Developing strategies to end hunger

6 posts from April 2011

"Yesterday was not my turn to eat"

Ajiba, a small-scale farmer in western Kenya, normally sells 50 small buckets of maize a day in his town. Today he can only sell two. Ajiba was forced to increase his price from 55 to 60 Kenyan shillings, because the government had raised the price ceiling it sets for gasoline.

This 10 percent price increase has placed food out of reach for many of the poor households that purchase his maize. Many families can’t afford three meals a day and children are at risk of dropping out of school. Quite often, a child will say “Yesterday was not my turn to eat.”

 This is the cry of millions of hungry households all over the world.

Many regions have been hit hard by current food prices. Surprisingly, in the early months of this year, the looming food price volatility seemed to have spared most African countries due to last year’s bumper harvest. This optimism has been quickly dampened. Current evidence shows that no region has been hit harder by rising food costs over the last three months than Africa.

Wheat costs 87 percent more in Sudan. Rice is up 30 percent in Chad. Maize has risen at least 25 percent in Uganda, Somalia, Mozambique, and Kenya. Gasoline and meat prices are also soaring.

Protests related to food price increases have been reported in major cities in the region. In Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, people blocked traffic near parliament buildings to send their message to their leaders.

In neighboring Uganda, protests against higher food and fuel prices have also been reported countrywide. One worker in a supermarket chain in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, said he now walks to work because the price of public transportation has doubled.

Food is a uniting factor. Food connects people in ways other goods don’t. Consequently, we are now seeing food as a unifying form for protest.


According to the Associated Press, a Ugandan resident is reported saying “We decided to walk to places of work as a sign of solidarity with many other Ugandans who are suffering from high food prices.” The price of maize in Uganda has risen 114 percent over the last year, according to the World Bank. That’s the highest year-over-year increase in the world.

Last month in Washington, DC, progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis and David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, joined Ambassador Tony Hall in calling others to join them in a hunger fast, and on Congress to restore funding for hunger programs and other anti-poverty initiatives around the world.

These acts of fasting and protest are a reflection of the cruel reality of world hunger.

The Asian Development Bank says that sharp rises in food prices are a threat to economic growth in Asia and could push millions of people into extreme poverty. Food prices in Asia have increased an average of about 10 percent so far this year, which the bank calculates could force 64 million people below the poverty income threshold of $1.25 per person a day if prices remain at current levels.

Food prices still rising across the globe


On April 15, a panel of experts, including David Beckmann, gathered for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank spring meetings to debate solutions for food security and rising food prices.

During these period more than 500 people from 90 countries submitted ideas, questions, and solutions on ways to overcome the food crisis and put food first for the world's 1 billion hungry people. The Open Forum facilitated this global exchange of ideas. One tweet response at the spring meetings suggested a fast by 1 billion people as an expression of solidarity with the nearly 1 billion hungry people around the world to call for action on world hunger.

Last week, Robert Zoellick - president of the World Bank said food prices are 36 percent higher today than a year ago, and they are pushing people “deeper into poverty.” He discussed the need to act quickly on the matter, referring to it as “one shock away from a full-blown crisis.”

The prices of staple foods are of particular concern, with all easily surpassing last year’s prices: 69 percent higher for wheat, 74 percent higher for corn, and 36 percent higher for soy, according to the World Bank.

World hunger: A malicious indicator of world poverty

While efforts are under way to understand and hopefully curb what is threatening to become another food crisis, it’s clear that hunger is both a political and economic issue. Problems of hunger, malnutrition, and disease afflict the poorest in society who are also typically marginalized and have little representation in public and political debates, making it even harder to escape poverty.

Hunger is a silent killer. Starving people are not visible in the corridors of power. A clearer picture is painted in this video.

Expanding development efforts in the agricultural sector in developing countries is an important part of the solution, by promoting agricultural research to increase productivity—particularly for smallholder farmers.

Nonetheless, while resources and energies are deployed to mitigate hunger through technical measures such as improving agriculture, interrelated issues such as poverty also require political solutions.

Meaningful long-term alleviation of hunger is rooted in the alleviation of poverty, as poverty leads to hunger. Efforts should not only be directed at providing food, or improving food production or distribution. The structural root causes that create hunger, poverty, malnutrition, and dependency, including unfair trade practices, must also be the target.

