Famine and Feast: An Interview with ONE's Adam Phillips

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In November, "Faithful Citizenship" is exploring the problem of hunger around the world and at home, with the ONE movement's campaign against famine as an organizing focus—and our festive celebration of Thanksgiving as contrast.

Bono recently wrote that the famine in the Horn of Africa is the worst in twenty years (the United Nations concurs), and that we must all pull together now and take action. Today, we'll talk with someone on the front lines of the effort to inform and energize people of faith to step up and make a difference: Adam Phillips of the ONE movement.

ONE has launched a full-blown campaign called "Famine Is the Real Obscenity," (playing with the notion, What is the vilest F-word?). Its implication is that what people should be truly outraged about is not violations of public decency, but the loss of life and human dignity as people in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia face starvation, exile, violence, and other threats. (Adam noted in our interview that 13 million people are at risk of going hungry, and 30,000 children have already died in this crisis). ONE has long been a leader in working for aid, trade, and debt relief to Africa, and the famine campaign is at the heart of their current efforts.

Adam is the senior liaison to faith organizations for ONE. He is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and his mandate with ONE is to try to involve faith groups and people of faith in awareness building, grassroots activities, and lobbying to help the poor, sick, at risk, and disadvantaged, particularly in Africa. Over the years, ONE has achieved signal success; as the ONE site notes, partly because of its work, "nearly 4 million Africans have access to life-saving AIDS medication, up from only 50,000 people in 2002. Malaria deaths have been cut in half in countries across Africa in less than 2 years and 42 million more children are now going to school." Adam's job is to get people of faith behind this work ONE is doing—and to help them understand why it is called for in their faith traditions to do so.

The people who know about this crisis in the Horn of Africa make clear that this is a mammoth issue. The United Nations highlights it as the worst humanitarian disaster in the world, and ONE's policy brief describes it as the worst famine in sixty years. Yet many Americans either don't know about the famine or haven't been engaged with the news about it. Why isn't this a bigger deal?

No one seems to know about the famine, not because people aren't trying, but it seems the national media haven't been telling the story as robustly as they could. It seems to blend in with some of the old narratives of tragic events in Africa, when there are also some positive things we can do about it.

Is the failure to report this story affected by donor fatigue, what we might think of as people's numbness to yet another crisis?

Much of the news just now seems to be taken up with the global financial crisis, and there's a false sense out there that there is only one choice—that we can help people here in the United States or help people abroad. I say that, knowing that there are families who are struggling intensely with this economic crisis here in the US. I do think it's a false choice. We have the potential to help everyone, simply by not cutting current levels of funding and fulfilling our pledges. The U.S. is leading the way, but the threat of cutting poverty-based foreign assistance would have a detrimental effect. It's not simply that we need more individuals and families to give; we need more individuals and families and churches to raise their voices and say, we need to keep our commitments, because they will go a long way toward helping the most vulnerable people.

As the senior faith liaison for ONE you spend a lot of time talking with people of faith about what they should be doing about poverty and why. What are some of the theological conversations you have about the work you and ONE do?

When it comes to getting involved with ONE Sabbath and the ONE campaign more generally, it's all about using your voice, not only to raise awareness, but to ask our elected officials in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere to do the right thing in helping the least of these. It's a mandate of our faith. The Church has been at the forefront of addressing needs, both locally and globally. Even in my lifetime we've seen the Church move on issues of childhood and maternal health and hunger and so forth.

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