Is this really the right answer?

You’re hungry. We enter a small cafe. The menu looks normal enough. But this is no normal cafe. It’s one of those “eat all you like” set ups, but with a difference. The portions are tiny, only one food item is available, and I have to repeatedly answer questions before you can take a mouthful. Sound fun? Well, I guess it could be if your life didn’t depend on it. For many other people, it may.

If this sounds like fantasy to you, or a great idea, or a crazy one, then you may like to know that this very game is being played around the world by thousands of people. Right now.

I can’t quite describe my reaction when I first heard about “FreeRice”, a website which helps people master the English language while they earn grains of rice to feed starving people around the world. Sure, there’s a real need to engage ordinary citizens – and educate people – in some of the most pressing issues of our time, and hunger is without doubt high among them. But does ‘blending’ it with an English language quiz really do anybody any justice?

Our planet is full of extremes. Take this one. There are nearly 800 million people in the world who go hungry every day. And then there are another 800 million diagnosed as clinically obese. “It’s the ultimate contradiction and two sides of the same problem” says US academic and former World Bank employee, Raj Patel, in his latest book “Stuffed and Starved”.

The “FreeRice” site interestingly pitches itself more as an English language aid than a place of compassionate, charitable giving. Why do I say that? Well, when I went to the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section, I was really interested in the whole concept of ‘earning’ rice for hungry people. This, after all, is what the name of the site encourages. It’s “FreeRice”, right, and not “FreeLanguageQuiz”? But no. The first five answers on the FAQ page all talk about how much better your chances of getting a job might be, or how your reading and writing could be dramatically improved, if you master your English vocabulary. The fact that you happen to feed people as you go – twenty grains of rice at a time, by the way – isn’t seen as quite so important. Rice only enters the equation at “Frequently asked question” number six.

It’s a huge challenge engaging ordinary members of the public in development issues. With so many charities in desperate need of funding, anything which stands out has the greatest chance of success. This is one of the reasons Comic Relief in the UK is so successful. Not only does it give something back – in the way of a great night of comedy on the BBC – but it also takes people on a gut-wrenching rollercoaster ride through images of absolute suffering and despair, intermingled with comedy clips and top-quality family entertainment. The contradiction is almost as powerful as the 800 million people sitting on each side of that ‘hunger line’.

Giving out free rice also has its own problems, as does seeing famine and hunger as purely a food distribution issue. Studies have shown that most recent famines have more to do with war and politics than a plain shortage of food. In an effort to reduce the damage that dumping food has on local economies, CARE International recently took the brave step of refusing food aid from donors. Similarly, a DFID project in Malawi recently started an interesting experiment, handing out money to villagers in Malawi rather than handing out food (see an earlier posting).

My reaction to “FreeRice” was a mixed one. Whilst it does bring wider attention to global hunger it does it in a way which, to me anyway, seriously trivialises the issue. Answering questions and seeing a little bowl fill with rice which fundamentally decides if someone will eat or not gives me – and excuse the comparison – a rather sick feeling in my stomach.

Of course, it’s easy for us to sit here and openly criticise, praise, unpick or condemn these types of initiative. The people you’d have to really ask would be those whose bellies have been filled by the near-four billion grains of rice donated so far. They’d be able to tell you if they really cared where it came from, or how it got there.

The right answer? Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll need to pass on that one. Ask me another?

Are we really so completely and utterly powerless?

Let me just start off by saying that I’m not one of these people who sees Africa as a desperate, struggling land full of death, famine, disease and misery with little or no hope for the future. There’s plenty of negativity surrounding the continent already. My outlook is much more positive, but there are times when we need to face up to what is happening. One of those times is now… [End]

So, you want to be able top pop down the local supermarket and grab yourself those avocados, strawberries, starfruit, bananas, pineapples, kiwis, cherries, papayas, mangos or lychees any time of year whenever it takes your fancy. And you’ll happily grab that bunch of flowers – flown in especially from Kenya for your convenience the night before – on your way out – along with some of that lovely Ugandan coffee. Isn’t it all so wonderful?

You’re happy that you live in the age of globalisation where so much of what the world has to offer is so conveniently delivered directly to your doorstep. And, thanks to the hard-nosed negotiators and the shear power of the multinationals who fight so hard on your behalf, it’s all available at such an amazingly low price. How on earth do they do it?

Globalisation may bring all manner of exotic produce to our shores, but it also carries with it huge amounts of responsibility. A globalised world is a smaller world. News reaches our TV screens in a matter of minutes and not days. Events thousands of miles away push up the price of petrol at our local garage. A stock market crash leads to a global recession and mass unemployment, and Bert down the road – who knows nothing about the intricicies of global economics, and doesn’t particularly care – loses his job and maybe his home. An attack on a pipeline in Georgia pushes up the price of gas, and suddenly elderly people find themselves unable to keep warm in the winter.

Events far, far away suddenly feel much closer to home.

At the same time what we decide to purchase in our shops, and how we choose to live our lives, has direct impact on people living on the ‘other’ side of the world. Governments – who we vote in – give unfair (and in some cases downright illegal) subsidies which ‘help’ push third world farmers out of business. Carbon emissions drive global warming, drowning small island communities, causing drought and floods and reeking havoc with the weather across the globe. Small-scale coffee growers live at the mercy of people they’ve never met getting together and deciding where to set wholesale coffee prices.

Things aren’t right in the global order, but often things just tick along and people don’t really pay much attention. A few thousand people die here or there, a drought occurs here or there, a war is fought here or there… As long as they can get their starfruit, why should they care?

Famine once again grips parts of Africa. Tens of millions of people are on the edge. Aid workers don’t even want to think what might happen if the rains fail again this spring. The international community once again drags its heals – this famine was hardly unexpected. Out of a requested $138 million, agencies are still over $100 million short. Can this really all be happening again?

As a citizen of the global community, I feel totally powerless to all of this. It’s all too easy to point the finger at national governments. After all, this has to be someone’s fault, doesn’t it?

The reality is that not all the money – or will – in the world can make it rain.

But why do the majority of people appear to continually ‘accept’ what’s happening and merrily get on with their lives regardless? Is is because they don’t care, or simply don’t know what’s happening? Or is it because, like me, they haven’t got a bloody clue what they can do about it? Can someone please tell me what I can do about it? It’s at times like these that I can relate to the activist/protest mentality.

If we want to live in a globalised world and reap all the benefits that it brings, then we also need to learn to take the rough with the smooth and take our fair share of responsibility for what goes on in it. That means compassionately and ethically, as well as economically.

And that goes for when it doesn’t directly effect us, too. We’re either a citizen of the global community or we’re not.