Developing strategies to end hunger

9 posts from July 2011

UN Secretary General Pleas for Somali Assistance

Ban Ki-moon today made an impassioned plea to the international community to mobilize resources to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia, where severe drought has plunged communities in the southern region of the country into famine.

He said that approximately $1.6 billion in aid will be required to save the lives of those at risk – mostly women and children. Only half that amount has been pledged so far, and he asked for all to contribute to the cause, whether you are a regular donor or not, “to offer hope in the name of our common humanity”.


Somali arrivals in Ethiopia are emaciated, exhausted and malnourished.

Photo Credit:  United Nations

He stated further than UN agencies will meet in Rome on Monday to coordinate the emergency response and raise funds for immediate relief.  In addition to food assistance, programs must be developed to deal with the vulnerabilities caused by the recurring droughts in east Africa.

In addition to food aid, drought-resistant seeds, irrigation, improved infrastructure and livestock programs are all badly needed. More important than this, Ban said, is the need to end conflict in Somalia which compounds the effect of the drought. “As long as there is conflict in Somalia, we cannot effectively fight famine. More and more children will go hungry; more and more people will needlessly die. And this cycle of insecurity is growing dangerously wide.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that an average of 1,000 desperate people are arriving in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, every day seeking help after fleeing famine-stricken regions in the south.

Somalis hard hit by the severe food shortages in their country have also been arriving in large numbers in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. An estimated 100,000 refugees from Somalia have arrived in camps in Kenya’s Dadaab area so far this year, while another 78,000 have gone into camps in the Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado border area.

It was reported that more than 15 people died in a single day as a result of malnutrition and related diseases in a single camp in Ethiopia. The UN’s World Food Program has begun delivering emergency food aid, and the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, has pledged to step up its efforts to aid the most acutely malnourished.

According to the Director of UNICEF’s supply division, the time to act is now. “If we are to save lives, we need to act now – to bring in massive quantities of medicines, vaccines, nutrition supplies into the region as quickly as we are able and then get them out to the children who need it most.”

In Mozambique, Progress on Child Hunger Lags Economic Growth

The southern African nation of Mozambique was devastated by the time a 1992 peace agreement ended a 15-year civil war that killed a million people. But in the new millennium, things started to turn around. From 2001 to 2010, Mozambique had the world’s eighth-highest economic growth rate, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that it will have the fourth-highest rate for the period 2011 to 2015

Unfortunately, improvements in poverty and hunger have not automatically followed. A stronger economy means that the country has more resources available, but clear strategies to help poor people share in the gains will be needed to translate economic growth into lower poverty and hunger rates.

Cobue girl
Rebecca J. Vander Meulen

According to UNICEF’s recently-released report Child Poverty and Disparities in Mozambique 2010, there was no progress against poverty between 2002 and 2008. Of Mozambique's almost 21.5 million people, nearly 12 million—or 55 percent of the population—live below the official poverty line of 18.4 Meticais (about 50 cents) a day.

Mozambique has been named a priority country in the U.S. Feed the Future initiative, whose goals are to reduce poverty and hunger (particularly the proportion of children who are underweight, a key indicator of a community’s nutritional status). Feed the Future plans to support efforts to improve nutrition and strengthen Mozambique’s agricultural sector. Very slow improvement in agricultural productivity is, in fact, a major factor in the lack of progress on poverty from 2002 to 2008, said the UNICEF report, citing Mozambique’s Ministry of Planning and Development.

Children suffer the deadly consequences of the country’s very high and sustained poverty rate. The main underlying cause of mortality among children younger than 5 is malnutrition. More than half of Mozambican children consume fewer calories than the World Health Organization considers adequate. According to Child Poverty and Disparities in Mozambique 2010, the rate of stunting (being shorter than a healthy child the same age, a sign of chronic malnutrition) is 44 percent among children under 5. This is a decrease of only 4 percentage points since 2003. Mozambique is one of 36 countries which are home to 90 percent of all stunted children under 5.