Malnutrition, for instance, threatens to harm not only this generation but generations to come. Bread for the World Institute’s 2011 Hunger Report, Our Common Interest: Ending Hunger and Malnutrition, emphasizes this fact: “Malnutrition at an early age kills millions of children every year—it is implicated in a third of all deaths of children younger than 5—and leaves survivors with lifelong physical and mental disabilities.”

The current food crisis is a test for the international community and for all of us. Will the G-8 leaders follow through on promises made at the 2009 L’Aquila Summit—and put food security firmly on the agenda of the May 2011 G-8 summit?

We can’t afford to sit back and hear children say, “Yesterday was not my turn to eat.”

Improved Nutrition in U.S. Food Aid Recommended

The United States has been the world’s leading provider of food aid to vulnerable people for decades.  In the 1950s, with the enactment of Public Law 480, much higher volumes of food aid began to be programmed, with a peak of nearly 8 million metric tons provided in 1993.  PL 480 has been an important instrument to combat the complex problems of famine, food insecurity and under-nutrition around the world.

Different types of food are provided in both emergency and non-emergency programs.  In recent years, 15 commodities have accounted for the majority of aid including bulk grains, flour, blended fortified foods, pulses and vegetable oil.  PL 480, Title II food aid grants are designed to meet a range of programming needs, from Maternal and Child Nutrition, to agricultural management, to education, and to water and sanitation improvement. 

A recently released two-year food aid quality review by researchers from Tufts University outlines ways for USAID and USDA to make nutritional enhancements to positively affect the impact of U.S. food assistance.  The report was undertaken by USAID and Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

The review identifies the many potential benefits of food aid, especially when focused on the nutritional requirements of older infants, young children and pregnant and lactating women.  The importance of nutrition during the 1,000 days between pregnancy and a child's second birthday had been previously identified by a landmark nutrition study by the British Journal, The Lancet

The Tufts study recommends reformulating fortified, blended foods; improving composition and use of fortified vegetable oil; improving fortified cereals used in general food distributions; using ready-to-use products when appropriate; and modifying USAID processes and guidance given to implementing partners who provide food aid overseas.

It addressed three core issues:

  • Product Quality – “Are current commodity specifications for enriched, fortified blended foods (FBFs) appropriate in light of evolving nutritional science and food fortification technology, or do they need to be updated?”
  • Programming Quality – “Could nutrition targets be met more cost-effectively if different product s were available and if nutritionally –enhanced food products were programmed differently?”, and
  • Process Quality – “Could USAID respond better and more cost–effectively to the nutrition needs of its beneficiaries through changes in product formulation, the range of products provided, and/or modes of product approval, processing, procurement and distribution?”

It concludes that currently, remarkable impacts under the most difficult circumstances are being made, but smarter programming, more careful targeting, greater attention to cost effectiveness, better coordination and streamlining of government interagency processes, improved harmonization among international players and application of best practices in product formulations and production can help make an even greater impact on vulnerable populations.

The nutritional needs of food aid beneficiaries are not all the same.  No one food product can meet the nutritional needs of all target populations and no one programming approach will work in all circumstances.  Also, combinations of foods are more beneficial than combinations of nutrients in a single food aid product.  Finally, the study concludes that food aid quality is more than just fine-tuning the composition of products.  It is as much about ensuring the appropriate programming of a wide range of available products.

The study by USAID points to the importance of nutritional considerations when providing food aid to different targeted populations, especially women and children from conception to the second birthday, the first “1000 Days”.  The recommendations being implemented will complement USAID’s effort to improve Maternal and Child Nutrition in its Feed the Future and Global Health Initiatives.

Women and Children Hardest Hit By Persistent Africa Drought

Climate changes causing a rise in temperature in the Indian Ocean have lead to a decline in precipitation in east Africa.  Particulary hard hit this year has been Somalia, which reports the “worst drought in a lifetime”.  In neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya, the annual rainy season was either very light or non existent, and consistent harvests have not been obtained in the region for several years.

