Hunger is a monstrous crisis. And like many current crises, it is unnecessary. “World agriculture produces 17% more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70% population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories per person per day” (FAO 2002 p.9). Regardless, there are over 1.02 billion malnourished people worldwide. This represents a 17% increase in the number of malnourished from 2006. Things are not getting better. They have gotten worse. The recent global financial slump has contributed to the increase in malnourished populations; however, it is only a recent contribution and the more enduring issues of systemic poverty, conflict, and climate change have played a crucial role in perpetuating global hunger. Though there is sufficient food to feed the world over, solving global hunger is more than a matter of redistribution. The social and economic systems that sustain global hunger must be curbed and local solutions carried out. There is hope and a lighthouse guiding the world to the alleviation of hunger. We know from our past actions what has failed and we know from foresight what will prevail. The state of world hunger seems to be deteriorating, but I have hope and faith that, with the smart aid, hunger (specifically in Africa) can be curtailed, diminished, and eradicated.
In Africa alone, 307 million people are malnourished. Forty-two nations receive aid from the World Food Programme and other Western powers pour billions, into ending global hunger. Just this past July, Obama pooled $20 billion from the world’s richest nations to be used for the reduction hunger in Africa. Yet, Ethiopia (one of the world’s largest recipients of aid) still has 6.2 million malnourished people in it’s country. Sudan, Somalia, Niger, and Chad, too receive plush amounts of aid, yet have devastating numbers of malnourished. Kenya, one of the most developed nations on the continent as well as a large receiver of aid, has 3.6 million malnourished people and that number is expected to rise. The problem is obviously not lack of money. The problem is misdirected use of money and an perpetuating intersection of poverty, drought, and corruption.
Poverty is the principle cause of hunger – as well as a direct effect of hunger. Poverty and hunger are so entwined that neither can be solved individually. Without money, farmers lack the buying power to purchase seed, farming tools, and fertilizer. Without these necessities, they are unable to produce a sufficient food to turn a profit. The effect of this is two fold. The farmer’s poverty and hunger grows and the reduced supply of food to urban markets increases the prices, pulling urban poor who are unable to purchase the higher-priced food into malnourishment and hunger. Furthermore, drought exacerbates the problem.
The drought and subsequent famine of 1984 in Ethiopia claimed over a million lives. While some say that the drought never left, it is evident that the drought has returned with a full-fledged famine. There are currently 6.2 million people in Ethiopia who are malnourished and the famine is expected to raise that number to 14 million – in Ethiopia alone. In Kenya, the famine has severely threatened the lives of 3.6 million people. And Somalia has another 3.8 million people affected. In total, there are 23 million people in the Horn of Africa and Eastern Africa who have been affected. There is simply not enough water to produce a good harvest. And when rain does arrive, the sun-baked earth does not immediately absorb the water, rather causes flash floods and outbreaks of cholera. Farmers can’t grow enough food to even feed their family. They are forced to cultivate cash crops in hope of turning a minimum profit with which they can buy fertilizer that will hopefully provide a better harvest next season. “They are essentially going hungry so that they can feed the country.” But even those in urban settings do not walk away unscathed. They must compete for jobs in slums so that they can pay the inflated food prices. Furthermore, the hungry in cities are often overlooked while food aid and donors flock to the rural communities. Children in slums like Kibera, a shanty-slum of 600,000-1.2 million outside of Nairobi, Kenya, drop out of school to work or beg so that they to pay the 130% inflated price of maize (over one year’s time) and the ever-increasing prices of water. Regardless, there is hope.
“Drought does not need to mean hunger and destitution. If communities have irrigation for crops, grain stores, and wells to harvest rains then they can survive, despite what the elements throw at them.” Irrigation, grain stores, and wells require money, however, and, once again, poverty stands in the way. Yet the same poverty that is preventing these people from building famine preventative infrastructure, was caused by the previous poor harvest and famine. The cycle seems interminable – until someone steps in to provide the infrastructure these communities need. That someone is government.
