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LATIN AMERICA: Growth and Social Inclusion Must Be Linked to Fight Hunger

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 13 2010 (IPS) - The concept that the state plays a key role in overcoming chronic hunger is not a new one. But the latest figures from Latin America show that more public money and social programmes alone are ineffective solutions.

Undernourished child in Camotán, in eastern Guatemala.  Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

Undernourished child in Camotán, in eastern Guatemala. Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

Some 600,000 people in Latin America and the Caribbean escaped from hunger over the last year, but this is a drop in the ocean when 53.1 million people were underfed in the region in 2009, and 52.5 million will still be going hungry by the end of 2010.

“Countries have tried to implement programmes, but either they lack the necessary institutions, or they don’t have the funds” to ensure they are effective, said Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) regional representative and assistant director-general José Graziano da Silva.

The statistics are from the report “Panorama de la Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional en América Latina y el Caribe” 2010 (Overview of Food and Nutritional Security in Latin America and the Caribbean), launched Wednesday Oct. 13 by FAO.

The report says stronger links are needed between economic growth and social inclusion.

“The countries that have been least affected are those that had a social protection system for the poor, combined with programmes to support productive activities,” da Silva said.

Several countries in the region have implemented policies to support food production, organise trade and markets for food and agriculture, and provide social protection and food aid.

At present, 19 countries are implementing conditional income transfer programmes, like the Bolsa Familia (family grant) programme in Brazil, Oportunidades (opportunities) in Mexico and Familias en Acción (families in action) in Colombia.

However, not all of them have yielded the expected results, either because they were still at the pilot stage, or were not integrated with other social and productive policies, da Silva said.

Rural leader Florencia Aróstica, of the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women (ANAMURI), a Chilean NGO, and the Latin American Coordinating Committee of Rural Organisations (CLOC), told IPS: “Rather than a strong state, a more sovereign state is needed.

“The present neoliberal model, focused on industry, has been of no use in mitigating world hunger. There are no policies to boost small-scale agriculture, only a few ineffective programmes,” said Aróstica, who grows vegetables on her small farm in northern Chile.

In September, FAO announced that 98 million people have been freed from hunger since 2009. But there are still 925 million undernourished people in the world today, according to its report “The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2010: Addressing Food Insecurity in Protracted Crises”.

Aróstica criticised the backing given to intensive monoculture farming, the concentration of land tenure in the hands of a few corporations and monopoly control over water resources.

“As small farmers have been pushed off their land, the number of landless rural workers looking for jobs has risen. Unemployment is rife and working conditions are bad, especially for women,” she said.

CLOC, which belongs to the international peasant movement Via Campesina, is holding its Fifth Continental Congress in Quito Oct. 8-16 under the slogan “Against dispossession by capital and empire: For land and sovereignty for our peoples.”

Although the reduction of hunger has been minimal, it does however represent progress compared to the 2006-2009 period, when owing to the global economic crisis and soaring food prices, six million people in Latin America and the Caribbean joined the ranks of the hungry, and the region regressed to the situation that prevailed in 1990.

The region continues to enjoy economic growth, but the volatility of international markets makes it likely that the growth rate will decline in the next few years, and that employment will also fall.

“The incomes of a great many people in Latin America hover around the poverty line: as long as they have jobs they are above the line, but if one person in the family becomes unemployed, they fall below it. It’s a very unstable situation,” da Silva said.

Fernando Soto, coordinator of the policies group at the FAO regional office in Santiago, said the countries that “weathered the crisis best were those that had, or have, public institutions capable of implementing anti-cyclical policies.”

In these countries, the state plays a strong role in strategic areas of the economy, and can make a difference by bolstering food production for the domestic market, providing loans to farmers, and through public procurement, food stockpiling and distribution, and social protection programmes.

“The most successful countries manage increasingly to link economic growth and social inclusion. They are two separate things,” Soto said.

“We cannot have growth on the one hand, and on the other create social programmes for the people who are excluded from that growth. There is a limit to this: it’s called public debt,” the FAO expert said.

Countries that are extremely vulnerable to food insecurity, like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, increased their public debt in 2009 to such an extent that they are now negotiating adjustment measures with the International Monetary Fund and are planning to cut social expenditure in their 2011 budgets.

FAO’s recommendations include supporting a greater role for family agriculture in food supply, and improving the regulation and oversight of agricultural and labour markets, which are key factors affecting rural poverty, according to the regional report.

Investment in family agriculture is between two and four times more effective in reducing poverty than any other type of investment, the head of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Kanayo Nwanze, told IPS last year when he visited successful projects in Brazil.

However, “during periods when poverty has risen, it has increased most among peasant families” in comparison with other rural populations, researcher Alexander Schejtman of the Latin American Centre for Rural Development (RIMISP), a regional organisation based in the Chilean capital, told IPS.

The family farming sector tends in most countries to exhibit the greatest slides into poverty and the smallest emergence from it, within a rural setting which is in any case poorer than the urban context, the economist concluded.

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