Endemic hunger could unravel our economic development

NewAge, March 20, 2009

The world’s poorest families already spend 50 to 80 per cent of their income on food, leaving little for out of pocket expenditure on health, education, and savings that might serve as a coping mechanism in the wake of natural disasters, writes Mahtab Haider

As economies continue to unravel worldwide threatening a downturn of unprecedented global proportions, one of the most far-reaching effects will inevitably be rising global hunger. Two years ago when food and fuel prices seemed to astronomically rise on the back of global shortages, the rapidly swelling ranks of the world’s hungry emerged at the centre of anti-poverty efforts and debates. This momentum has floundered with the onset of the economic downturn as the media and policy spotlights shift from rising global hunger and the consequent political rumblings in the least developed world to the more immediate problem of averting a global recession. And while food prices seem to have fallen since their 2008 peak, prices had actually been rising steadily since 2002 and they are still higher than the long term trend. Meanwhile, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation more than a 100 million people have been added to the ranks of the hungry in 2008, bringing the global total to almost a billion.

Now, against the backdrop of the global financial crisis this grim situation is threatening to turn even more dire as aid budgets shrink, with prosperous nations struggling to prevent millions from sliding into poverty in their own countries. The InterAction coalition in the United States, whose 175 members manage a total of $9 billion in aid annually, have expressed fear that donations from individuals, businesses and foundations could fall by about $1 billion this year. In the United Kingdom and the European Union charities are also struggling to raise funds, predicting a 40 per cent decline, even as the World Bank predicts that the crisis will trap 53 million more people in developing countries on less than $2 a day this year, on top of the 130-155 million pushed into poverty in 2008 by soaring food and fuel prices.

The reality is that rising poverty is attendant with a downslide on a slew of other social indicators such as education, health, and ultimately freedoms. The world’s poorest families already spend 50 to 80 per cent of their income on food, leaving little for out of pocket expenditure on health, education, and savings that might serve as a coping mechanism in the wake of natural disasters. High food prices coupled with dwindling aid budgets could take a drastic toll on disaster zones such as Sudan’s Darfur region or parts of Sri Lanka devastated by civil war, but also on countries like Bangladesh, where a silent protracted crisis of chronic hunger is underway.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute based in the US, the rate of chronic hunger in Bangladesh has reached ‘alarming’ levels, the worst scenario in all of South Asia. The IFPRI’s 2008 Global Hunger Index ranks Bangladesh at 70 in a list of 88 countries, with countries from Sub-Saharan Africa dominating the bottom of the ladder.

A New Age report published on March 16 reveals that Bangladesh trails its neighbour India in the Global Hunger Index, although India’s child mortality rates and proportion of underweight children is worse.

In the past two years Bangladesh has confronted a series of extreme weather events including two back-to-back floods and the devastating cyclone Sidr which claimed over 3,000 lives and destroyed an estimated 600,000 metric tons of crops in November 2007. This is equivalent to the annual rice consumption of over two and a half million people in the country, aid agency Oxfam reported. These factors, coupled with the interim government’s denial and mishandling of the hunger epidemic in its initial stages may have taken their toll on the impoverishment of millions. A New Age investigation that sought out the plight of marginal farmers across Bangladesh’s 30 agro-ecological zones last year revealed that many farmers had already sold portions of their land or sometimes even farming implements to make ends meet, thus seeing their livelihoods — and the backbone of the nation’s agriculture sector — destroyed to meet living costs in the short run. Worse still, many rural families are pulling their children out of school as the cost of education (even if its an opportunity cost) is becoming too high a burden for families that have often made immense sacrifices to keep their children’s education going. This creates a situation where poverty and its attendant lack of opportunities and possibilities is passed on to yet another generation.

These are troubling signs for a country that has shown remarkable progress in addressing key elements of its endemic poverty, including child mortality and primary education. Chronic hunger, at these levels, has the potential to undo much of the social and economic progress achieved in the past decade, through the efforts of the government, the NGOs and the ordinary people’s own panache for enterprise. At the heart of India’s strategy in tackling this endemic hunger has been its introduction of school meals and its national rural employment guarantee scheme, which guarantees one hundred days of employment in every financial year to adult members of any rural household willing to do manual work at the statutory minimum wage. While the scheme became notorious for the rampant corruption that plagued it, the strategy of employment guaranteed by the state and the creation of incentives for families to keep their children in schools looks to be one of the most successful and meaningful policy strategies.

The government of Brazil has shown the tremendous windfalls that such social protection schemes can bring to a country, with its similar Bolsa familia (family grant) scheme initiated in the nineties. The Brazilian government supports its farmers with credit, insurance schemes, technical assistance, and a food procurement programme that buys food from them for redistribution to the poor and destitute on the one hand. Meanwhile the Bolsa familia scheme ‘gives a monthly stipend of 18 reais (USD1= 2.23 BRL) per child attending school, to a maximum of three children, to all families with per-capita income below 120 reais a month. Furthermore, to families whose per-capita income is less than sixty reais per month [signifying extreme poverty], the program gives an additional flat sum of 58 reais per month’ with no conditions to fulfil. With the money preferentially going to the female head of household, the government has also managed to tackle the problem of pilferage by routing payments directly to bank accounts created for the beneficiaries in one of the state owned banks. Not only has this scheme attained significant progress for Brazil in combating hunger, according to the Brazilian government, malnutrition in children under the age of five fell from 13 per cent to 7 per cent between 1996 and 2006.

While Brazil is in the league of developing economies and the government has significantly larger sums of money at its disposal to implement such a comprehensive scheme, Bangladesh may do well to at least introduce a system of school meals at public sector schools, not only to combat malnutrition among children but also to prevent families from discontinuing their children’s education over economic compulsions.

*Contact: mahtabhaider@gmail.com


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