Leaving No Belly Unfilled

George McGovern is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations food agencies in Rome. He served in the House of Representatives from 1957 to 1961, when President John F. Kennedy appointed him the first director of the U.S. Food for Peace Program. As director, he helped launch the U.N.'s World Food Program to combat hunger. He also served three terms in the Senate, from 1963 to 1981, and ran unsuccessfully for president in 1972. In his forthcoming book, "Ending World Hunger in Our Time," due out in October, McGovern argues that chronic hunger can be eradicated by 2030. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Barbie Nadeau at his office in Rome. Excerpts:

NADEAU: What message are you trying to deliver through your new book?
MCGOVERN:
I really think that most of the serious problems of the world can't be solved in the near future. We're not going to end racism in my lifetime; we're not going to end poverty. But there's one problem that I think we can absolutely lick, and that is hunger.

Ethiopia and Eritrea are in a border war, Sudan is in civil war and Somalia is under attack by rival militias. Is food security endangered more by war and civil strife than by natural disasters such as drought and floods?
I think so. Ethiopia, in any given year, falls short by about a million tons of the grain they need. So whether it is a good year or bad year, they have to import a million tons of grain because of civil problems.

Where are the other highly vulnerable areas for famine today?
Indonesia is a high-priority area. North Korea, a communist country which we haven't had much to do with, we've helped substantially. Why? Because millions of children are in terrible straits.

What about Iraq? Is it counterproductive to apply sanctions and provide food aid at the same time?
I don't think so, because we're not trying to starve the people of Iraq, we're trying to let their government know that they're not going to enter back into the world community until they comply with the U.N. standard. There are certain places, though, where we quite frankly have just an irrational policy. It's against the American law for a church to send a box of food to eastern Cuba, where there is a severe famine and considerable hunger. That's just crazy.

What about the widening technology gap between developed and developing nations?
We have the technology to measure drought, the extent of it, the speed at which it is moving and to calibrate how much additional food it [requires]. We can even predict hurricanes, flood and other phenomena. These food-deficit areas need to be brought into the technological loop.

You are proposing two new programs. One is similar to the U.S. school-lunch program that would help children in developing nations.
Yes, I would like to see that program become universal. I think that it has done more to improve the well-being and productivity of American youngsters than any other single factor.

And the other program is like WIC [Women, Infants, and Children], for pregnant women and nursing mothers?
The WIC program has had almost miraculous success in the United States. That provides, for low-income women who are pregnant or who are nursing, supplementary food that is highly nutritious. It also provides highly nutritious foods to their infants until they reach age 5.

How easy are these to do worldwide?
Very tough, because there's no structure in these places. Unfortunately, in some countries--Ethiopia, for example--half the primary-grade kids are not in school. The school-lunch program will double their school attendance almost overnight.

In 1999, U.S. food-aid shipments were five times those of the year before, and Washington has so far pledged 400,000 metric tons for the Horn of Africa. How does that compare with other donor nations?
We do about as much on the distribution of food as the rest of the world combined. We're the biggest food-surplus-producing country. We have a self-interest in trying to help people become healthy and vigorous, so they can develop viable institutions and even enter into the world trading system and eventually become customers. Having said that, the main reason we ought to do this, though, is because it is the right thing.

Why doesn't the United States work directly with countries in need instead of providing support through the United Nations?
When you distribute aid multilaterally, you avoid the charge that we're trying to plant an Uncle Sam presence and dominate their culture. I don't want to see us become so deeply involved with foreign aid that other countries just figure, what the hell, Washington is going to take care of it anyway.

You are credited with the vision for the World Food Program. Has it met your expectations?
I'm pleased with what I've seen, but not satisfied. I think they can do better.