending money wisely when there’s not enough to go around. And I can see the responsibility we have first and foremost to our own citizens (whom, by the way, we fail far too often). But I do not accept that we can spend $2 trillion on our own problems, yet we can’t find the $800 million that was in last year’s budget for the world’s poor.

And, just to be clear, when I say “the world’s poor,” I’m not talking about the poverty line as we define it in the U.S. I’m talking about people who barely subsist on a dollar a day in a country with no unemployment insurance, no health insurance, and not enough food, shelter, or clean water to go around.

I’m not saying we spend our entire allowance on them. I’m not even saying we spend a fraction of a fraction of our allowance. With a GDP of almost $14 trillion, the United States is being asked to give an extra 0.00006% of what we have to prevent thousands, maybe millions, of deaths. Even if we filled in the entire $2 billion gap by ourselves, we’d be asking the average American household to give about $17. If we banded together with, say, Great Britain and Germany, that cost drops to $11.

I know the world powers have trouble playing nice, but if they can fund two wars with ad hoc “emergency” bills for eight years running and organize multi-billion-dollar bailouts in the middle of the night, I have no doubt they can find the pittance Sheeran is asking for. If they’re still having trouble locating the cash, here’s a good place to start: This week, JPMorgan Chase announced profits of $3.6 billion.