Hungry For Converts
5 June 1985
Hungry for converts
‘This is Kerry. Can I help you?’ The voice sings down from the other end of the telephone line. You are talking to the Hunger Project. And while the name may be different in each of the twenty-two offices around the globe the slick marketing approach to the caller is always the same.
The caller feels like a customer. Not too surprising perhaps.because the Hunger Project is trying to sell you something - one simple idea: that world hunger can be eliminated. The Hunger Project is not going to tell you how this can be done. All it is after is your belief and commitment.
This is an organisation that has always been controversial. Its critics argue that The Hunger Project is capitalising on people’s concern about world poverty and using it to insinuate the ideas of a mind-manipulating cult. Others less suspicious merely lament that the energy of good and concerned people is being sucked into a harmless but ultimately fruitless activity.
The cult in question is Erhardt Seminar Training (EST). EST deliberately shrouds itself in mystery. It’s a kind of positive-thinking group-support system designed to remove your inhibitions and open up the mind. It owes much to the dynamic selling techniques first offered to salesmen in the US in the I930s. Its originator, Werner Erhardt was indeed a salesman himself (of encyclopaedias, door to door), though he was at that time calling himself John Rosenberg, EST participants pay handsomely for sessions in which they can be humiliated, abused and insulted by their ’trainers’ until at the end of a gruelling weekend they finally ‘get it’. Some of those who don’t get whatever ‘it’ is are said to have suffered psychological ill-effects.
The Hunger Project was launched by Erhardt in 1977 and fixed a target of 20 years ahead - 1997 - as the date by which hunger was to be abolished. The end of hunger, he said, is ‘an idea whose time has come’.
The connection with EST has remained unclear. The Hunger Project itself is coy about any links, But it is clear that many of the Project’s key organizers are EST ‘graduates’ and that many of the techniques it applies to thought (or non-thought) about hunger issues are strikingly similar.
What does the Hunger Project actually do? In terms of practical action it does not claim to do anything at all. What it seeks to do is create the ‘context’ in which something can be done. It seems to believe that all political approaches are equally valid - these are merely ‘content’ and the content must be chosen by each individual person.
Including all positions seems to be an effective way of recruiting the largest number of people. By 1980 a million people, mostly in the USA, had enrolled in the Hunger Project. Today the Project claims an amazing 3.3 million enrollees worldwide.
Its chief appeal is that the message is simple and direct - that world hunger can be abolished because we already have the technical means to do so. Thus far New internationalist readers would probably be in agreement. But the Hunger Project then goes on to say that all that is lacking is some general ‘will’ on the part of the human race.
There is, however, no shortage of people willing to profess concern. Indeed it is very difficult to find anyone who is in favour of hunger and starvation. The shortage is of people willing to take the tough political decisions needed to change things - yet this is precisely the point at which the Hunger Project shies away.
All the money raised by the Hunger Project goes into sustaining the campaign itself - persuading people to sign a personal commitment to end world hunger by the end of the century. Activists approach the public on street corners or at parties to win signatures for the cause - and do so with a professional selling style that contrasts sharply with the enthusiastic amateur approach of the traditional Third World development organisations.
Indeed Michael Frye, who is chairman of the Hunger Project in Britain, believes that most of the antagonism to the organization is based on opposition to the American cultural style which it adopts.
The project was founded in Britain in 1978 with a visit from its charismatic American Executive Director, Joan Holmes. So far it has signed up about a quarter of a million people in the country.
UK Chairman Frye is a flamboyantly overweight and successful businessman. He is also chairman of Rotaflex, a company making electric-light and shower fittings. ‘In 1981’, he says, ‘people were really just apathetic about world hunger. But there has been a huge shift in consciousness within three years. And perhaps some of the pioneering work the Hunger Project did has helped that.’
There are seven paid staff in the Project’s offices in Kensington, London. Income and expenditure in 1984 was around £190,000 ($200,000) and this was split half-and-half on staff costs and publications. Frye and the other four directors of the Hunger Project in Britain are not paid for their services. Perhaps he doesn’t need paying. He left our meeting in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce.
He does not accept that the Hunger Projects message is an oversimplification. And he feels that targets, such as eliminating hunger by the year 2000, or recruiting one per cent of the population, are helpful. ‘My business experience tells me targets make it easier to achieve things.’
He says that he himself is not an EST graduate and that he would not tolerate EST people recruiting among Hunger Project people in Britain.
