A billion living in hunger: governments must rise to the challenge

The third UN World Food Summit assembles this week. But despite the fact that more than one billion people go hungry every day, the most powerful world leaders will not be attending. Only one of the G8 leaders, Silvio Burlesconi, who is hosting the gathering in Rome, will be present. The draft declaration of the summit has already attracted criticism. The Financial Times reports that a new target to eliminate hunger by 2025, and a commitment to boost agricultural aid back to levels last seen 1980, were both removed from the declaration at the last moment. The same article quotes Francisco Sarmento of ActionAid calling the declaration a “rehash of old platitudes”, failing to commit resources to the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger by 2015. And a new Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) report reveals the huge extent of the funding gap to address childhood malnutrition, finding that international funding covers only about 3% of a World Bank estimate of the total that is needed.

MSF volunteers 2005. Image Credit: hobotraveller

MSF volunteers in Niger in 2005. Image Credit: hobotraveller

A discussion I went to on Thursday, which reflected on MSF’s experience during the 2005 food crisis in Niger, brought home how little of the world’s resources are actually needed to save millions of lives from hunger. Perhaps the most tantalizing figure was given in a presentation by Samuel Hauenstein Swan of Action Against Hunger UK, who was one of the speakers on the panel. As asserted in an essay he co-authored in PLoS Medicine he suggested it would take only take 0.1% of global GDP (equivalent to 10 cents a day for each US resident) to fund community-administered packages to fight “seasonal hunger”. The phrase “seasonal hunger” captures the fact that most acute hunger in the world occurs not in conflicts or natural disasters, which tend to focus the attention of the world’s media, but during cycles when harvest stocks dwindle and food prices and unemployment rise. Where pioneered these community-based approaches, made possible by ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) supplements like those MSF provided in Niger in 2005, have vastly increased the number of young children treated for malnutrition. As Xavier Crombé and Jean-Hervé Jézéquel, MSF contributors on the panel, emphasized, nutrient-deep RUTF supplements allow mothers to feed undernourished children at home, leaving the few hospital-type facilities in rural areas to focus on those children with severe complications. But, as all the panel said, RUTF supplements are not a “magic bullet” and the community strategies to treat seasonal hunger Swan advocates are multi-faceted, also involving seasonal employment programs, social pensions, and the promotion of child growth.

Price Crisis Not Rice Crisis_AH

Price crisis, not rice crisis. Workers package imported rice as the World Food Crisis hits the Philippines. Image Credit: MVI.

Crombé spoke quite fascinatingly about how the 2005 Niger food crisis had been subject to competing interpretations, from the media and from actors on the ground. The title of the book that he and Jézéquel have just published, A Not So Natural Disaster: Niger ‘05 addresses the way in which world’s media was very slow to respond to the crisis, primarily because Niger is in the Sahel region and subject to recurrent droughts and locust storms. Whilst the World Food Crisis of 2008 – the eruption in prices of staple foods that caused political instability and social unrest in many countries – was acknowledged to be the result of a complex set of economic machinations, Crombé argued that preconceptions based on Niger’s harsh environment led to its food crisis being labeled as “natural” or inevitable and therefore not newsworthy. Whilst Niger had been subjected to droughts in years leading up to the crisis in 2005, economic forces similar to those later at work in the World Food Crisis had also played a role – most obviously the rise in the price of millet, the staple cereal in rural Niger, which was stimulated in part by growing demand from neighbouring Nigeria. Explaining the eventual attention from the media that MSF was able to attract to Niger, Crombé pointed to the 20th anniversary of the 1985 famine in Ethiopia which allowed Western journalists to frame hunger in Niger in a particular way – suddenly it became a more catchy story, described like Ethiopia as a biblical famine rather than something with specific causes, an attitude which in turn created pressure on actors who had taken a longer-term developmental approach in Niger to provide emergency relief instead.

In his contribution to the discussion, Jézéquel stressed some of the positive changes that had come about since 2005, such as the new protocols adopted by Burkina Faso and other Sahel-region countries to use RUTF supplements to treat acute severe malnutrition. MSF’s role in Niger had produced new challenges to the NGO and new contoversies over the scale of of its influence, he acknowledged. The success of RUTF supplements led to a 2007 preventative campaign in which MSF curbed the seasonal peak in child malnutrition in 60,000 children in rural Niger. Stephane Doyon, author of the new report, provided the staggering statistic that in 2007 alone MSF treated over 120,000 children worldwide affected by severe acute malnutrition, making it the biggest actor in the world in the field of severe acute malnutrition care.

MSF was expelled from Niger for political reasons in 2008 after the Nigerien government alleged the NGO had developed connections with Tuareg rebels in the country. It remains to be seen whether this World Food Summit will produce the international political commitment to meet its original target of halving the world’s hungry by 2015. But the abiding image I took from the discussion was a photograph of a woman and six children that had been taken by Samuel Hauenstein Swan. He had had superimposed the picture with outlines of people connected to this family who were now missing – a child who had died from malnutrition, the dead mother of the some of the children in the picture, and the absent husband who had left the area to seek employment. Providing woman like this more power to feed their children is central to the community-based strategy, and an indication of how resources can be spent effectively to reduce global hunger.

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