World Hunger Hangs On

Poverty Isn’t the Only Factor

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, JULY 10, 2004 ( Hunger continues to be an acute problem for millions worldwide. On Monday in Addis Ababa, the U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, addressed a seminar to discuss how to meet goals set on reducing hunger. The seminar was held the day before the start of a three-day meeting of African leaders at the African Union Summit.

“Nearly a third of all men, women and children in sub-Saharan Africa are severely undernourished,” said Annan, according to a U.N. press release issued Tuesday. “Africa is the only continent where child malnutrition is getting worse rather than better.”

Annan called for a “green revolution” in Africa, citing the tripling of food productivity achieved in the past in Asia and Latin America. The U.N. secretary-general explained that in many cases the policies needed to increase food production are already known. “What is lacking, as ever, is the will to turn this knowledge into practice,” he said.

A press release issued on Tuesday by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization highlighted the shortages facing some African nations. In its Africa Report the FAO noted that 23 sub-Saharan countries are facing food emergencies for the summer season. The report puts sub-Saharan Africa’s food aid requirement for 2004 at 2.9 million tons, compared with around 4 million tons last year.

In a look at the wider global situation last Nov. 25, the FAO published its annual report on hunger, “The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2003.” The report observed that given the rate at which hunger has declined since 1990, the World Food Summit goal of halving the number of undernourished people by 2015 cannot be reached.

After falling by 37 million during the first half of the 1990s, the number of hungry people in developing countries increased by 18 million in the second half of the decade. Worldwide the report estimates that 842 million people were undernourished in 1999-2001, including 798 million in developing countries.

At the regional level, only Latin America and the Caribbean had a decline in the number of hungry since the mid-1990s. Only 19 countries, including China, succeeded in reducing the number of undernourished throughout the 1990s, says the report. “In these successful countries, the total number of hungry people fell by over 80 million.” At the other end of the scale are 26 countries where the number of undernourished people increased by 60 million during the same period.

An initial analysis made in the report suggested that countries with significantly higher economic and agricultural growth had the most success in reducing hunger. Another helping factor in reducing hunger is trade. “International trade can have a major impact on reducing hunger and poverty in developing countries,” says the FAO. “Overall, countries that are more involved in trade tend to enjoy higher rates of economic growth.”

Amid plenty

The Wall Street Journal in a June 25 article confirmed the importance of tackling poverty as a solution to hunger. In India, efforts to increase agricultural production have been so successful that by 2001 the country was exporting grain. Yet, many people continued to go hungry. The article cited U.N. data saying that as many as 214 million people in India do not get enough to eat.

The Journal detailed the example of one community, where inhabitants received loans to enable them to start their own businesses. With the income earned through this program, the families are able to buy more food. “International agencies that once encouraged countries to solve starvation crises by growing more food are now tackling the more fundamental problem of rural poverty as well,” the article explained.

The article observed that world food production is sufficient to provide everyone with enough to eat. But distributing this is problematic, with poverty, corruption and inadequate infrastructure making it difficult to reach those in need. Moreover, simply handing out food to all the needy would lock them into a state of permanent dependency.

How to remedy hunger was also examined in a 2003 book, “Ending Hunger in Our Lifetime,” authored by three professors from the University of Minnesota — C. Ford Runge, Benjamin Senauer and Philip Pardey — and Mark Rosegrant, from the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Regarding the link between poverty and food security the authors argue that poor countries will need outside aid. This can come both from the traditional sources of governments and non-governmental organizations, and from the participation of private groups, such as philanthropic foundations. Improved trade polices can also play a part in alleviating hunger.

But if poverty is a cause of hunger it is also a consequence, because better-fed workers are able to produce more. The authors cite a study on Britain’s economic history that affirms a full 30% of growth in the past two centuries was due to improvements in nutrition.
<br> As for the much-debated theme of globalization and its role in economic growth, the book notes that some countries have been bypassed by globalization, especially those that are poor in skills and education. Policies of economic openness, they argue, can help reduce poverty and hunger. Greater attention is needed, however, to the plight of the poorest and the most vulnerable, to ensure they participate in these benefits.

They cite Thailand as an example of how to achieve this. From 1988 to 1996 the proportion of Thais living in poverty fell from 32.6% to 11.4%. In the 1982-’98 period, mild malnutrition in preschool children declined from 35% to 8%, and moderate malnutrition fell from 13% to less than 1%. Along with growth-oriented policies, Thailand had a commitment to investing in people and agriculture, and aid to the poorest.

Not just poverty

Other factors are also important in order to diminish hunger. One area is environmental protection, so as to deal with factors that diminish production, such as water shortages, soil loss and pollution.

Another important area is that of scientific research. The “Ending Hunger” authors note that in the past much of the growth in production has come about as a result of new crop varieties. But, they warn, the controversy over genetically engineered plants threatens to undermine support for agricultural research in general. A strong commitment to research is essential in order to feed a still growing population and, at the same time, take care of resources and the environment.

The authors also point to many other factors involved in ensuring greater food security. Among those analyzed in the book are the need to involve international organizations more in promoting agriculture, improving governmental responsibility so as to reduce the ill effects of weak or despotic governments, and upgrading educational levels.

In his address last Dec. 10 to participants of the 32nd Conference of the FAO, John Paul II commented “that economic and political decisions and strategies must increasingly be guided by a commitment to global solidarity and respect for fundamental human rights, including the right to adequate nourishment.”

The Pope invoked the principle of subsidiarity, explaining that the call to solidarity affects all groups in society, from individuals to civil associations, religious confessions, governments and international institutions. The fate of many people will depend on whether this call is answered.

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