Friday, October 30, 2009

Stemming the Tide of African Hunger

Over the past few months, there have been an increasing number of reports, forums, Congressional hearings and legislation focused on food security. The Obama Administration is pushing its seven-part plan to deal with food security, and civil society organizations are figuring out how to support efforts to feed the hungry, many of whom live in African countries.

According to Bread for the World, the number of hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa has increased from 198 million at the beginning this decade to an estimated 265 million this year. The organization told a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health this week that nearly three million children in Africa under five years of age died last year due to malnutrition. Moreover, tens of millions more malnourished children will never reach their developmental potential, suffering from physical and/or cognitive damage from lack of sufficient caloric intake and clean water. The impact of that could cost African countries as much as two to three percent of lost gross domestic product over time.

In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama said: “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

To achieve this lofty goal, there will have to be reform in how the United States addresses the issue of food security. Too often, we see this as charity for those suffering from natural disaster, war or civil unrest. However, climate change has entered out consciousness as a major cause of hunger. We now better understand that what had been considered chronically poor rains is actually a change in climate to which donors and recipients must adapt. Lifestyles developed over millennia must change, as will the international response to the issue of hunger. Furthermore, unless we want to provide food aid indefinitely to the same people in the same areas of Africa, we need to look at long-term strategies to enable Africans to meet their own food needs. Capacity building for farmers and cooperatives, better access to international markets and enhancing available financing are among some of the recommendations to help Africans become food sufficient in the long run.

The Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in America, another Subcommittee hearing witness, warned that current efforts to address hunger are hampered by “stove piping” of programs on which there is a rigid separation of funding accounts and a complex system for selecting contract or grantee organizations to implement responses in situations in which conditions or priorities change. The organization suggests a “Food Security Fund” to allow for a unique mix of assistance to be tapped that is appropriate for each nation or region.

Both Care and Friends of the World Food Program called for a safety net program for vulnerable people, which would provide temporary assistance to enable the poor to hold onto their assets in the event of unexpected shocks so they don’t fall into destitution. Moreover, due to the scale of chronic food insecurity, it is suggested that the United States reconsider shipping food from here to those in need because it is “expensive, slow and unpredictable,” and shipments often reach only a fraction of the population in need.

Will the job of restructuring our food aid so it is more effective get done? A recent survey indicates that 85% of registered voters polled agreed that we “need to modernize how foreign assistance is currently organized and implemented, and another poll taken during the height of the recession in November 2008 revealed that 87% those polled agreed that “in a time like this, we need to make foreign assistance more efficient and get more of our aid to people who really need it.” Add to that President Obama’s pledge to double foreign assistance by 2015 and food security legislation in both houses of Congress, and you have the stage set for change.

What kind of change is up to those of us who want to see the hungry of Africa better served.

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