Global Policy Forum

A World Addicted to Hunger


By Miren Gutierrez

Inter Press Service
May 3, 2006

View: A World Addicted to Hunger: Part 2

In a report on Ethiopia issued on Feb. 24, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that "about fifteen million people are facing food insecurity that is either chronic or transitory in nature." Of these, five to six million people are chronically food insecure (that is, "people who have lost the capacity to produce or buy enough to meet their annual food needs even under normal weather and market conditions"), and the remaining 10 million are vulnerable, "with a weak resilience to any shock," says FAO.

According to Oxfam International, a confederation of anti-poverty organisations, more than 850 million people suffer from chronic hunger. Is Ethiopia condemned to suffer hunger regularly? Are others? "Abundance, not scarcity, best describes the world's food supply," said a 1998 paper entitled "12 Myths About Hunger," published by the Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, a U.S.-based non-governmental organisation. "Even most 'hungry countries' have enough food for all their people right now. Many are net exporters of food and other agricultural products."

One could talk about the contradictions of hunger. For example, in Nigeria, Brazil or Bolivia, abundant food resources coexist with pockets of famine; while Costa Rica has only half the farmed hectares per person that Honduras has, Costa Ricans enjoy a life expectancy 11 years longer than that of Hondurans.

In Ethiopia, the 2005 harvest of cereal and pulse crops -- which include peas and beans -- was estimated by United Nations agencies FAO and the World Food Programme (WFP) as "very good," and in 2006 the country has a small exportable surplus. "Despite this positive overall situation, large numbers of people, mainly pastoralists in south-eastern Ethiopia, are facing pre-famine conditions due to the failure of seasonal rains," said a group of FAO experts in an e-mail interview*.

Similarly, another report published by FAO last December said that South Africa has harvested a record maize crop of 12.4 million tonnes. However, FAO added: "food insecurity in southern Africa is of serious concern... Nearly 12 million people, mainly in Zimbabwe and Malawi, are in need of emergency food assistance."

According to FAO, the surplus of maize in the Republic of South Africa, at more than 4 million tonnes, is more than enough to meet the deficit of the rest of the countries in the region. So why do people die of malnutrition and hunger?

The Malthusian nightmares of geometric population growth combined with an exhaustion of supplies have not materialised. The world's population has arrived at 6.4 billion, six times higher than when Thomas Malthus published his "Essay on the Principle of Population" in 1798. But Malthus had underestimated the human ability to exploit resources increasingly efficiently.

What humanity does not do so well is to be fair with one another: most of the specialists and organisations dedicated to fighting against hunger, no matter how different their approach, point at inequality as the main underlying cause. Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate in economics, argued that the lack of entitlement, rather than the lack of available food, is the principal cause of famine in poor countries.

According to Food First as well, famines are the result of "underlying inequities that deprive people, especially poor women, of economic opportunity and security... Rapid population growth and hunger are endemic to societies where land ownership, jobs, education, health care, and old age security are beyond the reach of most people." FAO says that "this is a question of unequal distribution, poverty and limited physical and economic access to food by large segments of the population."

Man-made disasters play an increasingly important role. According to WFP, "since 1992, the proportion of short- and long-term food crises that can be attributed to human causes has more than doubled, rising from 15 percent to more than 35 percent."

Fighting displaces millions of people from their homes, leading to some of the world's worst hunger emergencies, says WFP in a report available on its web site. In war, food sometimes becomes a weapon: soldiers will starve opponents by seizing food and livestock. Fields and water wells are often contaminated or destroyed in war, forcing farmers to abandon their land. Famine is a complex process, not a unique, abrupt event. Food prices escalate, families sell their property, some of them migrate. As hunger grows, health systems collapse, the physical condition of individuals declines and people begin to die from malnutrition and illness.

Look at what is happening en Ethiopia. In spite of the advantages for crop-producing families, high cereal prices "will negatively affect the poorer households that are net buyers of grain," says FAO. As a consequence, "a significant number of vulnerable households remain largely food insecure and will depend on humanitarian assistance in 2006." Asked about how the food crisis in the Horn of Africa compares with the situation in Zimbabwe, FAO replied that, "although this is not the only food crisis in Africa, it could be said that (the situation in the Horn of Africa) is currently the most dramatic due to the number of people affected and to their difficult food situation." The crisis in Zimbabwe is more complicated, however. "Total cereal production has steadily fallen from over three million tonnes in 1996 to about 800,000 tonnes in 2005. This is a structural decline coinciding with the ongoing land tenure changes and the overall economic deterioration in that country."

