Monday, March 02, 2009

Why people starve...

In the past week I have gotten a short course on food security for a number of reasons and I found it so interesting I thought I would share.

First of all, what is food security? Well, it’s basically having enough food in order to live a productive life. Most of the developed world is what we would call ‘food secure’ however, there are pockets in every society that are still ‘food insecure’ because food security is not only about the availability of food (of which there is plenty in the developed world) but about access to that food. So, if your average inner city kid in Washington, DC could be surrounded by food but still be food insecure because she can’t access it. Her family lacks the money, or the money is spent on other things. The difference between the inner city kid and the developing world is that in the developed world there is (hopefully) a complex web of civil society / governmental safety nets to keep her from starving. Her parents might get food stamps, or a local church might run a soup kitchen, or her school might give free lunches. In the developing world that safety net usually doesn’t exist to the same degree and so when times get tough people starve.

Awhile back (think Ethiopian famine) aid workers were busy running nutrition programmes and feeding programmes. The reasoning being that if people are starving it’s because they don’t have enough food. Give them food and, voila, you have taken care of the problem. This is partly true – people who are about to die of starvation do need food – but it also created a number of half-truths that we now believe about
Africa such as: 1) Famines / food crisis’ are primarily about a lack of food; 2) Africa doesn’t have enough food; 3) Giving food aid / and or agricultural inputs is the best way to solve famines / food crisis.

These statements have enough truth in them to be plausible but are not entirely true. Africa can easily produce enough food to feed itself. Sudan, in and of itself, could probably produce enough food to feed all of East Africa. It’s resources are that rich. The area that I am in currently is not wanting for food. But people are still starving…why is that?

Here we have something called the ‘hunger gap’. People farm small plots of land to feed their families and this is how they survive from year to year and have since time immemorial. If they have enough food to get from one harvest to the next then they are ‘food secure’. If they don’t and spend several months of the year scrounging, borrowing, or hungry this period is called ‘the hunger gap’ and these people are ‘food insecure’. So, how can help people eliminate this hunger gap?

First we try to figure out what’s lacking and come up with a combination of things. Farming has been done here for thousands of years the same way – with a stick (as a hoe) in a small plot of land. How to change that? Well, people have cows so if we can get some ox ploughs in people can farm a larger area of land thereby producing enough to see their family through to the next harvest. Where can we get ox ploughs? Uganda or Kenya. How to get there here? Truck them in. Oops! Problem number 1 – there are no roads. The place where I am right now is only accessible by plane. You can literally not drive and during the rainy season you cannot drive anywhere. Ok, so we back up. Build roads. Now that we have those we send a truck full of ox ploughs
in and we hold a training on how to use them. Except no one comes to the training. Why? Because the training takes a month – to retrain a bull that’s not used to pulling a plough and to train the farmers in why it’s better cultivate more acreage when they have done it differently for thousands of years. Additionally, they aren’t in the field during that month their family isn’t going to have food. So, we need to get some food in to provide for the families of those in the ox plough training. Ok. Done. We get roads, ox ploughs, and food for those in the training. They plant and harvest more than they have ever done before. Enough to see their families through the hunger gap. The next year comes. Those same farmers are back to using a stick. Why? The blades of the ox ploughs gets dull, the screws fall out, and general wear and tear makes the thing fall apart. Ooops! We didn’t think of how the farmers would be able to maintain the ox plough.


Let’s get another group together and train them how to be blacksmiths. Repeat above by getting in blacksmith tools, and food for their families during training, and then maybe we’ve got a sustainable system going. Except, of course, when the blacksmith’s tools break but let’s hope that they’re making enough that they will create a demand for tools in the places you can now reach by road. Except, of course, you’ve created a culture in which when people need something an aid agency provides it for free so your blacksmiths don’t want to spend their money saved from fixing ox ploughs to fix their tools. Why should they spend their money when everyone else is getting something for nothing?

