The hunger circle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 January, 2009, 12:00am

Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 topped the eight Millennium Development Goals made by 169 countries in 2000.

But as we enter the last year of the decade, it seems this is still a distant and unrealistic dream.

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates the number of people without enough food has reached 923 million - 17 per cent of the total world population, or one in six people.

Ten million people die every year because of lack of food and malnutrition.

The WFP, the world's largest food aid agency, delivers more than 40 million tonnes of food, feeding some 86 million people in 80 countries. Almost US$3 billion is spent on food aid every year. The idea of the WFP is to act as a safety net, with affluent countries contributing a fraction of their fortunes, in terms of food or cash, to feed people struggling to survive in developing countries, especially where natural disasters have struck or bloody conflicts break out.

The programme has been running for five decades, and there is no sign of relieving hunger. Instead all these figures only keep rising - it is 20 million more than 20 years ago. Last year because of the rise in food prices, a further 75 million people became undernourished.

Ethiopia is, sadly, a prime example. The country was famous for its famine in 1984, which affected 8 million people and killed 1 million. It caught global attention and led to a high-profile charity concert, Live Aid, featuring superstars like Madonna and Paul McCartney, in 1985. In the past 24 years the country has received more food aid than any other African nation. Yet today there are still 8.6 million people in Ethiopia who rely on relief food.

Why, after years of relief effort, tonnes of food and billions of dollars being spent, do poor countries get poorer, and people get hungrier? Drought, crop failures, political instability and poor government all play a part in long-term poverty. But critics point their fingers at food aid itself, which is crippled with fundamental flaws and wrecks poor African nations further.

The economies of most third world countries feature little besides farming. But the thousands of tonnes of free grain arriving in poor countries like Ethiopia annually completely destroys the local agricultural industry. There is simply no market for locally produced crops.

Even if some farmers manage to produce surplus crops, it is hard to find buyers. When they are unable to sell their crops, they do not have the money to buy seeds or fertiliser to plant crops the next season.

Free food, in other words, is a disincentive to farm. In Ethiopia, the population has increased by 2 million a year over the past decade, but net agricultural production has diminished. When food is free, why bother to sweat on a farm? In some countries, children have grown up with food aid and never learned how to farm.

Food aid does save millions of lives if it is carefully planned so that it has a limited effect on the local economy. Humanitarian organisations know the flaws and encourage donors to inject cash and buy local products directly to protect the local economy.

The WFP and many European countries now split their donations between crops and cash to buy local food. But the biggest donor - the US government - which supplies almost half of the world's total food aid refuses to go along with the policy.

US food aid feeds more than 70 million people a year at a cost of up to US$2 billion. It has long been criticised as having an agenda other than altruism - one of subsidising US farms and expanding the US food market. In fact, the American policy is written explicitly in the Farm Bill, which states unashamedly that food aid aims to 'develop and expand export markets for United States agricultural commodities'.

Care, one of the biggest international relief and humanitarian organisations in the world, last year stopped accepting US$45 million in annual food aid from the US.

Shipping the food from the US to developing countries is not cost-effective, the group argues. It benefits the US farming industry and its shipping companies more than it does the countries that receive the aid.

It is true that even the best efforts based on genuine altruistic intentions may have shortcomings. However, only when donors set aside their self-interests and political agendas and come up with long-term strategies can there be a chance to make hunger history.




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