- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2008




The words arrived this summer on my desk in Atlanta from the tiny African nation of Malawi. They described the widespread benefits of a new fish farm in a country where half of the more than 12 million people are malnourished. And I read them with hope.

“When a big fish moves, the ripples are felt in every corner of the pond.”

But now I’m not so sure. Suddenly, in this uncertain season of giving, the proverb sounds ominous.

America is a big fish. And I lead a humanitarian group, CARE, that works in some of the most vulnerable corners of the pond. My fear is that anxiety rippling out from Wall Street will hit the world’s poor particularly hard this winter, as donations sag, world commodity prices remain high and international investment declines.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Global food prices shot up 75 percent from 2005 to the middle of this year, ending a 30-year period of relatively cheap food. That has made it more expensive to deliver aid to the hungry and eroded the purchasing power of poor people already spending most of their income to feed their families.

Just this month the United Nations released a report concluding that 40 million more people have joined the ranks of the undernourished this year. And the total - now 963 million - could swell further as the financial crisis deepens, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned. Even before the economic meltdown, 1 billion people lived on less than $1 per day. Now the world’s poor, the majority of them women and children, are spending less on health care and education. Girls are being yanked out of school to work.

But we can help. And history gives me some hope that, even in these tough times, we will. For better than half a century, in boom times and recession, America’s goodwill has spread far beyond our shores. Often it shows up as giant sacks filled with rice, cornmeal and other forms of emergency food aid. Less noticed, and equally important, are programs that strike at the roots of poverty. With just a little help, communities have established their own economic safeguards, from microfinance banks to disaster-resistant irrigation systems.

Take the tiny village of Chilembwe, in drought-prone Malawi. There, mothers such as Loness Manja put hoe to earth, creating a reservoir as large as an Olympic-sized pool. The resulting irrigation system tripled crop production. Now, even during the dry season, Loness can harvest broad leaf mustard plants and Chinese cabbage. Her children no longer go to sleep hungry.

Already, the people of Chilembwe have built upon the early success of the reservoir, using it to feed a fish pond. Loness finished digging the pond this summer, with 130 other villagers. Then they stocked it with 1,000 fingerlings, an $85 investment that will bring up to $930 in revenue plus the offspring to keep a steady stock going.

That’s no small matter in a country where children die from lack of proper sanitation and nutrition. The thought of not being able to preserve this progress through continued training - and, better yet, expansion into to nearby communities - seems exceptionally cruel.

Of course, we have our own problems to deal with here at home. But consider that even as we stare down the most daunting economic challenge since the Great Depression, economists take solace in our modern safety nets. We have Medicaid, unemployment benefits and a Federal Reserve that’s trying to prevent a freefall.

It’s easy to forget that other safety net: us. We’ve always been there to catch those whose fortunes falter suddenly around the world. And we must call on our political leaders to remember that we have a responsibility to help lift them up again.

These are people living in places like Malawi, where CARE’s agricultural coordinator uttered those words that just won’t leave my head. He said them as Loness, the mother whose children no longer go hungry, tossed soya and corn grains into the pond.

“When a big fish moves,” he said, studying the water’s surface, “the ripples are felt in every corner of the pond.” He was referring to Loness and her corner of the globe. But I’m convinced the message was meant for us, too.

Helene Gayle is president and CEO of CARE.

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