 East africa drought_NASA_Jan 1_10 2011_resize
 Photo Showing Drought Conditions:  NASA Earth Observatory

The drought is particularly hard on women and children, who share the burden of both finding water and preparing food.  Studies have found that having adequate nutrition during the period from a women’s conception to a child’s second birthday is especially critical to long term health and development.  Interventions after that second birthday make a difference, but often cannot undo the damage done because of being under-nourished during the first 1,000 days.   With that in mind, Secretary of State Clinton announced the 1000 Days Campaign to support international experts and advocates working to improve early nutrition.  Organizations including InterAction, Bread for the World, Concern, Save the Children, World Vision, and the Hunger Project are sharing information and coordinating efforts to support effective, evidence-based actions to improve nutrition.

In addition to 1000 Days, The Framework for Scaling-Up Nutrition (SUN) is a response to the continuing high levels of global under-nutrition and the uneven progress on the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) - set in 2000 - to halve poverty and hunger by the year 2015. It has been endorsed by more than 100 organizations and was unveiled in Washington in April 2010 at a meeting co-hosted by Canada, Japan, USAID and the World Bank.

According to local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Somalia, some villagers have resorted to eating feed usually used for feeding animals.  Water is being trucked to remote areas, but is in short supply and locals are drinking anything that is available, with potentially disastrous health consequences resulting from contamination.  Diarrhea, dysentery and other related illnesses are particularly hard on those already under-nourished. 

The first cases of death caused by hunger have even been reported around Hargeisa, a northern region not as hard hit by drought as the rest of Somalia.  Emergency food distribution and therapeutic feeding interventions are needed to save lives and minimize malnutrition.  According to UN estimates, at least 2.4 million Somalis need immediate help and another 1.4 million have been displaced.  Food security remains a major issue in the entire east African region, and continuing skirmishes between government troops and war lords are making food aid and developmental assistance relief especially difficult.  Record high food prices resulting from extreme weather events world wide are making scarcities caused by drought even worse. 

The increased frequency of drought observed in east Africa over the last 20 years is likely to continue as long as global temperatures continue to rise, according to new research published in Climate Dynamics.  The study concludes there is increased risk to the estimated 17.5 million people in the Greater Horn of Africa for potential food shortages.  These findings are supported by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Agency for International Development through the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.  FEWS NET is a decision support system that helps target more than two billion dollars of food aid to more than 40 countries each year.  In it, field workers, local governments and scientists are helping with early identification of drought that could trigger food insecurity.

Block-Granting SNAP: A Really Bad Idea

Yesterday, House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveiled his comprehensive budget proposal for FY 2012. The plan includes a proposal to “block-grant” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This has huge implications for poor and hungry people who depend on SNAP each month.

First, what’s block-granting? Block-granting SNAP effectively means the federal government caps the total budget for the program, divides the money proportionately among the states, and allows state governments to determine how best to use the funds. Right now the program is considered an entitlement, meaning anybody who meets the eligibility criteria qualifies for benefits.

We know from experience with other anti-poverty programs that states exercise lots of discretion over how to use their block grants. For example, they could choose to provide SNAP benefits to households with incomes of 50 percent or less of the poverty line instead of the current 130 percent; they could impose all sorts of burdens on families applying for benefits; and they could decide to outright exclude certain subpopulations, like immigrants.  

In 1996, Welfare Reform legislation eliminated Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and renamed the program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), added a work requirement and restructured it as block grant. The swift decline in the child poverty rate at the time supposedly demonstrated the value of block grants and work requirements. But there were other factors at work. In the late ’90s, the economy was booming, the country was at full employment, and all low-income workers benefited from the first increase in the minimum wage in many years. These were important factors in explaining the sharp decline in the poverty rate and SNAP usage, or food stamps as it was called then.

Now let’s come back to the present day and Ryan’s proposal to block-grant SNAP. His budget plan argues that SNAP’s growth is unsustainable. But SNAP is a countercyclical program that rises and falls depending on the state of the economy. The number of people on SNAP is currently at 44 million per month. In 2007, before the recession, SNAP rolls were two-thirds lower than they are now.

SNAP Since 2007, the unemployment rate has skyrocketed—in case you hadn’t noticed—so of course SNAP participation increased significantly. That’s exactly what the program is intended to do. The economy is slowly recovering from the worst recession in 80 years and the prevailing view among the nation’s economists is that, in time, the unemployment rate will fall to normal rates. So too should SNAP participation.  

