When Cafod first told me that Britain’s aid agencies were launching the If campaign to tackle hunger, my mind went to Kipling’s celebrated poem about what it takes for a child to grow up strong, wise and brave. One of the verses always resonated with me:
"If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew / To serve your turn long after they are gone, /
And so hold on when there is nothing in you / Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’"
Those words came back to me a few years ago as I walked around the region of Maralal in north-east Kenya, where I spent time with families severely affected by ongoing drought. I visited several communities whose whole way of life is being destroyed by extreme and unpredictable weather, leaving them without a livelihood, without a home, with very limited access to food and water, and in some cases embroiled in conflict over the few remaining resources.
I remember being genuinely amazed at how everyone was working together as a community in such a challenging environment. I was also struck by the generosity of the people that welcomed me into their homes and villages, how even though they were surviving on so little, they felt willing, compelled even, to share with me – a stranger that they may never see again.
Another thing that surprised me was the overwhelming message of hope running through all the stories of loss and devastation that were shared with me. An unwavering hope and faith that their fellow men, their brothers and sisters – in Kenya, in Africa, across the globe – would not turn a blind eye to their struggle.
We live on a planet of limited resources, an abstract notion for some of the world’s population, but for many of the poorest and most vulnerable, those limits are all too real. For their sake we must learn from the examples being set by the ones at the heart of the issue. We must come together as a global community and work through this challenge together. When there is enough food to feed everyone, why are 870 million people going hungry? We must learn to share what we have; no one race or nation has a greater right to life than another.
Of course the causes of hunger are vast and complex, from climate change to the activities of major food corporations. That’s why nearly 100 organisations, including Cafod, Christian Aid, ActionAid, Oxfam, Save the Children and Unicef, have come together for this hugely ambitious new campaign: Enough Food for Everyone If. When the G8 comes to Northern Ireland in June we need them to take action on these issues, not just providing aid to those who are hungry, but tackling the root causes of that hunger and finding lasting solutions.
And for me, based on the evidence I have seen, that starts with something quite simple: helping the small farmers I met not just to survive and provide for themselves, but to grow their businesses and provide food at reasonable prices for the whole community. Small farms account for 90% of agricultural production in Africa, but aid is not reaching them, and – ranged against the big corporations – they struggle to get access to fertile land or a fair price for their food.
Like many others, I sat glued to the coverage of President Obama’s second inauguration just a few days ago. As he set out his plans for his second term, I hope he was thinking not just of the immediate domestic problems he faces with the US budget and the issue of gun control, but about what he can achieve in the next four years that will make a lasting difference to the world. David Cameron has a vital role to play too, as he’s presiding over the G8 this summer. I hope both men, powerful as they are, will recognise that there is no more important experience – no better insight – to inform their work than listening to the voices of those fighting the daily battle to survive in the poorest countries.
What swayed many votes in the last days of the US election were the images of Obama meeting residents of New York and New Jersey who were affected by Hurricane Sandy, talking to them about their needs, and parting with a hug or a handshake of solidarity. Before Obama, Cameron and the other world leaders come together in Britain this summer, I hope they will visit places like Maralal in Kenya, and meet people like those I met. If they do, I’m sure they will come away not just with a better understanding of how to help those communities, but a real determination to do so. In the meantime, the people of Maralal will keep hoping and holding on.
• David Harewood is a Cafod ambassador and supports Enough Food for Everyone If www.enoughfoodif.org
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010