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Sun 4 Jun 2017 10:56 AM

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Princess Haya: How hunger severely impacts a child's future

Children who do not share a family or community meal also miss out on the physical and mental development that could help them succeed.

Princess Haya: How hunger severely impacts a child's future
Benevolence: Princess Haya continues to work tirelessly in helping the United Nations meet its goals, especially those of reducing poverty and hunger.

Recently, my eight-year-old daughter Al Jalila worked on a class project about a famous fable, the ‘stone soup’ story, and how you can accomplish so much with sharing.

The fable dates back to the early 1700s and has many different cultural versions, but the essence of the story remains the same; a hungry traveller passes through a village, but finds people are unwilling to share their food.  He asks for a pot, which he fills with water, places a stone inside and puts it over the fire. The traveller tells the curious villagers that the stone soup is delicious, but would be even better with some herbs to garnish, a potato or a cut of beef.

Gradually, everyone puts something into the pot, until the traveller declares the magnificent soup is ready and removes the stone — he then shares the soup with the villagers.

I was really touched by how relevant the message of this fable, first told 300 years ago, still is today. I wonder how many starving people there were in the world when the stone soup fable originated? Did they see the same tragic disparity that we see today between those who have enough to eat and those who have too little?

The sad fact is that today one in nine people in the world are undernourished. The moral of the stone soup story teaches us the importance of individuals coming together to make something significant from lots of small contributions. It is also about sharing and giving to people less fortunate than ourselves.

There are two sides to malnutrition. On one side, there are people worldwide who eat too much, and on the other side, those who do not have enough to eat. We have never seen this before in the history of mankind.

Of course, there is no one underlying cause of hunger, just as there is no quick fix solution, but when statistics show that there is enough food worldwide for everyone, I cannot help thinking that we are just not very good at sharing. But it is easy to feel paralysed by the enormity of the task at hand — how can an individual make a difference to the millions of people ravaged by hunger around the world?

I have never experienced extreme hunger but I have seen, at first hand through my work with the UN World Food Programme, how frightening and debilitating it is. It won’t go away overnight, but I truly believe that if everybody made a conscious effort to share a little more and make a small contribution, we could reduce the malnutrition that afflicts 300 million children today.

As the American author Helen Keller once said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

Children’s fables such as the stone soup story can teach us all a valuable lesson in reviving the dying art of sharing with those less fortunate than ourselves. And maybe children can be the ones to help us learn these lessons?

Children look at things in a very simple, honest way. Their perspectives are not distorted by overly complicated analysis, nor are their judgements clouded by the distortions of some politicians and corporations.

Children’s actions are direct and immediate — tell a child that somebody is hungry, they will simply say “give them something to eat”. We spend so much time teaching our children how important it is to share, and granted this is an essential life lesson, but it saddens me greatly as a mother and a United Nations Messenger of Peace, to see that we still need to repeat that message, and strongly, to feed the world’s starving children.

For me, the stone soup story goes beyond the simple act of sharing food — we know that the story ends with a delicious and nourishing pot of soup enjoyed by all. The villagers’ stomachs were filled and so too were their souls, all through the simple act of enjoying a shared meal with friends and family. Food created a sense of community.

This is still true today. For example, in the Arab world, the family meal plays a very important role in bringing everybody together.

During the holy month of Ramadan, we spend our days preparing the Iftar meal to be shared with friends and family, and we are taught to give to the needy.

Seriously malnourished children experience this less than we do — and when their basic needs go unmet, they never grow to have the mental and physical capacity to succeed. Nor do they feel the same love, sense of togetherness or emotional bond that sharing meals with family brings.

I want to make an urgent plea on behalf of the millions living with chronic hunger:  1) Stop waste. Make a conscious effort to reduce food waste in your own home — whether reducing the amount you cook, or simply buying less at the supermarket. 2) Share. Spend five minutes researching a food donation programme in your area, and give what you can — whether it is food, money or even your time — it will not go to waste. 3) Remember. Do not forget the story of the stone soup, and how a small contribution can go such a long way to helping those in need.

Mother Theresa said it best when she said, “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”

* HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein is a UN Messenger of Peace, chairperson of International Humanitarian City and wife of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

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