Ryan’s budget plan argues that SNAP rolls have been growing since before the recession. But here’s the thing. First, the booming economy in the late ’90s led to a drawdown in SNAP participation, so when an earlier recession in 2001 occurred, SNAP/food stamp participation was at an uncharacteristically low level. Second, wage rates remained flat during the 2000s—it wasn’t until 2008 that the minimum wage got another raise, 12 years after the last one. While wages for low-income workers stagnated, other costs of living, especially health care costs, were rising. Indeed, if you want to talk about what’s unsustainable, we should talk about healthcare costs, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Perhaps the best reason not to tamper with SNAP is that the program works spectacularly well, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out: “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program and, in recent years, has achieved its lowest error rates on record. In fiscal year 2009, even as caseloads were rising, states set new record lows for error rates.”

For now, I hope it’s clear that block-granting SNAP is no solution to the program’s growth. In fact, the growth in participation is not a problem inherent to the program. It’s an economic problem—the difficulty low-income households have trying to get by.


Coordinating Foreign Aid: Opportunities and Challenges

Experience over the past decades teaches us that coordinating foreign aid and development programs will help improve outcomes and build transparency, accountability, and legitimacy for global poverty reduction. But these programs continue to be fragmented.

Why? One reason is that donors have different arrangements and procedures for designing, assessing, monitoring, and evaluating aid. For example, donors often have different timetables for reporting because their financial years end at different times. This results in numerous field visits to a country during the year. It’s a time-intensive and financially costly process for everyone involved.

Aid that isn’t coordinated also erodes the promises and opportunities for achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

In 1996, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published Shaping the 21st Century: The Contribution of Development Co-operation, which was instrumental in providing early guidelines for effective aid. In 1999, the World Bank launched a Comprehensive Development Framework to guide its own work and that of donors, and the United Nations launched its Development Assistance Framework. Both initiatives aimed to improve aid coordination.

In the context of the more recent Paris Declaration, harmonization refers to donor governments working together and cooperating in their aid allocation and delivery. This work should be aligned with national development plans and “owned” by recipient country governments. By honoring the Paris Declaration, foreign aid could be more efficiently delivered and managed—and therefore have a greater impact.

The declaration looks at the responsibility of developed and developing countries for delivering and managing aid in terms of five principles:

  • Ownership: Partner countries exercise effective leadership over their development policies and strategies, and co-ordinate development actions
  • Alignment: Donors base their overall support on partner countries' national development strategies, institutions, and procedures
  • Harmonization: Donors' actions are more harmonized, transparent, and collectively effective
  • Managing for Results: Managing resources and improving decision-making for results
  • Mutual Accountability: Donors and partners are accountable for development results

 Still a Crowded Field

Documents alone are insufficient, and they don’t guarantee that donors and recipients will work together to improve the impact of aid on development. But the commitments and indicators they contain, and the political momentum behind them, are invaluable.

Bread for the World Institute’s 2011 Hunger Report, Our Common Interest: Ending Hunger and Malnutrition, stresses the importance of donor coordination: “We are at a phase of international policies where thousands of actors are playing different ball games in the same field with no referee!” writes Institute analyst Todd Post.

Bolstering efforts to coordinate aid delivery and management has great benefits:

  • Country ownership is strengthened when donors work in harmony with national development plans. The general public’s participation in the development process  establishes a lasting foundation for change, upon which sustainability thrives
  • It ensures that more resources would be available and aligned for common goals, producing greater impact
  • It minimizes aid administration costs for both the recipient and donor countries—in terms of time and financial cost
  •  It reduces development intervention duplication
  • It reduces the risk of development efforts in the country working against each other

 New Tools

Several efforts to make aid more effective continue to emerge.

 InterAction recently launched a tool to facilitate the coordination of in-country development and relief programs. The NGO Aid Map: Who is Doing What Where collects information on non-governmental organizations’ (NGO) work at the project level and makes it accessible to donors, NGOs, businesses, governments, and the public through an interactive mapping tool. The map seeks to:

  • Increase transparency within the NGO community
  • Facilitate partnerships and improve coordination among NGOs, private sector, governments, and donors
  • Help NGOs and others involved in relief and development make more informed decisions about where to direct their resources

The NGO Aid Map currently provides information on food security and Haiti. The Food Security Aid Map provides detailed information on food security and agriculture projects being implemented by NGOs and the U.S. NGO Working Group on the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and Rural Poverty.

