CARE and Oxfam call for fundamental changes in tackling global hunger and food price hikes

Published: 18 April 2008

CARE and Oxfam today said the international aid system not fit for purpose and called for fundamental changes in order to tackle the challenge of food price hikes and impending food crises in East and West Africa. The call comes at the end of a conference on how best the world can address global hunger attended by some 30 leading UN and aid agencies in Rome.

“Food riots have pushed global hunger onto the political agenda but the aid business will not be able to tackle global hunger while it remains stuck in the past, seeing food crises as one-off events and not tackling the underlining problem – chronic poverty. The world has become much better at sending in teams to save lives but it seems incapable of doing what is needed to prevent crises happening in the first place,” said Barbara Stocking, Oxfam GB’s Chief Executive.

“When governments fail to act early enough," said Dr. Robert Glasser, CARE International's Secretary General, "the costs of dealing with a crisis increase enormously, both in economic terms and in loss of life.  Television pictures of aid being flown out to the latest food crisis is not a triumph of compassion but a sign of failure to act soon enough.”

CARE and Oxfam warned that besides the impact of food price hikes there are also early signs of impending food shortages in East and West Africa. These potential disasters could be averted if the world takes immediate action.

In East Africa the March to May rainy season has been slow to start, triggering concern that another widespread humanitarian crisis might strike for the second time in less than three years. Although there has been some rain over the last week, CARE and Oxfam are particularly concerned about hunger striking the poorest in southern Somalia and the Somali Region of Ethiopia and in West Africa there are worrying warnings of increased hunger hot spots in Mauritania and Niger.

Acting earlier not only saves more lives but makes economic sense. In 2004 and 2005 early warnings alerted world donors that in West Africa, Niger needed aid to avert a famine. There was no immediate response,  and it was not until television cameras showed emaciated children dying that the world acted. The cost of the delay was high in human life and in economic terms. The UN estimated that acting earlier would have cost $1 a day to prevent a child suffering from malnutrition. Because of delay it cost $80 to save a malnourished child.

Another area of concern is the inefficiencies and high costs resulting from self-interest on the part of those delivering aid. Shipping surplus food aid thousands of miles provides a boon to shipping companies, but also increases the cost of delivering food anywhere from 50% to 100%.

"Food aid can and does save lives. But due to powerful interest groups and outdated policies, food aid generally arrives too late, is too expensive and, when it floods weak, local markets, puts local farmers out of business and consequently puts back chances of recovery after the famine has passed," said Stocking.

CARE and Oxfam are calling for more aid of the right kind in the right place at the right time. Specifically, the organizations want:

Appropriate aid delivered according to needs:

The nature of food insecurity and vulnerability needs to be better understood in order to design more appropriate responses.

Alternatives to emergency relief, including food aid, to be delivered when appropriate, for example cash for work and other cash transfer schemes. Often food is available during a food crisis. The issue is that it is too expensive for the hungry to buy it. Buying food aid locally can help stimulate the local economy and keep farmers in work.

Chronic and cyclical problems need to be addressed through social protection mechanisms, such as social insurance and assistance.

Support development of poor country governments’ capacity to respond to chronic crises:

National governments need to invest in the social protection of their citizens, implement ‘safety net’ programmes (cash for work schemes or targeted assistance to the vulnerable) for populations at risk of hunger, intervene before livelihoods collapse.

Donors need to commit resources to support the establishment of local response and safety net mechanisms, eg the donors backed ‘Productive Safety Net Programme’ ensuring predictable assistance to eight million people in Ethiopia.

Mechanisms allowing more effective monitoring and coordination of international aid against hunger need to be established within the UN system, and with NGOs.

Disaster risk reduction is a key factor in preventing future crises:

Many weather-related crises are cyclical and preparedness and risk reduction strategies can reduce the loss of valuable agricultural production, but this requires a substantial change in emphasis from donors, who will need to make an investment before public support has been mobilized by images of starvation.

On the recent food price crisis CARE AND Oxfam called for:

  • Increase donor and national government investment in small-scale agriculture in developing countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Most African governments have failed to meet their 2003 promise to allocate at least a tenth of their spending to agriculture and they are now reaping the consequences. Countries such as Malawi and Zambia have shown the way, moving from dependence on food aid to become cereal exporters in recent years. Greater international support is needed. It is important that humanitarian organizations ensure that women can access the opportunities that are created.
  • Large-scale growth in biofuels demand has pushed up food prices and so far there is little evidence that it is reducing overall carbon emissions. Natural carbon sinks such as rainforests and grasslands are being destroyed to make way for new biofuel plantations and biofuel crops are displacing food production. Countries driving biofuel demand need to monitor the impacts of their policies on global food security and provide financial support for affected countries. Mandatory targets need to be reassessed in terms of likely impact on emissions and negative social and environmental side effects in developing countries, including higher food prices, land grabs and labour rights abuses. Developing countries need to integrate their biofuel strategies with food security policies to address issues such as land allocation and crop use.
  • Ensure financial services such as insurance and credit are available to poor farmers. In Thailand, for example, small producers are going to the wall because banks will not lend them money to manage between harvests.
  • Allow space for national trade policies to manage food security and rural development and to support the poorest and most marginalized farmers to gain from current price rises.
  • Recognize that climate change is going to exacerbate these problems, requiring urgent mitigation and adaptation response
  • Eliminate trade-distorting export agricultural subsidies, export restrictions and price controls. This will correct distortions in world markets and pave the way towards a long-term solution to unstable food prices.

"There is clearly a lot that governments and aid agencies must do to tackle hunger, " said Jonathan Mitchell, CARE's emergency response director. "What emerged from this conference is that humanitarian and relief agencies are committed to new solutions. We now need aid agencies to be held accountable and for donor governments to get behind these changes."

Contact Information

For more information, please contact:

Ian Bray, Oxfam
+44 (0)1865 472289
+44 (0)7721 461339

Bill Dowell, CARE International
+41 795 90 30 47
+41 22 795 10 20
+41 76 242 9319