Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rich Nations Ignore : Global Hunger

Suman Sahai

World leaders pledged a mere US$12.3 billion to tackle the food crisis while actual donations total only US$1billion so far – the lowest ratio of actual funds to funds pledged in case of a global appeal in recent history.

In 2007 and 2008, international food and oil prices soared causing food riots in several countries, threatening to undo any progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals to eradicate hunger. Despite cereal prices falling in the global market, commodity

prices have remained high or increased in vulnerable countries. Studies show that the high cost of food in 2008 did not lead to an immediate increase in acute malnutrition

at the international level, but had a significant and consistent impact on livelihoods and dietary diversity among the poor in the vulnerable countries.

High global food commodity prices have translated, in varying degrees, into higher domestic food prices, increasing the number of undernourished people from 850 million in 2005 to 963 million in 2008. The food price rise will benefit net food exporting countries, but for the majority of countries, which are net food buyers, the global price increase is an additional threat to the survival of small-scale farmers, rural labour and the urban poor. Studies show that high food prices during the annual lean season prompt self-defeating responses as families struggle to survive, triggering a regular seasonal spike in malnutrition. This starts a vicious cycle of hunger and malnutrition.

Lean periods with corresponding hunger are a regular feature in the lives of the rural poor. The lean season lies between the time that food in stock finishes and before the new harvestcomes in. Fluctuations in food prices, lack of access to formal credit and inadequate storage facilities force farmers to sell produce post-harvest at low prices to repay loans and to avoid losing their harvest to pests and decay. The same farmers return to the market only months later to buy food back at higher prices.

Poor people throughout the developing world remain trapped in this annual cycle of seasonal deprivation. When faced with high food prices, poor families almost universally react by initially restricting quality and, later, the quantity of food consumed. Maintaining staple food consumption comes at the expense of more nutritious foods, like legumes, vegetables and milk, resulting in nutritional deficiencies and a weakened immune system. If prolonged, this leads to weight loss and malnutrition.

As food insecurity intensifies, farm families adopt damaging, irreversible coping strategies such as selling assets and livestock, or borrowing at high interest rates using their land and future harvest as collateral. In this way, the rural poor are frequently forced to gamble their future welfare to survive today, with serious repercussions for livelihood security in later years. Even if followed by a good harvest, the impact of past losses remains, as assets cannot be restored quickly or at all. The poor household thus remains vulnerable to future shocks.

It is beyond doubt that global food commodity prices have not peaked and that they will continue to rule firm. This will have serious implications for prevailing hunger and malnutrition, and can trigger a global crisis if appropriate action is not taken today.

So far, the global response has simply not been good enough. A mission mode intervention, with a regional approach, is needed to tackle this crisis. At the high-level conference on World Food Security in June 2008, the UN Comprehensive Framework for Action estimated that US$25-40 billion per year in additional funding is required to restore global food and nutritional security .Given the scale of the crisis, this figure is woefully inadequate. Conservative estimates suggest that at least US$60-70 billion per year will be needed for the implementation of an “essential minimum package” to effectively combat hunger worldwide.

Following the high-level conference, world leaders pledged a mere US$12.3 billion to tackle the food crisis while actual donations total only US$1billion so far – the lowest ratio of actual funds to funds pledged in case of a global appeal in recent history. This disappointing amount illustrates once again that hunger is nowhere on the global agenda and even today, ad hoc food aid is the only intervention that the international community is willing to support.

This is sending the dangerous message that the rich nations are not seriously concerned with hunger. Serious effort and effective interventions to combat global hunger will need adequate funding and international coordination.

International pressure groups from civil society are needed to keep pointing out to political leaders and policymakers the burden that hunger and malnutrition impose on all

forms of development, and the likely consequences of such sustained deprivation on political stability on a global scale.

It is crucial for the global political leadership to underscore the need for an immediate,

effective and unified response to hunger. This is an ethical and moral imperative.

India has consistently ranked poorly on the Global Hunger Index. In 2008, India ranks 66th out of the 88 developing countries and countries in transition for which the index has been calculated. It ranks slightly above Bangladesh and below all other South Asian nations. India’s slightly better performance relative to Bangladesh is entirely due to better access to food in India relative to Bangladesh, which in turn is a consequence of India’s higher agricultural productivity. On the other two components of the GHI—child underweight and child mortality—India ranks below Bangladesh. Indeed, India’s child underweight rates are among the highest in the world. It also ranks below several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan, even though per capita income in these Sub-Saharan African countries is much lower than in India. The GHI was developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in 2006 as a means of capturing three interlinked dimensions of hunger—inadequate consumption, child underweight, and child mortality.

The India State Hunger Index (ISHI) 2008 was constructed in a similar fashion as the GHI 2008. The ISHI 2008 score was estimated for 17 major states, covering more than 95 per cent of the population. The scores range from 13.6 for Punjab to 30.9 for Madhya Pradesh, indicating substantial variability among states. Punjab is ranked 34th when compared with the GHI 2008 country rankings, and Madhya Pradesh 82nd. All 17 states have ISHI scores that are significantly worse than the “low” and “moderate” hunger categories. Twelve of the 17 states fall into the “alarming” category, and one—Madhya Pradesh—falls into the “extremely alarming” category. ISHI scores are closely aligned with poverty, but there is little association with state-level economic growth. High levels of hunger are seen even in states that are performing well from an economic perspective.