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Fighting hunger

An opportunity in crisis

by Klaus Klennert, Lioba Weingärtner
For many people in developing countries, the biggest concern remains how to provide enough food. Rising prices and hunger riots in some poor countries captured international attention in recent months. The world knows how to fight hunger. It is time to act. [ By Klaus Klennert and Lioba Weingärtner ]

The problem of hunger and malnutrition is nothing new. That the number of people affected by hunger worldwide is on the rise again, however, is a recent and depressing trend. Food has become as scarce today as it was last in the 1970s.

However, the current hunger crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Anyone interested enough knows that hundreds of millions of people have been suffering hunger and malnutrition for decades. Therefore, it became an internationally agreed Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to halve the number of people suffering from hunger between 1990 and 2015. The FAO has been sending out warnings about the lack of progress in this field for years.

“Hunger” in this context means undernourishment. Those who suffer hunger in this sense do not, over a long period of time, have enough food for a healthy and active life, even though they may have enough for immediate survival. According to the latest estimates by the FAO, 923 million people throughout the world are affected by hunger; and 98 % of them live in developing countries. Almost 150 million children worldwide are chronically malnourished.

As a result of the steep price hikes in the past months, the number of hungry people has risen by an estimated 75 million. Worst affected are those people whose production and income cannot keep pace with the rising prices and who had to spend almost all their income on food even before the crisis. Hardest hit, in other words, is the majority of poor and food-insecure people around the world, including many people living in rural areas of developing countries. Many people who produce foodstuffs are affected too, as they have to supplement their own produce by buying food from the market.

After years of slow progress towards attaining the food-Millennium Development Goal, the trend has shifted in to the reverse gear. Today, 17% of the population in developing countries are suffering from hunger; their share is three percentage points lower than at the beginning of the 1990s.

In the fight against hunger, China has reported noteworthy success. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, the challenge remains especially great: one out of three people in this region have inadequate access to food. Of all world regions, the prevalence of hunger is highest in Africa, even though, in absolute numbers, more people are in need in highly populated Asia.

Food and more

While the current discussion about hunger and malnourishment predominantly focuses on an adequate food supply, there is far more to it. Even if there is in principle enough food for all, there is no guarantee that everyone has access to it. Access can be ensured by producing one’s own food, market transactions, through transfer payments from family members or through aid from the international community. These socioeconomic aspects are important, and deserve the attention of policymakers.

Yet even if there is sufficient food available for all households, the supply for individual family members may still remain inadequate. Breastfeeding and weaning habits often do not correspond to natural needs. Moreover, food requirements of sick family members are often not met. The fact that drinking water and sewage disposal are often inadequate and unhygienic makes matters worse. Meanwhile, it is clear that women generally bear the main responsibility for supplying food within families, and that their position must be strengthened for conditions to improve.

Last summer, IFPRI, the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, named the following causes of the current food crisis:
– changed consumer habits as a result of higher income, with the result that more grain is used as feed for animals and is therefore not available for people,
– increased subsidisation of bio-fuels, which compete with the cultivation of food crops,
– inadequate investment in agricultural productivity and technology,
– misguided trade policy, and speculation as a result of depleting food reserves,
– poor harvests due to unfavourable weather conditions and climate change,
– high prices for agricultural inputs and transport because of higher energy prices and, finally,
– world population growth.

These key issues point out the need to act. First of all, it is important to attend to urgent calamities on a short term basis. In the long run, however, agricultural conditions must be improved in order to increase productivity. The structural causes of hunger and malnutrition need to be tackled. Supporting sustainable agriculture in the context of extensive rural development must again become an absolute priority. Hunger is especially prevalent in regions where the economy is defined by agricultural production. However, the diverse causes of hunger and malnutrition clearly show that successful farming, in itself, is not the solution.

Governmental responsibility

National governments of the affected countries bear the main responsibility in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. The international community must support these governments according to their needs and step in where they fail. Additionally, numerous improvements in the country’s governance are required to ensure that the promotion of food and food security remains a priority.

A great deal can be done in cooperation with national stakeholders in the partner countries. Since hunger is a complex problem, any policy must react to the issue in a similarly complex manner. One-dimensional concepts and measures are not of help.

InWEnt (Capacity Building International, Germany) has been involved in different projects and activities in this field for many years. Many food security measures are geared towards specific sectors; they focus, for instance, on rural development or water supply, while others involve an integrated approach on food-security. Staff training matters very much.

At its training centre in Feldafing, ­InWEnt has since 2000 been running the international training workshop “Food and nutrition security: assessment instruments and intervention strategies” in cooperation with German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and Welthungerhilfe, an NGO. Both agencies take advantage of the programme to qualify their own staff as well as staff of partner organisations. The FAO makes use of the programme too.

Furthermore, InWEnt engages in international policy dialogue in cooperation with partners like IFPRI, GTZ or Welthun­ger­hilfe. More than 500 participants from more than 50 countries came together to analyse the current situation and discuss appropriate solutions at the international conference “Assuring Food and Nutrition Security in Africa by 2020”. InWEnt also assisted the “International Food Aid Conference”, which Germany’s Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development held under the EU presidency in 2007. It served to prepare for the renegotiation of the Food Aid convention, facilitating discussion on core issues with crucial partners. In a similar sense, InWEnt also supports the political dialogue with an emphasis on the right to food – in the context of the Federal Government’s annual “Policies Against Hunger” conference-series. It is a serious matter that the hunger crisis has escalated again. However, the fact that the subject is once again capturing international attention should be considered an opportunity. Humanity knows how to rise to the challenges; and, given the political will, necessary resources can be mobilised quickly.

Nationally and internationally, policymakers are taking action – though still not determined and fast enough. Whether the current mobilisation will be of lasting benefit to around a billion people in the long run remains to be seen. All opportunities to realise the right to food must be seized.