Now we can say we’ve got a ‘food security’ programme going, right? Great! All things being equal we should not have people – except the very poor – starving. Right? Nope. Your great food security programme doesn’t seem to have impacted the number of malnourished children you’re seeing in your nutrition programme one iota. Why? Oh, right because the farmers you targeted to ensure that they make it through the hunger gap aren’t the same families that have children in the nutrition programme. Ok, go back to the beginning of your food security programme and retarget to include these families. Great!

No problem now. Right? Not so fast! This year you have any one of the multitude of pestilences-of-Biblical-proportions that befall Sudan. The environment is so harsh that there’s not enough rain, so the crops wither in the fields, or there’s too much rain and there’s flooding, or there’s infestations of weevils, and beetles, or locusts. There’s no irrigation systems or pesticides or fertilizers. And even if there were you’ve got to battle through the ‘we’ve-done-this-for-thousands-of-years’ culture to get them used.(Incidentally, you can hate chemical pesticides and fertilizers all you want, but guess what? They’re the reason why you have grown up having a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veg around year round.)

So, you’re back at square one. Except you have a lot of people who are weakened by not having enough to eat so they don’t have the energy to go out there and plough their field with either a stick or an ox plough. Which means that next year they won’t have enough to eat either.

As I said before, it’s complicated. But now, if you’ve got a year or two of flooding or drought and you’re looking at a food crisis. And get a food crisis of big enough proportions / duration and you’ve got a famine.

‘Wait a second!’ I can hear some bright spark out there saying. ‘If we know this surely can’t we invest enough in food security programmes – however complicated they may be – so that fewer people are living on the brink?’ You’re a smart one. And, yes, we could…except for the little problem that I like to call: ‘Everyone loves a crisis’.

Think about this…if you had $5 and you had to give it away to one of the following would you be more likely to give it to an aid worker who is standing in the midst of a lot of starving people saying that your $5 can keep people from dying, or to an aid worker who is standing in a green field with some well fed people who is saying that you should give your $5 to them because these people might starve in the future.

You, and most of the international community, would give it to the first. Nobody wants to be responsible for people dying right now as opposed to taking the responsibility for people who might, or might not, die in a few years time. There’s enough crisis’ right now to deal spend our $5 on! We’ll deal with those well fed people starving when it happens.

So, is humanitarian aid an imperfect system? Yes. Is the entire way that we deal with poverty and food security a bit broken? Absolutely. The problem is this. At the moment there is no alternative. We cannot, in good conscience, abandon the system because people would starve, and suffer, and die and we don’t like to see those images on our TV screens when we’re eating dinner. ‘Someone should do something about
that,’ we would say. So the something we do, while imperfect, falls under the label of ‘food aid’ and ‘food security’ and we try to learn from our mistakes and tweak the way we work as we go along. But until there is a paradigm shift this is the best we’ve got.

P.S. Anyone quotes Jeffrey Sachs in the comments gets a slap in the face.


Anonymous said...

read your email. I didn't want to show my ignorance in public even though by saying that I have.

Love ya'

Wunnovus said...

You make it sound so complicated and hopeless. But I read this guy who said "We have the opportunity to start fixing things, for our own good and the world's, if we do three things fast."

So you can all skip your food security courses and just read

Greta said...

Those Cassons are real smart asses aren't they? :)

Thanks for this. I am so impressed with your willingness to step into seemingly hopeless situations.

Dudel said...

A friend of mine linked me to this, for slightly odd reasons, but the concept of an area being underdeveloped to the point of "screwed" sorta baffles me.

We all know about leading the horse to water but if you lead enough of them, I'm sure SOMEONE will get the idea and the idea SHOULD spread through the rest of the herd. Yes, some of the horses will die of dehydration but that's survival of the fittest/smartest.

This all may sound cruel but the only way to teach a lesson in order for others to better themselves is to teach a hard and quick lesson.