The report noted progress against the worst form of malnutrition, however: the proportion of children with severe nutritional deprivation dropped from 27 percent in 2003 to 20 percent in 2008.

Recognizing that child hunger affects not only each child as an individual but also the country’s overall development, Mozambique’s government prepared a Multi-Sectoral Plan of Action for the Reduction of Chronic Undernutrition 2011-2014 (2020). (The plan is available in Portuguese here.) Its goals are to reduce chronic malnutrition in children under 5 from the 44 percent recorded in 2008, to 30 percent by 2015 and 20 percent by 2020.

The Mozambican plan, like those of many countries active in the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) process, is based on groundbreaking research published in the leading medical journal The Lancet in 2008.The research identified effective, affordable interventions that can significantly reduce maternal/child malnutrition. 

The Grapes of Wrath Revisited

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Four families, three of them related with fifteen children, from the Dust Bowl in Texas in an overnight roadside camp near Calipatria, California, in 1937.

Photo by Dorothea Lange from the Library of Congress





When John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, a reporter asked him if he thought he deserved the world’s most prestigious award for novelists. Reportedly, Steinbeck said, “Frankly, no.”

Sadly for Steinbeck, this opinion was shared by many literary critics who thought that while he was a competent writer, he wasn’t worthy of the Nobel. Although he was a prolific writer, Steinbeck’s literary reputation rested primarily on one work that remains undisputed in terms of its contribution to American culture.

When The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1939, it caused a sensation that literature is probably no longer capable of provoking. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was the best-selling novel of the year. Just months later, in 1940, the book was turned into a film by John Ford that was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

For readers today, Steinbeck’s migration saga remains relevant as a piece of (dramatized) social analysis. It’s essentially a road novel about the Joads, a poor Midwestern migrant farming family. Throughout the novel, the Joads fight to keep their family intact while fleeing the 1930s Oklahoma Dustbowl for the hope of farm work in California.

But once the Joads begin to migrate, the family begins to disintegrate.

The Joad grandparents aren’t able to cope with life outside their native Oklahoma, and they both die early in the novel. A brother-in-law gets fed up with scraping by on itinerant farm work, so he leaves the family – and his pregnant wife – to seek other opportunities. The main character, oldest son Tom Joad, gets tangled in a labor dispute and is forced to abandon the family and live in hiding.

The disintegration of the Joad family illustrates that — although we are all subject to pressures and influences that bring us together and push us apart —migrants face unique and strong centrifugal forces that work against family unity.

It’s common to meet young men laboring on farms in the United States who haven’t been home in years. They keep sending their family money saved from their $9-an-hour wages, but there’s no human contact.

Even families that reconstitute themselves on the U.S. side of the border are not secure. The Urban Institute estimates that 100,000 immigrant parents of U.S. citizen children have been deported to Mexico over the past 10 years.

Maria Santiago’s family of farm workers — whom Bread for the World met with in March 2011— is an example of how the immigration system can harm families. In 2010, Maria’s husband went to Ohio to plant tomatoes. Normally she would accompany her husband north from their Florida home, but this time, since she was pregnant, Maria, 34, decided to stay behind.    

Traveling by bus on his way back to Florida, Maria’s husband was stopped by immigration officials and deported. Now he’s in Mexico working to raise the money to return to the United States, but it’s difficult for a laborer in Mexico without a formal education or marketable skills to obtain the money necessary to return.

Maria thinks about going back to Mexico. But for her U.S.-born children, Mexico is an unknown and unappealing destination. They’re American.

In spite of Maria’s story and thousands of similar stories, deportation probably impacts fewer families than the more gradual and less dramatic impact of an increasingly dangerous border.  

Ernesto Alvarado, 40, has been doing farm work in the United States for 20 years, mostly in the American South. Although his parents live in the Mexican border state of Nuevo León it has become too dangerous to cross back-and-forth with any frequency.

