Friday, 11 February 2011

The challenge of urban food insecurity

This article in the Namibian caught my attention. It quotes a government official as saying that, under Namibian law, people living in town are not eligible for food aid under any circumstances. Namibia's food security policy, if this official is to be believed, ignores the possibility of urban food insecurity.

Many food security policies, and poverty reduction strategies more broadly, are/were work from the premise that poverty and food insecurity are primarily a rural phenomenon, with urban people necessarily better off than those in the rural areas. Growing, sprawling, squirming, thriving informal settlements outside many (perhaps most?) African cities (including those untouched by the Apartheid urban planning) seem to suggest otherwise.

A recent post on Poverty Matters Blog argued that public health must come to terms with the inevitability of urbanisation. Food policy needs to do the same. Those living in urban areas are just as likely to be subject to food insecurity as those in rural areas. In some cases, they may be even more likely to suffer, where market systems fail. Although demand (and money) in the cities is likely to attract what food exists in the country to the cities, households with few or no employed members are not able to access this food because they are income-poor.

The Namibian official in this article suggests that "unemployed people should stay in rural areas where they can grow their own food, instead of settling in towns where they cannot support themselves". This is not a new response and not a particularly useful one. Increasing production to ensure food security (through direct production) for all possible members of every rural household, if it is even possible, would probably require investments those whose family members are willing to ask for food aid simply cannot afford. Quite apart from problems of free will and discouraging individuals from seeking opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty. Rural livelihoods tend to be more insecure and incomes lower. The myth of the rural paradise does not match reality.

Bread-riots in Mozambique in September last year were almost entirely restricted to the capital and a few other urban centres, because the price increases that triggered the protests (bread prices) affected the urban poor, for whom bread was a staple, rather than those in rural areas. The rural poor were not rioting because the particular price increase in question didn't affect their ability to access sufficient food. The urban poor were so badly affected they braved police guns to riot. Mozambique's Minister of Planning and Development yesterday warned that the country could face high prices again in the next few months. The recent flooding and global food prices are both contributing to imminent shortages. One of the commodities experiencing particularly high global prices is wheat. General food price increases will affect all of Mozambique's poor but the urban poor are likely to be particularly affected by wheat price increases.

Southern Africa has a particularly high proportion of hungry people. This makes food policy particularly important and, in extreme cases, the difference between life and death for the most vulnerable. Although there are differences in the impact and nature in urban and rural areas, the urban poor are just as hard-hit by food insecurity. National food policies must recognise and respond to this reality.

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