The problems of hunger and malnutrition in the world are of a vast scale and extraordinarily persistent. For years, the statistics have told us that about 800 million of our fellow humans lead less than full lives simply because of lack of food, and many millions more suffer from various forms of malnutrition. Hunger inflicts early death on millions of people every year. It sometimes looks as though the world has come to take large-scale, chronic hunger for granted.
This might be excusable if there were no known cures for hunger. The world, however, produces more than enough food for all its people, and looks set to continue to do so unless there is some major ecological disaster or catastrophic global conflict. The hunger problem exists, not because of lack of food supplies but because the people most in need are those who are least able either to produce or to buy the food they require for a full and healthy life.
A universal commitment was made in Rome eight years ago to halve the number of hungry by 2015. Some developing countries are translating this commitment into large-scale national programs for hunger reduction. Others turn a blind eye to the problem and hope that it will go away by itself. Many countries subscribe to the view that success in poverty reduction, more generally attained by investing mainly in education and health, will automatically bring down the number of hungry.
The main flaw in this approach is that it fails to recognize that chronic hunger is both a cause and an effect of poverty. Hunger saps energy and undermines human productivity. As long as a significant proportion of a country’s population remains chronically, or even seasonally, seriously hungry, it is most unlikely that it will be able to attain the high rates of economic growth that could bring down poverty.
In arguing that a much greater effort should be made to cut hunger levels worldwide, advocates for direct action have highlighted the moral and ethical dimensions of the issue. Few people would disagree that it is abhorrent that anyone in this world of plenty should have to live without enough to eat. There is also a growing recognition of the concept of access to food as a human right. But appeals to a sense of moral obligation or international law seldom carry much weight in resource-allocation decisions.
What is surprising is that arguments that focus on the economic benefits of hunger reduction also tend to fall on deaf ears. If only on intuitive grounds, ending hunger clearly makes a good investment, unlocking the potential of millions of marginalized people to contribute to economic growth and development.
To strengthen our case, we quote evidence on the link between food security, economic growth and poverty reduction, drawing on the findings of Nobel economics laureate Robert William Fogel and other eminent economists. But for every economist who supports one course of action, it seems possible to find another who provides an excuse for inaction.
Perhaps it just takes time to close the gap between rhetoric and action on the hunger issue. It is encouraging that in the past two years, about 30 developing countries have signalled their intent to embark on national food-security programs.
Only a few developed countries recently have made the reduction of food insecurity an explicit priority of their overseas-development policy or have factored food-security concerns into their trade negotiating positions.
The claim by international financing institutions, especially the World Bank, to take the Millennium Development Goals as a point of reference for their lending program has still to materialize in terms of investment in hunger reduction in their operations.
If the leading developed countries are not persuaded of the need to fight hunger on either moral or economic grounds, then perhaps a recognition of the threat that it poses to their security and safety would carry more weight.
There can be no greater or more tangible deprivation for human beings than the lack of regular access to adequate food. It is probably no coincidence, therefore, that many of the post-Cold War conflicts and atrocities, and the wider global instability that they fuel, have their origins in areas where food shortages have exacerbated rivalries and cheapened life, where the promise of a square meal is enough to turn a child into a combatant.
These same societies, while deprived of food, the most basic of human needs, have come under a new pressure that can only exacerbate the sense of exclusion among the poor and hungry. Thanks to the power of modern communications, few corners of the world are insulated from beamed-in images of lifestyles that are so far beyond the means of their people that they are bound to fuel jealousy, frustration and anger.
Although this transcends the boundaries of political correctness, I and, I suspect, many others concerned with food and human-rights issues, would argue that victory in the war on terror is likely to come not solely from military confrontation but from addressing the underlying causes of desperation and conflict. And the most fundamental of these is hunger.
Although it is possible to provide a short-term respite through the provision of relief supplies of food for the most vulnerable members of society in emergency situations, the longer-term solutions to hunger and poverty are those providing basic infrastructure of small-scale water control and storage facilities, but also simple technologies to small-scale farmers, who themselves are often among the most food-insecure members of society, and whose increased production converts into higher food consumption and greater human energy.
There is growing evidence to suggest that, if encouraged to do so, many communities can find and implement solutions that lie, in the first instance, largely within their own collective capacity. To trigger this greater self-reliance and coping ability, investments have to be made in adult education within poor communities throughout the land.
Hunger reduction alone will not eradicate terrorism, but, by enhancing human dignity, ensuring better health and education, and enabling people to have greater freedom of choice, it certainly will reduce the risks of extremism. It is the first step in a morally and economically attractive course of action, which is bound to contribute to greater global stability, which is clearly in the self-interest of all people, rich and poor alike.
Jacques Diouf is director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Jacques Diouf, Globe & Mail