The connections between the two certainly seem to be much stronger in the USA. I spoke to Carol and Noel Giambalvo, who live in New York and were ‘briefing leaders’ for the Hunger Project for five years before becoming disillusioned. Both are EST graduates. Noel is a retired teacher and Carol works as an ‘exit councillor’ helping young people to escape from ‘mind-bending cults’ - and she now believes the Hunger Project to be one of these.
‘The pressure put upon us to make our targets of recruits into the Hunger Project became just too great,’ Carol explained. She admitted that those involved in the Hunger Project were ‘very dedicated’ but claims that EST members constantly used Project briefings to recruit participants into EST.
She and her husband started attending EST seminars after their previous marriages broke up. They went to them weekly for five years at a cost of around $50 a seminar. ‘We were afraid to leave the EST system and we were told that our lives wouldn’t work without it.’ In the end they left disillusioned and now reject the whole EST idea, which is that they as individuals should take responsibility for the whole universe.
Like every other briefing leader, Carol was first given a six-week training course. But she found that a lot of the information she acquired wasn’t necessary. When talking to potential recruits they were told that they shouldn’t try to engage their minds. ‘We were told to recreate Joan Holmes and then just given a script.’
They had the arguing technique explained to them. ‘Any criticism is turned back on the critic. We were told to regard criticism not as pressure upon us but as an opportunity.’
But for all those that have left the Hunger Project there are many more that have joined. To see the process I went to a college in southern England where a typical briefing was being held to sign up British teenagers. The two presenters, Philida and Carola, are both women in their twenties – smartly turned out in high heels and make-up. To took at them they could have been marketing soap powder or double-glazing.
The briefing begins with ‘facts about hunger’. Philida and Carol take it in turns to read from prepared scripts at the lectern. As they speak, emotional images from the Third World are flashed on the screen - usually with no explanation of what they depict.
The teaching method is one of telling the audience the ‘facts’ rather than leading-out and using the experience of the audience. Many of the conclusions that Carola and Philida reach would be applauded by New Internationalist readers. Hunger can be prevented. There are not too many mouths to feed. What is missing, however, is the political dimension. Although there is a brief mention of land reform, hunger is presented as an essentially technical problem for which there are a variety of technical solutions. There is no suggestion, for example, that elites in the Third World may deliberately keep their fellow citizens poor and hungry - or that the distribution of food follows the distribution of power. What the Hunger Project in general tries to do is to take one of the most explosive and critical issues in the world and ‘depoliticise’ it.
When Philida and Carol have put across the facts the time comes for the hard sell. ‘You and I are the key to ending world hunger’, says Philida. Then Carola turns to the audience and asks ‘I want to know what you can do to end hunger. I am talking to the person in your chair. I want you to call out. The audience is embarassingly silent but the presenters carry on regardless.
At question time some of the audience are still sceptical. ‘What if we send aid and the Third World government won’t use it properly’?’ queries one schoolboy. His question, in true EST fashion, is not really answered but brushed aside with the response that problems are really opportunities in disguise.
‘I can only say that if you look out there and say the obstacles are too great, nothing will happen’, says Philida. ‘The commitment to solve hunger begins with us. Imagine that in the year 2000 hunger is ended and you can say "I did something". Wouldn’t that be wonderful?’
Many of the 17-year-olds in the audience are clearly impressed. The final call to sign the Hunger Project declaration is cut short by the school bell but the presenters seem satisfied. Whether the briefing could be considered educational in the broadest sense is open to doubt. The experience is more reminiscent of a call to sign the pledge to refuse alcohol than of learning about the causes of injustice and poverty. They appear to believe, though they deny it, that if enough people want hunger to go away then this is exactly what will happen. All that is required is that we demonstrate the ‘will’. This is a familiar concept. The Brandt Report, for example, talks of there not being enough ‘political will’ to end Third World poverty. But ‘political will’ is a routine code phrase among politicians. It refers to the complex of pressures upon them - from business, from the military, from lobbying groups of all kinds.
The Hunger Project appears deliberately to misunderstand this point and concludes that what is missing is some kind of will amongst the individual citizens of Western nations.
This might seem just innocent woolly thinking. But the Hunger Project is growing at a tremendous rate and seems to be absorbing the energy of a great number of people. You only have to show up at one of their meetings to have been considered to have endorsed the Project,
The inability, indeed unwillingness, to distinguish between what is good and bad in the development field is the organisation’ greatest weakness. While it may be harmless in itself, the uncritical attitude it engender diverts attention from the real and difficult choices we face. Where it undermines on ability to make such choices it is more likely to postpone the abolition of hunger than encourage it.