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The New Paradigm Of Hunger

New World bank figures show 44 million people have been pushed into poverty and hunger as a result of high food prices since June last year. Old drivers of hunger and food insecurity are combining with newer ones to create large populations of vulnerable people, writes StevenWere Omama, a senior policy officer at WFP.

ROME -- My 82-year old father, a trained agronomist and agricultural economist and former Minister of Agriculture in Kenya, is fond of quoting two old agricultural sayings:

     “Not all good soils are productive; not all unproductive soils are poor.”

     “Poor people living on poor soils tend to elect poor governments. And poor governments tend to make poor people living on poor soils poorer.”

Poverty, he says, and the hunger it defines and reflects, is not only about the soil, or the sun, or the rain. It never was. Hunger has always been about people – those in charge, those being led.

The two quotes powerfully capture the essence of the challenges facing food policy makers. They are especially relevant today.

Old drivers of hunger and food insecurity are combining with newer ones to create large populations of vulnerable people, and then push them into acute hunger. Hardly a country has been spared.

The old drivers are well known: unfriendly topography, degraded soils, erratic rainfall, unequal access to productive resources, oppressed women, unmanaged population growth, inadequate public services; unequal terms of trade, contagious diseases, natural disasters, economic mismanagement. The list goes on.

New drivers

The newer drivers are less well understood but already showing their potency:

  • Commodity and financial system fragility and instability;
  • Burgeoning urban populations lacking access to basic services;
  • Organized political violence, and
  • As recent experience across the globe illustrates so well, increasingly erratic and unpredictable weather conditions borne of global climate change.

Globalization is accelerating, amplifying, and expanding the impacts of these forces on the hungry poor.

There is no escaping it.  A new hunger paradigm has taken form, and it is here to stay.

In the past, widespread vulnerability was a periodic occurrence.  Going forward, it will be the rule.

The new demands on leaders are immense.  Not only must they find ways to govern justly and effectively over deep diversity, they must do so over broad-based vulnerability.

Encouraging signs

Old drivers of hunger must be much more effectively addressed.  That means more and better roads and railways, warehouses, research and extension systems, fair trade regimes, and food and nutrition safety nets that for decades have been known to be essential to cutting hunger.

Experience with dealing with the new drivers is thinner, but encouraging.  Responses to the most pressing impacts of the global economic crisis were swift and often effective, even in countries with limited fiscal capacity.  Examples include:

  • Scaling up of school feeding and maternal and child feeding programs;
  • Expanding public works programs, featuring either food or cash for work;
  • Selective food subsidies targeted to poor consumers;
  • Food stamp and voucher programs targeted to the hungry poor;
  • Reduced import tariffs, VAT and other taxes on food grains;
  • Strategic grain reserves (buffer stocks) to stabilize and lower prices.

Again, we know what needs to be done. We just need to do much more of it, and much better. Even under global climate change, even amid rising food prices, even under the new hunger paradigm, countries still control the destinies of their food systems. And so does the world at large.