“If I go over there I can’t come back,” Alvarado said during a June 2011 interview in south Georgia. “I don’t care about the money, but you can die on that trip.”

Just as Steinbeck’s poor Midwestern Scotch-Irish migrant farmers faced the Great Depression while struggling against Californians hostile to poor outsiders, today’s immigrant farm workers also contend with fallout from the Great Recession compounded by escalated immigration enforcement and an increasingly violent border.


Africa's Hopeful Future

On his recent trip to Africa, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof found signs of hope against a backdrop of heartbreaking poverty and ominous insecurity.

Kristof, accompanied by two Americans who had never been to Africa—a medical student and a teacher—describes the continent as “a place to admire, not to pity.”

Though the U.S. media often presents Africa through the twin lenses of despair and chaos, Kristof and his companions noted evidence of progress as they traveled through Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso:

  •  improved nutrition through fortifying common foods with vitamins and minerals
  • increased vitamin A supplementation
  • stronger vaccination coverage
  • better access to antiretroviral treatment to keep people living with HIV healthier and prevent babies from acquiring HIV from their mothers
  • plans to strengthen agriculture and nutrition with help from the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative
  • increased enrollment in school, particularly among girls
  • improved clean water sources
  • better transportation infrastructure, which in turn improves access to emergency medical care
  • increasing access to cellphone technology, which helps people get information on important topics such as crop prices, whether medications have been restocked in the clinic, or where there are job openings
  • concrete steps toward democracy

Here’s how Kristof sums up his experience: “One of the best-kept secrets in the world today can be found in thatched-roof villages like the ones we passed through: Africa appears to be turning around.”

Kristof’s essay echoes Bread for the World Institute’s 2011 Hunger Report, Our Common Interest, in its sense that progress on the Millennium Development Goals is within reach. Our Common Interest elaborates on some of Kristof’s observations on the signs of hope his group saw, particularly efforts to secure good nutrition for all.


Horn of Africa Hunger Emergency: Somali Children Walk for Days or Weeks to Reach Relief Camps

In some parts of drought-stricken Somalia, one child in 10 is at risk of starving to death, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In a recent report, ICRC stated that the number is twice as high as it was in March.

Malnutrition rates are believed to be significantly higher in several other areas of the country, where relief organizations have not been allowed to operate. 

Photo Credit: Oxfam East Africa

Child malnutrition levels in the Horn of Africa are now the highest in the world. Even in traditionally food-producing parts of Somalia, nearly 11 percent of children younger than 5 have severe acute malnutrition.

Additional feeding centers are being set up by the Somali Red Crescent (an ICRC affiliate), but relief workers are struggling to keep up with the exodus of hungry refugees. Adults who arrive in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, where border camps are swelling, report that children have died en route. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said there are 11 million people in the Horn of Africa affected by the worst drought in decades.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has created global food aid prepositioning sites in order to respond more rapidly to food emergencies. Stockpiling food aid and supplies in or near regions with historically high emergency food needs allows USAID to respond quickly to disasters. Six sites worldwide, including one in Kenya, are prepared to release food aid as needed.

USAID’s Assistant Administrator recently testified before a House subcommittee about the agency’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) and its capabilities in identifying crisis conditions. FEWS NET analyzes historical and current rainfall, cropping patterns, livestock health, market prices, and malnutrition rates. FEWS NET identified and warned of the approaching Horn of Africa crisis as early as August 2010.  Although the focus is currently on Somalia, a regional crisis is developing since countries in the region are deeply interconnected in an arc of drought, crop failure, and livestock mortality. The crisis is further complicated by longstanding conflict that continues to drive refugees into already drought-stressed regions of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti.

Hunger Report

Agricultural Research Key to Feeding the World’s Hungry People

Yesterday, World Bank President Robert Zoellick helped celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), congratulating the organization on its work to overcome global hunger and poverty.

