This past week was the thirtieth anniversary of the recording of “We are the World”, a song which skyrocketed to number one on the pop charts in the U.S., written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. It was performed by over 30 of some of the most popular singers from the eighties. Together with an awareness of the impact of that horrible famine, it changed the direction of my life.
In the first verse we hear the call: “There are people dying… and it’s time to lend a hand.” Then the chorus affirms our ability to make a difference, reminding us that “We are the world, we are the children. We are the ones who make a brighter day so let’s start giving. There’s a choice we’re making, we’re saving our own lives. It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me.”
At the time the song came out, I was an officer in the United States Marine Corps. But that year I decided to leave the Marines as soon as I could and join with a group called Food for the Hungry, and do what I could to help prevent more famines from occurring. When I finally was able to join Food for the Hungry in 1987, they assigned me to work out of their Kenya office, and I spent four years there, mostly doing agriculture and water development. By the time I left Kenya at the end of 1991, I has also gotten involved in refugee work, as those were turbulent years in neighboring countries, and hundreds of refugees came to Kenya across both the Ethiopian and Somali borders.
I am no longer involved in the frontline work of NGOs and others working in the villages of developing countries, but that call of thirty years ago still flows through my veins. After leaving Kenya, I realized my skillset was better suited to help in a different way, so I went off to grad school and studied agricultural economics so that I could use that toolset to better understand how to help governments, international agencies, and donors make better policies to help prevent hunger and to empower the poorest of the poor. Today I work as a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., studying ways to help farmers in developing countries adapt to climate change, as well as investigating ways to reduce the extent of climate change.
Climate change is an issue that brings me back to my original motivation, hating to see people die from hunger, and wanting to do something to help. Climatologists tells us that climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of droughts in the years ahead, potentially causing serious and long-lasting droughts worse than the one that triggered the famine in the 1980s in Ethiopia. But we also know that if we are able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we decrease the chances of experiencing the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
Perhaps it is time that the people of the world rise up and sing this song all over again, with a conviction about our desire to end poverty, hunger, and malnutrition — but also with an awareness that choices today can have far-reaching consequences. If we as individuals do what we can to reduce emissions — and that involves becoming advocates to those in our spheres of influence, including our governments — we can make a difference. “It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me!”