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Make it happen

by Hans Dembowski
The Indian government is taking a new approach to fighting poverty. A Food Bill, which legislators are expected to pass soon, is designed to entitle all Indians to sufficient food. Whether the policy will succeed remains to be seen. In India, state agencies have a long track record of not fulfilling duties. By Hans Demboski

On the other hand, the Indian government has an incentive to do something for the poor. The country is a democracy. The current government is led by the Congress party and was re-elected in 2009 after it introduced an innovative jobs programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), in its previous term. Research shows that different Indian states are implementing MGNREGA with varying diligence and effectiveness. But nobody doubts the reform was a spectacular political success. Today, India’s government is struggling with corruption scandals. It certainly hopes the Food Bill will deliver similar rewards as the employment scheme did when the nation goes to the polls again in 2014.

In India, malnutrition and hunger persist as mass phenomena even though the country produces enough food to feed its 1.2 billion people. The problem is that many are simply too poor to buy the goods they need. In turn, their inadequate purchasing power is the reason why distribution systems are inadequate too. So far, it simply did not pay to make and keep them viable.

That is no different in many other world regions. According to a rough estimate, 50 % of the harvests rot away in developing countries instead of feeding people. In two important and mutually reinforcing ways, better facilities for storing, shipping and processing farm produce would make a difference: the food supply in markets would increase, and thanks to more jobs and related incomes, more people could take advantage of such supply. Therefore, the most urgent way to fight hunger today is to make sure poor people’s purchasing power rises. Improving infrastructure and economic opportunities in rural areas makes sense because this is where the majority of needy people live. Obviously, war and civil strife compound problems. Integrated rural development, however, is certainly the most promising approach to food security.

It is often assumed that absolute poverty is increasing around the world. Over the past decades, that was not the case. Today, roughly 1 billion of 7 billion people do not get enough food. Four decades ago, Earth was home to almost 4 billion people, of whom roughly 1 billion went hungry. The share of the needy has declined.

Nonetheless, food security may be more at risk in the future. Humankind is still growing. The world population is expected to peak at around 9 billion or 10 billion by the middle of this century. To feed everybody, experts reckon that food production will have to rise by 70 % because more people are becoming prosperous and consuming meat, which takes lots of plant proteins to produce. For many years, agricultural productivity used to increase faster than the world population did, but that is no longer so. Futures speculation and the production of agro-fuels, moreover, can compound food crises.

Gobal warming will make rural progress even more urgent. Extreme weather is likely to wipe out harvests again and again – right now, west Africa looks likely to suffer massively from drought. The greatest challenge is probably to find ­environment-friendly ways of coping with environmental change. The most urgent challenge, however, is to make development happen in rural areas.