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Hunger activist says nations must recognize interdependence. Frances Moore Lapp'e works to puncture world-hunger myths

Frances Moore Lapp'e has long been bursting myths about hunger. As a community organizer two decades ago and then as the co-founder of a think tank that challenges the accepted orthodoxy on world hunger, Ms. Lapp'e has been churning out books and educational materials, speaking at college campuses and churches, and seeking to activate both the public and policymakers into new ways of thinking about hunger.

Hunger is not, says Lapp'e, simply a result of exploding population and scarce resources. Political and economic policies greatly affect hunger in both the developing world and industrialized countries.

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``Hunger is not really caused by too many people,'' says Lapp'e. Even those concerned with population issues admit that in order to bring down birthrates, there have to be political and economic change to give people greater security, she says.

With two decades of perspective, Lapp'e says she's seen enormous change in the public's understanding of hunger issues.

``This is the sad irony - I think hunger is definitely getting worse. And yet the level of understanding is definitely deeper and more courageous,'' she says. ``People are willing to go beyond the superficial analysis and blaming the victim.''

But, she adds, many people are still unwilling follow through the logical consequences of this understanding. Such follow through, she says, means challenging government and political policies rather than simply collecting money for the poor or focusing attention on overpopulation.

In December, Lapp'e was honored with a Right Livelihood Award, an ``alternative Nobel Prize'' honoring groups or individuals that make significant contributions in areas of human rights, the environment, peace and disarmament, economics, architecture, etc.

In recognizing Lapp'e, who founded the Institute for Food and Development Policy (IFDP) with Joseph Collins, the award said that she has helped address the political and economic ramifications of hunger and has shown how ordinary citizens can help to end hunger.

Lapp'e says the American public must actively seek to change government policies. And, she says, they must examine the perception that change in the developing world automatically translates into anti-American and pro-Soviet attitudes.

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``It's very controversial. It's very scary. One has to really challenge our government's policies,'' says Lapp'e, who has just coauthored the book, ``Betraying the National Interest.''

``Betraying the national interest means that our foreign aid, by not serving the interests of the majority of people in the third world and by actively blocking change through a militarized foreign policy, [is] undercutting our own interests.''

Throughout her years as a food-policy critic, Lapp'e has gained respect from a cross section of people. Some critics express displeasure over what they see as the liberal slant of IFDP's conclusions. But many others see Lapp'e as an insightful analyzer of issues.

IFDP emphasizes that the answer to hunger is not charity, but getting across the message of interdependence, of a common interest among nations.

Illustrating ways in which poverty in the third world affects American economic interests, Lapp'e says: ``As long as the majority of people in the third world have no option but to work - if they can even get a job - for a few pennies a day, they will be forced to be competitors for our jobs,'' Lapp'e says. ``Not to mention the fact that we need customers for what we produce.''

In order to earn money to keep up with their foreign debt, Lapp'e says, countries like those in Latin America end up producing more and more agricultural exports. The resulting downward pressure on commodity prices undercuts both their own citizens and the American farmer, she adds.

In the Philippines, says Lapp'e, the US government should not simply say it will support the military struggle against the insurgency. It should say that support will come if the Philippine government is willing to stand up to elite landowners who are preventing genuine land reform, she says.

``We can't afford to think that we can have fulfilling lives in a world in which the majority of people are deprived of just their basic survival needs. It's unrealistic.''

She wants US citizens to go beyond contributing to famine relief or writing one letter to a politician or simply thinking of government as a defender of their own interests.

``It's really trying to develop a personal philosophy. We have to define what we mean by these fundamental values of freedom and democracy. Then these individual choices can start to make sense, because we have a reference point in our value system.''

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