Parashat Miketz

Joseph's Response to Hunger

To prevent world hunger, we must dream big dreams and take wise action.

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Lessons from Around the World

Although we may lack Joseph's dream interpretation skills, we need not lack his prognostic skills. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, established after the 1983-85 famine in Ethiopia, in which an estimated 400,000 to one million people died, uses information such as market prices of food and crop failure data to predict, ahead of time, where food insecurity and famines will occur. We have these tools, and yet people often fail to act in time.

In Niger in November 2004, the United Nations and others warned that crop failure, drought, and a plague of locusts would cause a terrible famine. Calls for donor intervention went unheeded, yet by July 2005, when images of the millions starving and dying were broadcast worldwide, the United Nations received more pledges in a week than it had in the previous six months, despite the widely-publicized warnings.

Indeed, analyst Edward Clay has found that "both government and donors…are unprepared to act on the warnings the systems deliver, until there are clear signs of distress amongst the population. When that happens emergency actions can save lives, but at great cost."

Malawi provides an example of an even more pro-active approach to avoiding starvation. Having suffered from famine for years, Malawi produced record crops in 2006 and 2007 by providing high-quality seeds and subsidized fertilizers to poor farmers. As a result, the prevalence of child hunger in Malawi has dropped, the country is now exporting crops to neighboring countries, food prices have fallen, and farm workers' wages have risen.

When it comes to global hunger, we must all be Josephs--imagining a world unlike the one before us. But dreaming is not enough. We must invest in early warning systems, respond to calls for help before full-fledged famine strikes, and help countries with poor soil find ways to be as self-sufficient as Egypt was during Joseph's day.

Like Joseph, we must each take responsibility for seeing how much we need for ourselves during times of plenty, and how much we can give away to help build sustainability for those who face scarcity.

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Adina Gerver

Adina Gerver, a freelance writer and editor, is studying at the Advanced Scholars Program of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. She has served as assistant director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning and program officer at the Covenant Foundation.