The Cost of Fighting Hunger

Wednesday, 25 February, 2009 - 09:14

In Seasons of Hunger: Fighting Cycles of Quiet Starvation Among the World’s Rural Poor, published by Action Against Hunger, authors Stephen Devereux, Bapu Vaitla and Samuel Hauenstein Swan offer a timely reminder of a frequently overlooked aspect of hunger in the developing world: seasonality. Tracy Cull and Katharine Vincent explore the book and the possibility of setting up an international judicial mechanism which would compel states to comply with the right to food.

What a contrast. Barack Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus bill, designed to jumpstart the US economy was approved by Congress and enacted by the new president. It would take a fraction of this amount to alleviate hunger – and yet the necessary funds are simply not ‘available’. In this context, one cannot help but reflect on a UN meeting in September last year which, as Jeffrey Sachs wrote “were abuzz that the US could find $700 billion for a bailout of its corrupt and errant banks but couldn’t find a small fraction of that for the world’s poor and dying. It didn’t make sense to the world community. The puzzlement was all the greater since the very banks being bailed out so generously had awarded themselves more than $30 billion in bonuses early this year, roughly the world’s entire aid budget for 800 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Given renewed concerns about food crises internationally, and in Africa in particular, a new book offers food for thought – and goes so far as to put a figure on how much money it would take to alleviate hunger.

In Seasons of Hunger: Fighting Cycles of Quiet Starvation Among the World’s Rural Poor, published by Action Against Hunger, authors Stephen Devereux, Bapu Vaitla and Samuel Hauenstein Swan offer a timely reminder of a frequently overlooked aspect of hunger in the developing world: seasonality. While major famines grab the world’s headlines, the fact that large numbers of the rural poor are extremely hungry for part of every year, and that this seasonal hunger is one of the root causes of large-scale famines, goes by almost unnoticed.

It is this regular and usually predictable food shortage, occurring in the pre-harvest months when private food stocks are low and market prices are high, which is the focus of the book. The causes and consequences of seasonal food shortages in Malawi, Niger and India are outlined, and a range of efforts to alleviate the problem are described. But it is the book’s conclusion that adds new ideas to the debate. The authors not only propose, but also cost what they term a “minimum essential package”.

This package is made up of four options which address emergency treatment of preschool children, and cash/food benefits for households, for the elderly, and for mothers and children. The first option - an emergency-focused intervention - provides for community-based management of acute malnutrition, whereby local communities are mobilised to identify those at risk and provide therapeutic feeding to minimise the need for more expensive inpatient care in clinics. The second, third and fourth options account form a social protection safety net, with each option targeted at different categories for vulnerable people through employment guarantee schemes (for working age people), social pensions (for the elderly) and child growth promotion.

Employment guarantee schemes provide guaranteed paid employment to able-bodied individuals. For example, India already has a National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, guaranteeing 100 days of employment at minimum wage at any time of the year as demanded by eligible households. Ethiopia has a seasonal employment guarantee scheme (the Productive Safety Net Programme) that provides cash or food in return for labour.

Social pensions are non-contributory and provided to the elderly in many countries in southern Africa, including South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Lesotho; sometimes contingent on means-testing, but not always. Child growth promotion is based around the notion of providing supplementary feeding to young children and pregnant and lactating mothers in order to avoid a slide into malnutrition.

The cost of this package works out at an average of 37.16 billion GBP a year - which would be covered by a contribution of just 0.1 percent of the national income of every country in the world.

Despite the small contribution required of each country, the authors of the book acknowledge that in order for any programme to work, a fundamental change in the political obligations around hunger is needed. A number of legal instruments, which contain articles that address the right of people to be free from hunger, already exist and the vast majority of nations have ratified these treaties implying that most nations are committed to the idea of a universal right to food. However, in all but 20 of the signatory countries, this commitment still needs to be made real by passing the necessary national legislation.

Making the right to food law in a country lays the foundation for the judicial system to rule on alleged violations, and is therefore a very important first step. However, the authors of the book argue that the ideal would be for national legislation to go beyond simply recognising the right to food in their national constitutions and to rather specify exactly what this right to food means. For instance, does it mean that citizens have legal-entitlement to employment? To pensions? The establishment of community growth promotion programmes? How are violations of the above entitlements defined? What enforcement procedures for remedy exist? In a country where legislation of this sort exists, citizens would have the right to demand recourse through the judicial system if the state fails to fulfil its obligations, rather than having to rely solely on a hazy judicial interpretation of constitutional rights.

Seasons of Hunger also explores the possibility of setting up an international judicial mechanism (along the lines of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court) which could compel states to comply with the right to food. However, while an international mechanism would be ideal, it is recognised that many governments would view such a structure as threat to national sovereignty and therefore a home-grown movement to increase domestic pressure on governments to accept accountability for guaranteeing the right to food is seen as being more feasible.

Tracy Cull and Katharine Vincent work for the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme, based in South Africa

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