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A Tsunami Every Day: An Interview with Tony Hall

How has your faith shaped your political priorities, especially with regard to the fight against hunger?

It's quite a major part. A friend of mine who used to work [with me]—a believer—would come in and pray with me, and we would read the scripture. He said, “Don't you think it's time you started to take God into your workplace?” I thought, “Yeah, I do, but I don't know how to do it. I don't want to wear religion on my sleeve, because I see so many people do that and to me it looks hypocritical. I want to do it in a way in which I honor God, but I really don't know how to do it.” So in 1984, when I was a member of Congress, we heard about this amazing famine in Ethiopia, and at the time I was chairman of a subcommittee on international hunger. I decided to go and see it, to try to understand it. So I went to Ethiopia, and I saw this disastrous famine. And I never got over it, because I saw so many people die. I remember going to the clinic where Missionaries of Charity were and the doctor said to me, “We need to go outside because a lot of people have gathered. They have come from all over the region. They've been hungry. They've had to sell everything to get here, and we can only take about five or six children.” So we went outside, and there must have been a couple thousand people there. And I said, “What do you mean only five or six children?” He said, “That's all we can handle so the rest are going to have to die. That's how far gone they are.” So we walked among them. They were thrusting their children at us, and I never got over that. Later on that day, I saw about 50,000 people just get so tired—they had been on the march to find a place where they could find some food and water—and they just settled down in a plateau and started to die. Coming back on the plane, I remembered what my friend had said about bringing God into the workplace. I said this is a way that I can do that. I'm chairman of the committee. I can devote my life or a good portion of my life to trying to help people, and it's a way I can bring my faith into the workplace as a congressman.

So even if it's about saving five or six people, that is a way you can manifest your faith. You felt that your faith really put you in this place to help, even if it's just a handful of people, just one lost sheep, or one lost coin.


Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Absolutely. I remember when somebody said to Mother Teresa once, “Don't you think what you do is a drop in the bucket?” She said, “No, it's a drop in the ocean. But if I didn't do it, it'd be one less drop.” And I thought that was a good saying. You do what you can do, and you do the thing that's in front of you. And that was in front of me. This whole chairmanship and everything was thrust upon me, and I felt that this is what I should do. This is what I can do.

When you work with the hungry, how does faith strengthen you in such difficult circumstances?

Well, there are a couple things. One—and again I quote Mother Teresa on this—she said Jesus is with the poor. So number one, he's with them. Number two, I take people with me when I go on a trip to pray with me, and we get up every morning and read scripture and pray. I started doing this about ten or twelve years ago because I found going on these kinds of trips, seeing people who were dying, especially children, was too hard. It was just too difficult, and I needed strength and power. And as the scripture says, when two or more go together—two or more are gathered together in his name—he's there. It says in Thessalonians if you go out like this you will have power, conviction, and the Holy Spirit. So I found that really works. And third, I also found that it's not easy to be with the poor and the sick and the dying. But I began to pray about it: that God would help me to experience him more, to understand more why he's there, but also to be able to get beyond the death and the misery I see. And God has been great. He's been able to help me as I prayed to understand. I don't know how people do this year after year without faith, because it's too difficult, too hard. It's got to rip at your heart. And I really don't know many people without faith who can work in this field very long without suffering greatly. They burn out. I'm sure there are some people out there who can do it, but I have met very few.

Why do you think hunger still exists in parts of the world, especially in Africa?

When a tsunami comes up, you'll see it because it'll be on television and the coverage will be constant. And when a Hurricane Katrina comes up, you'll see it. But we have Hurricane Katrinas and tsunamis almost every day. Twenty-five thousand people will die today. And they're dying from hunger. They're dying from disease that's related to hunger. That's incredible. So number one, unless it's on television, [people] don't see it. Number two, a lot of people are not educated to the fact that there are about 850 million people right now who are hungry. I find that when we show them that, people respond. Americans are really good about responding when they are educated about the fact that [the hungry] are there. There is also a segment in the society that resents the poor. They don't want to be poor. They don't want to know about the poor, and they want to get as far away from the poor as they can. These people might have been poor sometimes. There's also the fact that the political will is not there yet. It's not a high enough priority among our leaders. Another reason is that the spiritual will is not there. This issue really should be solved and managed and helped by the spirit, by the people of faith in the world, and there are not enough people of faith working on this.

Now part of the U.S. Mission to the United Nation Agencies here in Rome is a mission is to ensure proper stewardship of American resources provided to benefit the poor and the hungry. What does this stewardship look like? Could you explain a little bit what we mean by stewardship?

In the last five years, the United States has given $6 billion to the World Food Program in food and water or food and money. That's a lot of money. As a matter of fact, that represents about 50 percent of everything that goes to the World Food Program. So to be a proper steward of that money is to travel and see where it goes, whether it's Zimbabwe, or North Korea, or wherever we are feeding and helping people. To be a proper steward of the money and the resources that are coming from the United States [is] to watch it, to monitor it, to understand it, to make sure that it gets to the people.

