On New Year’s: To Change the World, Start Changing Your Habits

Chris Herlinger | January 1, 2015

Modesta Roca, Alba Canabi, and Catarin Seron--three generations of Guarani indigenous women in the village of Mberirenda, Bolivia. CWS works with families in the village to strengthen the leadership of women and youth. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/CWS

Modesta Roca, Alba Canabi, and Catarin Seron–three generations of Guarani indigenous women in the village of Mberirenda, Bolivia. CWS works with families in the village to strengthen the leadership of women and youth. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/CWS

I’m old enough to know that New Year’s resolutions do me little good. Like a lot of people, I can be full of ambitions for things like more exercise, less weight and a cleaner desk. But I usually stumble by Feb. 1.

The life lesson for me? I’d do better to chip away at things in small increments and try to make them habits, bit by bit.

We could say that, too, about our attitude toward hunger and poverty. We want to do the grand thing, the good thing, the thing that will end problems quickly, now and forever. But sometimes we can get frustrated that hunger and poverty continue.  We are tempted to say, “I give up.”

Don’t give up. Here’s why. The efforts to end global poverty and hunger are making a difference. Extreme poverty in the world has been cut in half since 1990, according to the United Nations. This has been due to a host of things, but small steps have been a part of that. Small steps can be consequential.

When I visited the Chaco region of Argentina and Bolivia recently, I saw that CWS’s support of community-based anti-poverty and anti-hunger efforts are making a difference.

Consider Modesta Roca, 53, and her daughter, Catarin Seron, 24, who live in the township of Mberirenda, Bolivia. They both work in that community’s communal garden, and are happy with its success. But equally important is the CWS-supported work to strengthen the leadership of women and youth. Seron, for example, said her mother was long reluctant to get involved in civic matters, but now does, and proudly. What brought the change? “Just basic needs,” she said. “Women know much more about a community.”

How is that linked to the fight against hunger and poverty? People who are strengthened can identity problems and begin solving them. A stronger, better organized community can, with just a little outside help, begin tackling problems on its own. So a common garden that is managed together (often by women) can make a dent in how well a community can feed itself.

That’s the good news. The challenging news is that one in nine people in the world remain hungry, according to the UN. That’s still an enormous problem. But as the Chaco experience proves, poverty and hunger are not givens – they emerge from systems that humans can change, and are changing, so that communities like Mberirenda can become more resilient.

Let’s not forget the power of advocacy. In the Chaco, CWS has provided support for the legal work that eventually gave indigenous communities land rights – and land is important because it is part of helping people feed themselves and their communities. That work took time. So did the unsung efforts of our colleagues in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to unlock the 50-year stalemate between the United States and Cuba.

Patience and steady hard work can pay off. We’ve seen it in 2014, and we’ll see it in 2015. We just have to make these things habits.

Here are three I’d suggest for anyone interested in the fight against hunger and poverty:

  1. Spend just a half hour a week on the web – deliberate time — educating yourself on hunger and poverty. Go to the websites of CWS, Bread for the World, Foods Resource Bank and others.
  2. Stop thinking about the poor as “other.” Many, maybe even most, Americans have poverty in their family histories, and more people today are experiencing poverty in their own lives. If we stop thinking poverty is something that happens to others, we’ll have a nation and world where there is more solidarity and empathy.
  3. The third habit emerges from the first two: find others in your community concerned about these issues and unite. Advocate. Raise hell. Go public. Participate in a CROP Hunger Walk. Volunteer at a food bank. Get your place of worship involved in the fight against hunger and poverty.

Again, it’s all about making new habits: small, deliberate things that make a difference. Put another way: if you want to change the world, start changing your habits.

Chris Herlinger is CWS’s senior writer.