A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
National level action
Ultimately, national governments are accountable to their citizens for ensuring their right to food. The dysfunctional international system only increases their responsibility to do so. In the face of climate change, increasing resource scarcity, and food price volatility, governments can and must do more to build the resilience of their populations.
As a first step, governments must invest in agriculture – to improve infrastructure, extend access to productive resources, and ultimately to increase food production and incomes in rural communities where hunger is concentrated. As the examples of India and Brazil show (see Box 7), economic growth is no panacea – growth must be accompanied by broad-based job creation and social transfers if hunger is to be reduced.
Governments must also prioritize climate change adaptation. Their ability to make the needed investments, however, is undermined by the failure to date of rich countries to pin down details of their $100bn a year pledge for climate financing. Nor is current financing much help – recent estimates suggest that as little as 10 per cent is actually being channelled towards adaptation,116 while most of the $30bn of Fast Start Finance agreed at Copenhagen has turned out to be old aid money, recycled, repackaged and renamed.
If properly planned and adequately funded, adaptation will also help deliver on other challenges. For example, improving crop storage can help meet the sustainable production challenge, while strengthening safety nets and ensuring equitable access to land can help contribute to the equity challenge. Scaling up social protection systems is another crucial strategy in the government tool box. Cash transfer programmes, employment guarantee schemes, weather-indexed crop insurance, and social pensions – all can help vulnerable populations better cope with shocks. Yet today, 80 per cent of the world’s population lack access to social protection of any kind – leaving them without a safety net just as risks are multiplying.117
Box 7: A tale of two BRICS
They may both be members of the BRICS group of emerging economies, yet on the question of hunger, Brazil and India are poles apart. Despite more than doubling the size of its economy between 1990 and 2005,118 India failed to make even a tiny dent in the number of hungry people. In fact, it increased by 65 million119 – more than the population of France.120 Today, about one in four of the world’s hungry people lives in India.121
In Brazil, however, where economic growth has been slower, hunger has been rolled back at an incredible pace – the proportion of people living in hunger almost halved between 1992 and 2007.122
Why this marked difference? There are, of course, many factors at play, but ultimately it comes down to government failure in India and government success in Brazil, where a purposeful political leadership was buttressed by a strong citizens’ movement led by people living in poverty.
In India, the government has presided over a long period of unequal growth concentrated in the services sector and urban areas, despite the fact that the majority of poor and hungry people live in rural areas. Had the government undertaken effective redistribution, then hunger could still have been reduced. Sadly, India failed to prioritize hunger or develop a coherent strategy. Ambitious initiatives such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to provide 100 days of paid work to rural men and women, or a massive fertiliser subsidy programme, have been unable to make inroads without sufficient political buy-in and support.
In Brazil, the opposite was true. A national cross-sectoral strategy – Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) – launched in 2003, consisted of 50 linked initiatives ranging from cash transfers for poor mothers to extension services for small-scale food producers. Crucially, Fome Zero was championed by then President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which ensured the buy-in across government necessary to deliver such a broad agenda.
Although the benefits were realized quickly, Fome Zero was a long time coming; the result of 20 years of activism from Brazilian civil society and social movements. They organized and challenged, and helped expand the political horizon, electing politicians with the vision to make a difference.123
Time to rebuild
The broken food system is exacerbating the very drivers of fragility that make it vulnerable to shocks. It is locked in a dance of death with the age of crisis it helped to create.
Happily, most of the solutions are known, and many necessary changes are already underway, led by growing numbers of consumers, producers, responsible businesses, and civil society organizations. Overcoming the vested interests at the heart of the system will be the single greatest challenge. History shows that justice tends not to come about through the benevolence of the powerful. Decolonization and independence, the creation of welfare states, the spread of universal suffrage, the creation of international governance: all have been won through struggle and conflict, often linked to destabilizing shocks or periods of flux. The age of crisis is a terrible threat, but also a tremendous opportunity. The prize: a new prosperity in which everyone can have a fair share.