Commentary: An Amber Alert for World Hunger?

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Last Saturday, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer drove the New York State Thruway from Albany to New York, something he’s done many times before. But Brian tells us this time, the trip included something new.

LEHRER: The something new was an Amber Alert. There was a series of electric signs informing us that an Amber Alert had been posted and that we could tune our radios to 530AM to find out more. So I did.

The announcer told us that a seven year old girl named Robin Bengston had been reported kidnapped in Albany. He told us she was white, with brown hair and brown eyes, approximately five feet tall and a hundred pounds. And he gave us the name of the woman suspected of kidnapping Robin, told us she had a dragon tattoo on her right shoulder and was driving a black Chevy Silverado pickup truck. Our job in the car was to be on the lookout for the wanted Silverado and report it to the police immediately if we thought Robin and her tattooed abductor might be in it.

So the Amber Alert law accomplished a marvelous thing: It deputized a Thruway full of strangers to take personally the threat to one child’s life. My wife and I began to speculate about the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping. We almost wrote a whole episode of Law and Order by the time we reached the Harriman toll booths. Alas, we arrived in the city with no sign of the wanted vehicle.

But the experience got me to thinking about other kids in trouble. Specifically, about a World Health Organization report I read about which estimates that every year, 15 million children die of hunger. I realized I don’t know any of their names, what color eyes or hair they have, or their height or weight. And I don’t have a suspected perp with a tattooed shoulder to catch and blame.

But next month, the United Nations plans to debate a proposal to urge each of the world’s wealthier nations to spend 7/10th of one percent of its Gross National Product on development aid to poorer nations. Today, the US spends less than two-10th of one percent, compared with the most generous nations, such as Sweden and Norway, which donate about 8/10th. And the US opposes the 7/10th of one percent proposal.

The Bush Administration has some legitimate concerns about how the money would be used. For example, they are right to insist that anti-corruption efforts come first in many nations or the money from Americans’ pockets will mostly be kidnapped by corrupt officials and never reach any hungry children.

But concerns about corruption shouldn’t be used as an excuse for being cheap. It’s easy to forget in our day to day lives how unusual our lifestyles are in the world. Harper’s has published a stat that 80 percent of people alive today have never used a telephone, while in the richest country history has ever known, we have electric signs along the road informing us when a single child has been abducted.

I later found out, by the way, that the tattooed lady was Robin Bengston’s mother and that no kidnapping had taken place. She immediately took her daughter to a police station when she heard about the Amber Alert.

But still, the incident inspired an idea.

Let’s rename the UN’s Financing for Development proposal Anya’s Law. And instead of something bureaucratic like 0.7 percent of GNP for hunger, let’s just require this: When a child is near death from starvation, a series of electric signs will light up on Thruways all over the developed world, announcing an Anya Alert. Then broadcast the child’s name, hair and eye color, height and weight. And let’s just see what happens.

WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. You can hear his call in show weekdays at 10am