“The urban crisis [and famine] is not just about poverty – it is about governance,” Oxfam reportedly said. Governments have the responsibility of providing fundamental social services to it’s citizens. In a country susceptible to drought, this includes irrigation infrastructure, grain stores, and rain water wells. However, very few governments have provided any of these resources to their people. In Somalia, there is no functional central government to provide these resources. In Kenya, the government is “paralyzed by infighting and political maneuvering.” And in Ethiopia, the government is, both, trying to maintain its good image from its successes in health care, education, and counter terrorism, and trying to undermine its citizens through corrupt, profit-driven deals. It’s desire for a positive image has led it to gloss over the famine by reporting (relatively) low numbers of people affected and making the definition of people at risk more exclusive. It has also tried to hide the severity of the famine through banning aid from reaching specific severely-affected regions. Backroom politics has highlighted the government’s lack of interest in curtailing the famine. Hundreds of bags of maize disappeared from the Ethiopian reserve and then reappeared in Sudan a month later, leading a lot of people to suspect that deals were made behind closed doors. Furthermore, the government has marketed Ethiopia in the new business of land-leasing, where large, rich foreign investors can rent vast plots of lands on 44-99 year contracts. The contracts have nearly no safeguards and foreign investors buy them purely for profit. The effectively take land away from local farmers, employ local residents under extremely brutal conditions, sell their crops to foreign nations for profit, and deplete the soil of nutrients. These are not the kinds of contracts a government interested in its people should be offering.
If it were not for corruption, the drought and the poverty could be (more-easily) resolved. But without the necessary functions of the state happening, the impact of both is increased and perpetuated. “Ethiopia’s famine today is a famine of food scarcity as much as it is a famine of democracy and good governance.” African governments must take responsibility and ownership for their states. I they want to become a respected global voice, they must end corruption and end their dependency on aid .
As outsiders from the West, we must be cautious in our critique and support of African nations. Too often aid has been given in ways that only increase dependency, circumvent governments, and enable corruption. The West is not culpable for the existing corruption, but it has not given support that leads towards independent, sustainable nations. “Continued food and agricultural support, coupled with falling [crop] production, have led some to believe that aid might actually be the root of the problem.” Food handouts increase dependency through creating disincentives to produce and providing short-term fixes to problems that need long-term solutions. Africa does not need more food, it needs more ways to consistently cultivate its own food.
It’s extremely challenging and a great moral conundrum to critique food handouts when lives are at stake. And I, in no way, believe that food handouts should be stopped, rather they should be accompanied by long-term solutions. It is easy to ideologically critique these different forms of aid, but when the reality that this aid saves a person’s mother, father, son, or daughter from dying is realized the disadvantages of any aid seem inconsequential. So it is with great respect and appreciation that I say, there is a better way.
Handouts cannot be expected to prepare these countries for the next famine. The international community must begin to fund projects which build irrigation infrastructure, wells for rain water, teach efficient methods of cultivation, and inspire autonomy of communities . The calamities of hunger and drought in Africa are not our burden and we should not carry the weight. The international aid community acts out of compassion for Africa, not obligation. It would be immoral to cease all aid merely because we are not obligated. Aid and exchange should always be occurring. We should always be in a flux of giving and receiving (even in times of prosperity) – giving the skills and lessons we have learned from our culture and experience and receiving the skills and lessons of another. We should be working to create autonomy and sustainability in African nations, which is why funding needs to be given to projects that pursue these goals.
The international community would be equally flawed if it built the preventative infrastructure of irrigation, wells, and grain stores. Although we would be establishing preventative measures for the next drought, it would still be us establishing them. Africa needs to help Africa -and we need to help Africa help itself. Funding should be targeted towards local, African projects which are building sustainable preventative infrastructure. Only then, do we truly help establish an equal, autonomous, independent Africa.
Though the intertwinement of hunger with large socio-political problems exacerbates the issue and makes it appear hopeless, it is not. There is abounding hope that Africa will make it through this crisis and then through the next. It is hope that lies behind all forms of aid and it is hope that feeds the starving souls of those who can’t find enough to eat, providing them the determination to make it through another day and to another meal. I have hope that the international community, specifically the large aid donors, will recognize the cycle of dependence they are caught in and will begin to teach their recipients how to fish.