Do you find that there's a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the operational side of things such as administrative costs?

We watch our food and money that goes through the World Food Program. Normally it goes through them to NGOs. It'll go to the Catholic Relief Services or CARE or the World Vision or Save Children of the World. They contract with them. Almost the same way we do it through USAID. We contract with NGOs. We don't believe in giving our food and money to the governments anymore because we have a government problem. We've learned in the past that our money, our food, and everything gets stolen. It never gets to the people. So we don't give it to the governments. We try to give it to the NGOs or to non-partisan groups. We have accountants. We have monitors. We watch it. This surprises people when I tell them. We lose very little of our food and money. It surprises people when I tell them that we do a pretty good job of it. We've made mistakes in the past, and we have corrected them. But governments are a big, big issue. Corruption is a big issue. And we won't give it to that government. We don't trust them.

Would you be able to highlight both some particular successes of the U.N. Food Programs and also specific areas where the work can be improved?


Ambassador Hall talks to a group of volunteers of a HIV/AIDS home-based care program in Mutare, Zimbabwe, that is supported by U.S. food assistance.

Photo: With permission from Ambassador Hall


I remember when I first came here three years ago there was a major drought in Southern Africa. We bought a lot of food. We moved it down to Southern Africa because we knew that there was going to be a major drought. And we averted major famine and hunger down there. We saved lots of lives because we were on top of it. This was three years ago, but there are successes all the time. The tsunami was a great success: we were in there feeding twenty-four hours after the problem. We have lots of successes, even on a daily basis, but you never hear about it. These are the kinds of things that don't draw the press. What draws the press is fighting, killing, wars, destruction, riots, corruption. But feeding 100,000 people today—if I were to tell CNN, it most likely won't make it into their news. But it's part of every day. And to the other question: One of the problems is that we are barely keeping our head above water, not only financially, but because there are so many hungry people in the world today. There are always about forty crises going on in the world. And when you also add the tsunamis, the Katrinas, the earthquake in Pakistan, you put them all together on top of the forty crises—we're barely keeping our head above water. Out of the 850 million people who are hungry in the world right now, we're only getting at about 10 percent.

In your role as Ambassador here, can you highlight some of things that private charities are particularly good at fighting? And how do you find that these private charities coexistent with governmental programs?

They're particularly good at being nonpartisan, nonpolitical. They have low overheads and are trustworthy. We like to use them both in the United States and in the U.N. system. They are a must. They're most important. They do invaluable work. We couldn't do it without them. We not only contract with these NGOs through USAID, but we contract with them through the World Food Program. And if we didn't have them, a lot of stuff wouldn't be going out. They're important to us.

Do you find that religious charities tend to bring something unique to work in this field?

I'm a big believer in faith-based organizations. These people are amazing. They're not there to work for the dollar. They're not there because they're getting big salaries. They're there because they care. They sustain themselves through their faith. They last longer. They can continue to do it much longer, and the ones I've dealt with are very trustworthy.

How do you think that agricultural subsidies in the developed, as well the developing world, affect the hunger problem?

Well first off, I would hope that we could get rid of our subsidies. They hurt the poor farmers of the world in a very substantial way. These farmers can't trade with many of the developed nations because of subsidies, because of restrictions. That doesn't necessarily mean if we lifted everything tomorrow all these farmers would be much better off, because who is to say that the people in the developed nations would buy the produce? It might not be as superior as some of the stuff we have in our own countries. But over a number of years with help, teaching, research, and scientific breakthrough, I think the livelihood of these people would not only be sustained but they could live a much better life. So it is important that we get rid of these subsidies and these restrictions on trade for agriculture products.

Can biotechnology help alleviate hunger?

Biotech food is important because it allows us to use less pesticides, and it's a very good product. In America, we eat it everyday. But we have leaders of countries in Africa who say biotech food is poison—absolutely the most ridiculous statement I've ever heard. Because if you look at the science of it, you look at the results of it, biotech food has a future. It can feed millions of people. It can help people in Africa, all over the world. It's not the sole answer to hunger. It's part of the answer. It's more of a trade issue for the Europeans. They tell a lot of the Africans that if you take biotech food from America, we're not going to trade with you. So number one, what they're saying is very politically motivated. Number two, I look at it as a moral problem. We have lots of good foods that are genetically modified; our maize and our soybeans feed millions of people every year. Nobody has ever gotten sick off of them. You use less pesticides [with biotech food]. It's a superior product in many ways. And it's a constant source of irritation when you know that this food is basically good and wholesome, and we can get it to people very quickly, and yet people say it's poison. It's a real political issue, but I also look at it as a moral issue. We've had leaders in Africa that have refused our food because it's a biotech food, and their people have starved to death. I have felt that dictators and leaders who have food and refuse to give it to their people violate one of the most basic human rights. So I look at it very much as a moral issue.