The need for coordinated development efforts in the face of rising food prices shouldn’t be underestimated. Given that the current prices are also associated with bad weather conditions in many parts of the world—especially in key food-producing areas—such an initiative serves as a platform for sharing and advancing knowledge, and for shaping policy on global food security.

Starbucks and Strawberries

Migrant photo

A Mexican migrant worker harvests Cabarnet Franc grapes at Lovingston Winery in Nelson County, Va.

My first job out of college was at Starbucks, probably in part because I was a political science major. In Santa Barbara in the mid-1990s, there wasn’t much opportunity—at least that I could find—for someone interested in international relations. As a result, my first job was as a barista that paid a bit above minimum wage. Many of my friends were in the same situation, working as waiters, cooks, and bartenders.

None of us worked in agriculture.

Although I lived in the nation’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables—California—and Santa Barbara county was a major agricultural producer, it never occurred to me to work picking strawberries or broccoli. Only part of this was due to money.

Seasonal crop work wages vary from terrible to decent. Some workers earn below the hourly minimum wage and others earn $12 per hour and beyond. In 2007 the average hourly earnings for crop workers was between $8.65 and $9.35, but because field laborers work two-thirds as many hours as full-time workers, their average annual earnings are about $11,000—right at the poverty line and about one-third of the $35,000 average for nonfarm production workers.

In addition to wages, work benefits for crop workers are meager. Even as a part-time employee at Starbucks, I had access to health insurance. Most crop workers receive no employment-related benefits and do not have health insurance or retirement plans. Farm workers are exempt from most minimum wage and hour guarantees found in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and they are not entitled to overtime pay or mandatory breaks.

Working conditions, not wages and benefits, are a major deterrent to considering agricultural work. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a field work job that pays decently and if you’re a skilled enough worker to earn above the minimum wage, you’ll be laboring in conditions most of us wouldn’t tolerate.

In the worst cases, farm workers are subjected to slave-like conditions. Since 1997—in Florida alone—there have been seven federal slavery convictions related to farm workers, involving more than 1,100 laborers. Most have involved immigrant workers from Haiti and Latin America.

It’s important not to exaggerate the conditions farm workers face. Most don’t work in bondage, but as a 2008 U.S. State Department report on human trafficking asserts, “Migrant labor camps are particularly common settings for labor exploitation and trafficking within the United States.” The report adds, “Poor working and living conditions on farms that employ migrant or seasonal labor are endemic to the U.S. farm industry.”

In a nutshell, field work—as necessary as it is to our sustenance—is demanding at best and dangerous at worst. And that’s why those who don’t have other labor options—specifically recent unauthorized immigrants who don’t speak English, have less than a high school education, and whose immigration status limits their labor mobility—end up doing the work. There have been attempts to entice citizens into agricultural work. They’ve all failed.

The most recent (and famous) effort is the United Farm Workers’ (UFW) “Take Our Jobs” campaign. This campaign, which included a congressional hearing appearance by Stephen Colbert, sought to hire citizens and legal residents to work at farm jobs typically filled by unauthorized workers.

Despite a 9.5 percent unemployment rate and 14.6 million people out of work, the UFW reported that only a handful of people signed up for the farm worker jobs. While this campaign was at least partly a UFW communications and advocacy strategy, serious efforts by state governments have also failed to draw citizens to field work even during times of high unemployment.

During the late 1990s, after Congress passed welfare reform, California Sen. Diane Feinstein insisted on creating a program to place the state’s unemployed into farm jobs in the Central Valley. State and county workforce agencies and grower associations identified the agricultural zones toward which to channel the state’s unemployed, but only a handful of workers were successfully recruited.

In 2006, the Washington state apple industry launched a field worker recruitment campaign in response to a harvest worker shortage. State and county agencies set up advertising, recruitment, and training programs for 1,700 worker vacancies. Ultimately only about 40 were successfully placed.

Manuel Cunha, the leader of a grower organization in California who was involved in the California program in the 1990s, said it wasn’t wages that dissuaded unemployed citizens from taking the farm jobs. “The biggest thing was that it was too hard of work,” Cunha said.

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