Zoellick_CGIAR 0711

The Washington, DC,  anniversary event highlighted the importance of continued research to reducing hunger. Much of the United States’ success is directly related to investment in agriculture. In 1900, 50 percent of the U.S. population was involved in agriculture. Today the figure is just 2 percent—yet U.S. farmers are able to feed our own 300 million people and export enough surplus food to feed millions more. The United States exports agricultural technology as well.

CGIAR and other research organizations helped free 23 million people in China from hunger. And today, more than 60 percent of the maize and 50 percent of the beans planted in Africa are varieties developed by CGIAR. Investments in research have also enabled CGIAR to develop drought-tolerant, pest-resistant, and nutrient-rich varieties of crops. The founder of CGIAR, Dr. Norman Borlaug, said in his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “The Green Revolution has not yet been won.” His statement is still true today, when high food prices are threatening the food security of an additional 44 million people.

To feed a projected global population of 9 billion in 2050, agricultural production will need to increase by 70 percent from current levels. In the 1970s, as a result of pioneering work by Borlaug and others, rice and wheat yields were rising by 3 percent a year. Now these yields are increasing by just 1 percent annually. In many parts of the world, crop production is falling dramatically. Climate variability alone is predicted to reduce yields in Africa by 38 percent.

At the G-20 agriculture ministers’ meeting this June, member countries made the critical point that both food-surplus and food-deficit countries need to strongly support agricultural research. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, it will take an increase in spending on agricultural research from the current $5 billion per year to $16 billion just to raise global yields by 1 percent by 2025.

To meet the challenge of feeding hungry people, Zoellick said we need to continue the visionary work of Dr. Borlaug and other researchers. The key is to invest in collaborative agricultural research that builds the research and technical capacity of developing countries. This sets the stage to achieve greater food security through sustainable development and economic growth.


Strengthening Agriculture for Children’s Sake

Recently Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially launched Feed the Future in Tanzania.

In her address to a group of Tanzanian women farmers, Clinton pointed out that nutrition is closely connected to agricultural development. She said that “profound transformation” could occur in Tanzania’s fertile southern region, “because where women learn the best ways to grow and cultivate their own nutritious food which they use to feed their children and sell at market, we see progress.” She added: “I was pleased to hear that already the diversity of crops here is making a difference in the nutritional status of your children.”


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks with Tanzanian women farmers at Mlandizi Farm Women's Cooperative in Mlandizi, Tanzania, on June 12, 2011. State Department photo

During her visit, Clinton also recorded a video address to participants in 1,000 Days to Scale Up Nutrition for Mothers and Children: Building Political Will, co-hosted June 13 by Bread for the World Institute and leading Irish development organization Concern Worldwide.

In the message, now available on the USAID website, Clinton emphasized the importance of nutrition for the 1,000-day “window of opportunity” from pregnancy to a child’s second birthday. The evidence is clear: malnutrition during this period causes damage to physical and cognitive development that is largely irreversible. Clinton also announced the redesigned, which will enable the global nutrition community to share ideas, lessons learned, and notes from the field.

The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) has also just announced that Four countries will receive a total of $160 million in direct funding to support the agriculture and food security plans that they are already developing.

Feed the Future, GAFSP, and other recent global food security initiatives recognize not only that poverty is the cause of hunger, but also that hunger and malnutrition are, in turn, major causes of poverty.

It is far harder for hungry people to escape poverty:

  • They have less energy for physical activity, so their work is generally less productive. Yet their labor is usually the only asset they have.
  • Their capacity for physical and intellectual development is diminished. Hungry children grow more slowly, encounter more trouble learning, and have lower school attendance and achievement. Hunger compromises investments in education
  • Hungry people have higher rates of disease and premature death, because hunger causes serious long-term damage to human health.
  • Hunger passes from generation to generation: hungry mothers give birth to underweight infants who start life with a handicap.
  • Hunger contributes to social and political instability, undermining governments’ capacity for effective efforts to reduce poverty.

Attention to both hunger and poverty—and to both agriculture and nutrition—must be part of any plan to reduce either hunger or poverty in a sustainable way.

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