THE HUNGER PROJECT: YOU CAN'T EAT WORDS

David Hoekema, The Christian Century, May 2, 1979


Representatives of an organization called the Hunger Project are traveling around the country, visiting college campuses and other locations, distributing literature and soliciting contributions. Recently two volunteers were on my campus (Saint Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota): many students stopped to talk with them, and perhaps a hundred signed cards by which they ''enrolled'' in the Hunger Project, some promising to make cash contributions.

Let me address a strong word of caution to those who have recently encountered the Hunger Project - and to those who soon will. I hope that those who have contributed to the organization but are unaware of its origin and character will reconsider whether their money might be put to better use elsewhere.

The Hunger Project is an offshoot of Erhard Seminars Training, commonly known as ''est.'' Est, the brainchild of Werner Erhard, offers an intensive training session in self-realization and self-development to anyone willing to invest several hundred dollars and several days' time. The underlying message of est is that each of us is responsible only and wholly for himself or herself. The solution to both personal and social problems, according to est, lies in refusing to allow other people to make demands on us and in doing whatever we really want to do. In estian terminology, ''You have to create a context for yourself, develop a space for where you're at.''

The Hunger Project was launched two years ago by Erhard and other leaders of est. In the words of its promotional brochure, ''The sole purpose of the Hunger Project is the creation of a space, a context - the end of hunger and starvation on our planet in two decades.''

Note carefully that the project's purpose is not to provide food or the means of growing food. No, its purpose is the ''creation of a context.'' The Hunger Project does not try to alleviate hunger by any direct means, because ''what we do about starvation does not work.'' Feeding people, the Hunger Project insists, does not relieve starvation.

On this point, the Hunger Project practices what it preaches. During 1977, according to its financial statement, the organization disbursed approximately $800,000; but apparently not a cent of that amount was spent either on providing food for the hungry or on developing reliable food sources for the poor. Fifteen per cent of the total went for administration, and the remainder was spent for ''communications'' of various kinds - brochures, newspapers, advertisements, conferences. The ''presentations'' at which the Hunger Project was announced in 1977 cost about $500,000. What the Hunger Project is about is evident: publicity, talk, and massive media events, not concrete actions to eliminate starvation and its causes.

The Hunger Project seems to have a hidden function as a proselytizing arm of est. Nearly all directors of the project have undergone est training. Half of those enrolled in the project, the representative who visited my campus told me, are est initiates - a startling number, considering that anyone who signs a card indicating interest is counted as enrolled. The writers of a recent investigative report on the Hunger Project for Mother Jones magazine (''Let Them Eat est,'' December 1978) found that participants in the project were strongly pressured to take est training. Mother Jones also discovered that large sums of money donated to the tax-free Hunger Project seemed to disappear into the overseas bank accounts of corporations created by Erhard.

None of these disturbing facts diminishes in any way the urgency of the problem of world hunger or the truth of some of the Hunger Project's claims. The project has rightly insisted that merely giving away food will not solve the problems of starvation and malnourishment. A lasting solution will require agricultural assistance, nutritional education, sensitivity to local customs and values, and, in many countries, large-scale land reform. The starving people of Haiti need land for food crops, for example, but huge tracts of Haitian land are now used to pasture cattle for McDonald's hamburgers. Unfortunately, the Hunger Project is doing nothing in any of these directions, either.

Certainly the Hunger Project has helped increase awareness of the problem of hunger. A recent issue of the Hunger Project newspaper includes instructions on writing to congressional representatives in support of programs to prevent starvation; it also offers descriptions of organizations such as Bread for the World which - unlike the Project - are doing something about the problem of hunger. No doubt this publicity will encourage participation in other organizations, and for that I am grateful.

Nor do I want to impugn the motives of all those who participate in the project. The tow men who visited my campus, both volunteers, seemed genuinely committed not merely to talk but to action to alleviate hunger.

Nevertheless, I cannot accept the Hunger Project's fundamental claim: that starvation will be ended not by our doing things but by our ''getting clear,'' ''creating a context'' - in simple English, by narcissism and empty talk. That claim is false and dangerous.

In pessimistic moments, I fear that the Hunger Project is at bottom a scheme whereby Werner Erhard can amass vast sums of money tax-free while appearing to act out of concern for the poor and the hungry (and indeed, Mother Jones offers evidence that such is the case). But let us instead take the most favorable view possible: whatever its origin and its moral assumptions, the Hunger Project is forcing us to acknowledge the inexcusable fact that millions of people die needlessly each year because social and political structures prevent them from obtaining the food they need. If those whose consciences are jolted by the Hunger Project have more scruples than Werner Erhard and more intelligence than most of his followers - and thank God, most people do - some good is bound to result.

Let us not ignore the dreadful facts about starvation which the Hunger Project brings to our attention. But if we want to work toward a solution to the problems of world hunger, we would do better to invest our time and money in Bread for the World, the American Friends Service Committee, church-sponsored relief programs, or other such organizations engaged not just in talk but in carefully chosen action.

copyright 1979 The Christian Century


Follow-up Column by David Hoekema: The Hunger Project and est: Close Ties


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