President Robert Mugabe has given much of Zimbabwe's farmland to cronies not interested in farming; his policies have ruined the economy and left it short of diesel fuel to run its tractors. Inflation edged over 900 percent in March. The food crisis in southern Africa is occurring in the middle of the world's worst AIDS epidemic. Without sufficient food, those infected with HIV generally develop AIDS more rapidly and die. "The greatest humanitarian crisis today is not in Pakistan, the tsunami region or Darfur, though they are all severe," said James Morris, executive director of WFP, last October. "It is the gradual disintegration of social structures in southern Africa."

The immediate cause of famine is widespread crop failure, resulting from drought or civil war. "But not every drought or crop failure has to lead to famine. Countries that are well prepared to handle the crisis manage to protect their vulnerable populations," says FAO. The FAO experts reference Amartya Sen's work: "Democratic societies usually fare better in mitigating the food insecurity crisis and avoiding hardships to its population. One needs to highlight the importance of communication and the fact that often the risk of famine occurs because there is insufficient response to the early warning provided."

(*Miren Gutierrez is editor-in-chief of IPS. The group of FAO experts that cooperated in finding answers to IPS's questions includes Kisan R. Gunjal, food emergency officer, and Shukri Ahmed, economist, with the Global Information and Early Warning Service.)

By Miren Gutierrez

Inter Press Service
May 3, 2006

View: A World Addicted to Hunger: Part 1

Famines are almost a regular occurrence in many countries, especially in Africa, and recognisable signs of distress emerge well before people start to die. Why, then, is the response to food emergencies consistently slow?


"Predictability does make famines preventable so long as the countries have the means, know-how and the will to deal with the problem of food insecurity on a priority basis. In many cases, the countries or the donors may see other priorities for investments as more pressing," says a group of FAO experts in an e-mail interview*. It seems preventability is too often not the priority.

"In general, early warnings by FAO/GIEWS (Global Information and Early Warning System) and other organisations like FEWS NET (Famine Early Warning Systems Network) alert the international community. Yet, having an effective early warning system is no guarantee that interventions will follow," add the FAO experts. "In some cases the response to these alerts is not immediate. Public response is galvanized when the stark images of hunger and destitute are shown on the television... the so-called 'CNN effect'."

FEWS NET (part of the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID) and its United Nations counterpart, the Food and Agriculture Organisation's GIEWS, are the main alert agencies. The job of preventing hunger falls to World Food Programme, another U.N. agency, and a number of private agencies. But funding their efforts is no one's responsibility in particular.

According to Anthea Webb, the WFP senior public affairs officer in Rome, "all information is available. The problem is to turn information into providing food to people in need. In Niger we had practically nothing until we got footage on video of people dying of malnutrition to the BBC. But it is much better to help people before it is too late. In Niger we had made a very clear plea. The problem is getting the message across." To prove the point, WFP set up a web page called "Niger - A Chronology of Starvation".

After an abnormally short rainy season and a plague of locusts, at the end of 2004 WFP concluded that all the evidence indicated a food crisis was approaching: cereal prices had gone up, supplies were running low, people started eating seeds, the price of small livestock dropped as people sold those assets to buy food, the men left...

WFP publicised an urgent appeal for food on behalf of the government. In May 2005, the U.N. country representative launched a "flash appeal" for Niger, seeking 16.1 million dollars (which was increased to 18.3 million dollars in June). A month later, only 11 percent of the requested funding had been received.

In July, the BBC broadcasted footage gathered by WFP, showing children dying of malnutrition right before the cameras. A bit later, the U.N. renewed and increased its "flash appeal" to 30 million dollars. Almost immediately, 10 million dollars materialised.

"We have warned for months about the problems in Mauritania and Mali, as with Niger, but the world can only cope with so much misery and the TV cameras' random gaze has yet to fall on these struggling nations. If one lesson was learned from Ethiopia's disastrous famine in the 1980s, it was that the world should listen to the early warnings and respond promptly," said WFP executive director James Morris, in an article published by The Guardian shortly after. WFP received more donations for Niger in the last ten days of June than it had in the previous eight months.

