By William Dowell
[This piece ran in the May 2008 issue of Geneva's Essential Edge]

An emergency food distribution in eastern Kenya

Is the current system for international food security really up to the job? 
Figures don’t lie. Back in 1996, when 10,000 participants from 185 countries met at a five-day World Food Summit in Rome the goal was to cut world chronic “undernourishment” in half by 2015.  At the time, the FAO estimated that 841 million people fit that category. Today, the estimate is 854 million. Roughly,  10 million people die from the effects of  hunger every year, and the number of people facing undernourishment is growing by four to five million annually.  If food security has not broken down completely, it is pretty clear that what we are doing now is not moving things forward.  At a recent three-day conference on rethinking food aid and food security in Rome, CARE and Oxfam issued a joint press release declaring the current system “not fit for service.”

    Why is hunger on the rise?  Diversion of agricultural land to biofuels, increasing demand for better food by emerging markets, the collapsing dollar and sky rocketing transportation costs, are all factors.  But the Rome conference also pointed to other reasons.   It is significant that a dozen years after the wishful thinking expressed at the 1996 Food Summit, there is still no comprehensive global framework for dealing with food security.  A background paper prepared by Tufts University for the recent Rome forum points to other reasons. 

      The paper, co-authored by Daniel Maxwell, Patrick Webb, Jennifer Coates and James Wirth, argues that we are facing new challenges that existing international institutions were never designed to deal with.

       A strong factor is the steady increase in population and poverty, which is driving people to live in more and more dangerous areas at a time when the number of natural disasters is on the increase.  In place of headline grabbing catastrophes, like the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, we are seeing an increase of smaller calamities—floods and cyclones—which may be less dramatic, but which actually have a larger cumulative impact on GDP.   Because they don’t make headlines, these disasters go almost unnoticed, like last summer’s floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, which affected more than 60 million people. 

        Other factors are even more telling.  Much of the current aid industry is tied to self-interest.   The US, which accounts for a third of the world’s humanitarian aid0, insists that much of its assistance be in the form of food produced by American farmers.   Little import that dumping cheap American food on developing countries undercuts the farm production of those countries and contributes to future food crises.  A US insistence that the food be transported on American ships increases the price of the food being donated by anywhere from 50% to 100%.     The system effectively colonizes the American taxpayer by getting him or her to shovel money into the pockets of shipping magnates and agricultural corporations, but a powerful alliance of well paid lobbyists  in Washington wouldn’t see it any other way. The pretext is that this will eventually build a better world. It will, but for whom? 

A more pressing question is whether the generosity would continue if these interest groups saw their own profits reduced.

This state of affairs has been further complicated by the general paranoia following the 9/11 attacks on the World trade Center.   By 2006, the OECD reported, the  US had reduced the amount of aid managed by USAID from 50% to 39%.  At the same time, the proportion of aid controlled by the Pentagon increased from 6% to 22%.  A substantial portion of US aid is now aimed at buying US security rather than trying to protect impoverished peoples from slow starvation.  An illustration of the trend is the fact that in 2006, only 28% of aid went to the least developed countries.  The main beneficiaries were countries where the major donors had the greatest political interest. Iraq and Afghanistan--American priorities--got the lion’s share, and stable economies such as Nigeria and India—former British colonies—came in second.  China, Indonesia, and Vietnam were favored as low risk, relatively stable economies.  In 2004, a third of total humanitarian assistance went to just three countries: Iraq, Sudan and Palestine.

Looking at how the system is structured, it is not hard to see why hunger is on the increase.  Rising food prices are simply accelerating a problem that the current system never really intended to handle.

   The most important change advocated by the Tufts University paper and echoed at the Rome Conference  is a call for a radical shift in the way we look at  the problem.  Until now we have tended to look at food crises as unexpected events that are out of the norm.  We wait for an Ethiopian famine, like the ones in 1984 and 1985, and then we begin mobilizing ourselves to reduce the number of deaths and to try to mitigate the inevitable damage.  It is a case of reacting after the fact to photos of emaciated babies on the evening news.

But the crises we are beginning to see now are cyclical ones. We know that they are going to happen over and over again. Bangladesh is hit by floods at roughly the same time, year after year.  Mozambique, the same.  Madagascar gets hit by a series of cyclones that strike like clockwork during the same months each year.  As one Bangladesh journalist noted last summer, “You would think that we would stop being taken by surprise.”

While it might not be possible to save everyone, a reorientation of thinking towards the reduction of the risks posed by these predictable disasters, and a bit of emergency preparedness could go a long way towards reducing some of the pain. But this requires investing before a disaster takes place. It means thinking forwards, rather than backwards. What is called for, in short, is a new approach to these problems, and even more than that a certain honesty about what we are really doing.  Are we engaged in a business enterprise spurred on by terrible images of people dying, or do we really care?  It’s a Biblical Old Testament question:  Am I really my brother’s keeper, or am I just out to make a buck?  For the future of the human race, it is about time to get our act together and to stop trying to have it both ways.

GENEVA, May 2008


The Tufts University Report is downloadable on line at: