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SPECIAL REPORT-PART I: A World Addicted to Hunger

Miren Gutierrez*

ROME, May 3 2006 (IPS) - In Ethiopia, some 12.6 million people require food aid, up from 11.3 million… Donors have pledged enough to meet about 82 percent of food needs, but only 54 percent has been delivered… Sound familiar? This alert was issued three years ago by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, known as FEWS NET. Guess what? Ethiopia appeared again this year on FEWS NET’s list of “current emergencies,” alongside Somalia, Zimbabwe, and Chad.

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.)

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