Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Princess's Plea

Last Wednesday, I saw a real, live princess. Her Royal Highness Princess Haya Al Hussein of Dubai came to the Baker Institute here at Rice University to speak on "The Politics of Hunger," as part of her larger efforts, through her non-profit Tkiyet Um Ali, to end world hunger.

The talk began at 6pm. As I approached the Institute I saw a number of black sedans parked in front, and men in impeccable suits. In the lobby sat a pretty, smiling receptionist, checking the roster for names (the day before I had to fill out a detailed online RSVP form and register as a Rice student to get in). A police officer was watching from the corner as she checked me in.

I walked inside, with my jeans and T-shirt (covered in chalk from class), and immediately felt out of place. Most of the attendees were clearly important people; donors, public officials, distinguished members of the community. They were dressed up, had white hair, and clearly knew each other. It was a group as close to aristocracy as we get in America.

We were kept waiting a little bit. In the meantime I flipped through the program, and people-watched the aristocrats, who were greeting each other with the familiarity and affection of fellow parishioners. Every now and then I would hear the loud tak-tak of high heels as someone from the Institute went in the back to check on something. After a while, people started trickling from the back; at first a couple men in suits, then some women, who would later walk back to check on something; they would return; some more important-looking people; and then finally, the princess herself, surrounded by a whole delegation of people, including the former Secretary of State James Baker, with whom she was finishing up a conversation. As I watched this scene, it struck me how the extended wait and the scurrying back and forth of the Baker Institute staff represented an integral part of the very spectacle of power and status that we were there to see. By the time the princess did come out, I already felt distant from her, blocked by layers upon layers of guards, staffers, and officials who guarded her access; a common man, glimpsing a world to which I wasn't privy. An aura befitting a princess, I guess.

Her Royal Highness shook hands with some people sitting in the front row, and then took her seat.

Mr. Baker introduced the princess. He spoke fondly of the work he did with her father, the King of Jordan, and the honor of having her to visit. He gave the air of a man proud to see his friend's daughter all grown up.

Then Princess Haya took the podium. She was just as I imagined a princess should be. She had a British accent (being educated at Oxford), and spoke only as loud as she needed to be heard, lending her voice an ethereal and other-wordly quality. If it weren't for the Bose speakers, I would have to strain my ears to hear her:

The main theme of her talk was that America needed to take moral leadership in the fight against world hunger. Global hunger "has to become a priority," she said. Without food security, "there can be no political security, and no peace."

What most struck me about her talk was the latent frustration that bubbled behind her serene front. She admitted to feeling powerless at times, despite her high station; and she explained her annoyance for endless rounds of policy debates, which she saw as an excuse for not meeting our responsibilities. Most of all, she couldn't understand why policymakers weren't sincere about fighting global hunger. Why do countries spend so much on weapons and so little on aid? Why do we permit hunger to continue? Where is the outrage?

This plea was so earnest and sincere that I felt guilty for also thinking it was futile. There is, I think, a natural progression of thought when one works for moral causes like this: first comes outrage, and zeal, and disbelief; but eventually, sometimes soon but often much later, there settles in a kind of serenity that comes with wisdom and understanding. Yes, fight on for the causes that are important, but there are reasons for why things happen. (In this particular case, I would say, Princess, that it is possible for all the people in the world to have good intentions and still find ourselves in miserable situations.)

But I know well enough not to become cynical. Exhorting important people to spend more money on food aid may not be the most effective way of ending world hunger, but God knows the world could always use more of the princess's sincerity.


  1. There was a lot of discussion on this at the Clinton Global Initiative conference, and ultimately, I have to agree with you. Large scale discussions like this were the ones that sounded the most vague and hard to execute. Actually, a lot of the proposals at the conference that sounded too simple to work had turned out to be the most effective. It was amazing really to see some of the totally grassroots movements that had had such an impact. But, as you said, her sincerity was really nice to hear.

  2. It is a hard issue to care about. The book I just read reminded me that individual efforts can actually lead to real change, though, so even though preaching to the choir is frustrating, if it leads to a couple individuals making the world a fraction better, it's probably worth it. That's why I took the 1% pledge.