Tuesday, 16 October 2012

World Food Day: Long-term solutions don't come with simple stories

It's World Food Day today. The UN has revised the number of hungry people in the world down to "only" 870 million. 870 million. A lot of those are in sub-Saharan Africa. This figure doesn't distinguish between chronic and acute food insecurity, which is perhaps part of the problem. It's part of the reason that there are still NGOs out there who can run "children around the world are starving" ad campaigns.

The distinction is important because correct diagnosis leads to correct treatment. Acute food insecurity, more specifically acute food insecurity related to absolute lack of food in a particular area can be "treated" with imported food aid. Chronic food insecurity can't. Or at least (to continue the medical metaphor), you can treat the symptoms with food aid, but the cause will still remain. Chronic food insecurity - people not having sufficient food for months at a time every year of their lives, for example - needs different interventions.

Chronic food insecurity is about food access, it's about livelihoods - HOW people get food. Solving chronic food insecurity is complicated. It requires investment in agriculture, sorting out failing input-markets, regenerating and connecting farmers to markets, fixing extension services and taking farmers (of all sizes) seriously as business people. It doesn't make a good headline. It's not sexy. It takes time and effort and an awful lot of what is required is boring, old-fashioned development work - technical work requiring experts, instead of new, fun, "innovation".

In Southern Africa, most food insecure households are rural. Most are dependent on rain-fed agriculture which has never, in the history of the region, been predictable. All face serious market access challenges stemming from a time when liberalisation dismantled parastatal marketing boards and nothing replaced them. Many struggle to access basic extension and veterinary services. We know lots of ways to start fixing the agricultural sector. Yet, after all these years, most of the aid money flowing into Southern Africa is spent on food aid. And having allowed that system to continue, we now face the serious problem of an absolute shortage of US maize - the largest source of food aid in the world. The possibility exists that the food aid the system still relies on simply won't exist this time around.

Food prices are rising. Households in several Southern African countries (not to mention all the other places) are already at the limits of their coping strategies - they've used their stored food, they've sold animals and implements, they've taken out loans. The next two years are going to be tough. If there is more drought, more floods, more political unrest, food insecure could turn into something far worse in this region.

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