There are so many disasters happening in the world that for slow-growing catastrophes like the current ones in southern Africa or in the Horn of Africa, it is more difficult to seize media and donor attention. Webb says that the regular promises of food aid pledged under the Food Aid Convention are being fulfilled without problems. But the aid needed to confront emergencies is another issue.

"Most years we get only around 80 percent (of the emergency aid required), but last year we even got less than that. Of course, we are very worried about the remaining 20 percent because it means that many have missed their meals, and afterwards it is too late to recuperate the loss of nutrients," she says in a telephone interview.

To what point does the world's system for fighting mass hunger rely on media attention? "To the credit of many donors, well articulated and planned sustained effort is also practiced by many developed countries... Obviously, spectacular disasters such as tsunami devastation in the Indian Ocean countries, the recent earthquake in Pakistan and subsequent misery due to bitter winter cold, malnourished children in Niger, etc. have a tremendous effect on the public response," says FAO. "However, given the current levels of development assistance, much more needs to be done on this score."

"If it doesn't go on TV it is difficult to fund any effort," says the WFP's Webb. "But the situation last year was especially difficult: we had so many emergencies -- the tsunami, Darfur, Niger, Pakistan -- that it was a real trouble funding all. Many donors had exhausted their resources; there was a real donor fatigue. Let's hope 2006 is better."

In order to make up for the deficit, aid organisations are appealing to new donors and devising new ways of funding their operations. "We are being more creative in the way we raise funds. Last year we raised 120 million dollars from private individuals or companies -- not much compared with the total 2.7 billion dollars, but an important first step," says Webb. "We are also reaching non-traditional (donor) countries. We are now getting funds from India, Algeria, Malawi, Kenya, Libya, Russian Federation and China."

AXA Re, a commercial insurance company, was awarded the world's first insurance contract for humanitarian emergencies, WFP announced recently. The contract provides 7.0 million dollars in contingency funding in a pilot scheme to provide coverage in the case of an extreme drought during Ethiopia's 2006 agricultural season.

Other initiatives include a "humanitarian lottery," one drawing a year using any country's national lottery, whose proceeds would be donated to humanitarian efforts. "The lottery systems already exists; it would mean little to both the countries and the individuals," says Webb.

Early interventions are not only cheaper than tardy ones, they can also avoid some of the traps of food aid. Early intervention before people's livelihoods are ruined can offer cash or vouchers with which to buy food on the local market, rather than emergency rations to keep them alive. During the World Trade Organisation meeting in Hong Kong last December, European representatives blamed U.S. food aid for distortions in international farm trade and recipients' dependency on distribution of free food. The United States is the world's largest donor of food aid.

In a paper entitled "Food aid or hidden dumping?" Oxfam International, a confederation of anti-poverty organisations, argues that in-kind food aid can strengthen, not change, the status quo, while enriching U.S. grain companies. "Agricultural exporting countries have called for new disciplines on food aid as part of the Doha Round negotiations at the WTO, in light of evidence that the USA sometimes uses food aid to dump agricultural surpluses and to attempt to create new markets for its exports."

"In recognition of such criticisms, the international community has actively sought in collaboration with host countries to make food aid respond only to verified demands and include more cash-based approaches," say the FAO experts. "FAO works with WFP through the approval process of its (Emergency Operations) to help avoid the potential negative effects on prices and farmers' incomes, generally through local purchases where possible."

In its Ethiopia report, FAO talks about a "new approach": cash aid instead of direct food aid. According to Oxfam, 90 percent of all food aid is provided in commodities rather than cash. "FAO in general favours the 'twin track' approach, which refers to its emphasis on long-term development and capacity building in the crisis-prone countries, while at the same time providing immediate emergency assistance and safety net support to save lives and livelihoods," explains FAO.

Webb, however, says that direct food aid does not have such a negative impact. According to her, WFP is "super careful" not to disturb local markets, calibrating quantities and choosing targets. "(Food aid) is directed to women, orphans, school-age children... In 2005, we made 60 percent of our purchases in local markets."

"We feed people who are hungry, who don't have any purchasing power in any case, so the impact in the local markets is negligible," she says. Commercial production can hardly be hurt if there is no commercial production, Webb argues.

One would think that the old adage of "giving fishing rods instead of fish" would dominate the aid world by now, after so many deaths, such persistent death.


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