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Dossier: the return of hunger

  • Written by  Mark Rowe
  • Published in People
February 2021: A young girl living in a displacement camp in Taiz, Yemen boils water over a makeshift stove February 2021: A young girl living in a displacement camp in Taiz, Yemen boils water over a makeshift stove SHUTTERSTOCK/Akramal Rasny
14 May
The decades-long decline in hunger has now ended, despite the fact that we produce enough food to feed the global population. What can be done? 

A hungry man, goes the adage, is an angry man. Perhaps it was with this in mind that the Norwegian Nobel Committee handed its 2020 Peace Prize not to a person but to the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, the World Food Programme (WFP). The gesture was in recognition of the WFP’s efforts and of the knotty relationship between famine, food and conflict, but it also acknowledged the daunting to-do list faced by the UN’s most overworked logistics arm. There is, David Beasley, the head of the WFP, recently warned, ‘a lot of bad coming our way’.

A decades-long decline in hunger in the world has unfortunately ended and the WFP openly speaks of an unfolding ‘hunger pandemic’, exacerbated by climate change, Covid-19 and, above all, political unrest. ‘It’s good to be recognised, but we know the prize is a call to arms,’ says Arif Husain, chief economist at the WFP. ‘The job is far from done. It’s a shame in the 21st century in a globalised world with such wealth that we are still talking about trying to give people a decent meal once a day. We’re not asking for the moon.’

According to the WFP, in 2017, 80 million people faced imminent starvation; by 2020, this had risen to 135 million; in 2021, it already stands at 270 million. These aren’t people just going to bed hungry (that number, this year, is 690 million, or one in nine people on the planet, 414 million of them women and girls, according to Action Against Hunger [AAH]). Every 13 seconds, according to AAH, somewhere on the planet a child dies from hunger or a hunger-related disease. In 2019, that added up to a total of 2.3 million children.

‘Famine has continued into the 21st century, long after it should have been eradicated,’ says Stephen Devereux, a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex and a director of the Centre for Social Protection. The fear of the 1970s, that we genuinely might not have enough food to feed a growing global population, has long gone, he says. ‘The Green Revolution saw to that. We have capacity to move food from surplus to those areas with a deficit. We have early warning systems of drought and other extreme weather.’

Four famines have been declared by the UN in the 21st century, the most recent of which, in Somalia in 2011, left 260,000 dead – an estimated 4.6 per cent of the total population and up to 18 per cent of children under five in some regions. Earlier this year, the UN warned that Yemen (see box on page 22) faced the prospect of the worst famine the world had seen in decades, with distressing reports that 400,000 children there were severely malnourished, ‘and as a result are in their last weeks and months’.

Long-term conflicts are now really biting, says Husain. ‘The world has been in turmoil for some time – Syria for ten years, Yemen for five years, South Sudan for ten years and northeast Nigeria for seven years.’ Conflict continues to apply pressure in many corners of the world. In northern Mozambique in the past year alone, 565,000 people have been displaced and pushed into food insecurity by attacks by non-state armed groups.

And, like a Russian matryoshka doll, hunger is merely the outer shell around deeper problems. According to the WFP, about one in three people in 55 of the world’s poorest countries suffer from some form of malnutrition, caused by lack of access to healthy food, poor healthcare systems and unhealthy environments. Five years after the world committed to the concept of zero hunger by 2030 (enshrined as Goal 2 of the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development), we’re way off track. The same goes for the ambition of ensuring good health and nutrition for the first 1,000 days of a child’s life (from conception, nine months gestation and the first two years or so after birth), which would prevent stunting and promote healthy development. Two billion people, or 26 per cent of the global population, lacked regular access to nutritious and sufficient food in 2019. According to AAH, a child with severe acute malnutrition is nine times more likely to die than a healthy child. In 2019, 21.3 per cent (144 million) of children under five were estimated to be stunted (low height-for-age), 6.9 per cent (47 million) wasted (low weight-for-height). Meanwhile, 5.6 per cent (38.3 million) were overweight.

The price of food

The WFP’s 2020 Cost of a Plate of Food report highlights the countries in which a simple meal such as rice and beans costs the most when compared with people’s incomes. South Sudan came top of the list, with basic ingredients costing an eye-watering 186 per cent of a person’s daily income. If a resident in New York State had to pay the same proportion of their salary for a basic meal, the food would cost US$393. In New York State, ingredients for a simple meal – perhaps a soup or a simple stew – costs just 0.6 per cent of someone’s income.

Seventeen of the top 20 countries featured in the index are in sub-Saharan Africa, including Burundi (US$91); Malawi (US$74); Sudan (US$61); and Mali (US$49). Other countries with high food costs include Pakistan (US$16) and Haiti, where people spend more than a third of their daily income on a single plate of food.

Development agencies use a metric known as the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) to quantify whether people are eating enough. The PoU in Africa was 19.1 per cent of the population in 2019, more than 250 million undernourished people, up from 17.6 per cent in 2014, double the world average. Even for the many who do get enough food to keep them alive there is the question of monotony – the same meal of rice and beans for 30 days straight, or longer. The situation is sufficiently dire that, incredibly, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) felt it necessary to declare – without irony – 2021 to be the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables. All this in a world where one third of the food we produce is wasted.

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Antidote democracy

So why, given international awareness, food networks and early warning systems, do famines still occur? Simon Levine, senior research fellow in the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, puts it bluntly: ‘Famine is about war, politics and denying people food.’ Shocking as this sounds, just about everyone in development and humanitarian circles agrees and sees this observation as uncontroversial. ‘Famine is anything but pre-ordained. You can sum it up in one word: politics,’ says Devereux.

There is, he adds, no longer such a thing as a ‘Biblical famine’. ‘You can get drought, crops fail and it’s all a catastrophic failure,’ he says. ‘But to say drought causes famines nowadays isn’t a good enough explanation. That doesn’t apply in the modern world. We have crises where people can’t grow their own food or rear livestock and don’t have enough money to buy food in markets when prices spike, but usually, in most cases, the WFP or the government can deliver food. The critical question isn’t why famines happen, but why they aren’t prevented.’

True famine occurs when this system of intervention breaks down. ‘Either the government doesn’t have the capacity or the political will, or the international community has a problem with the government of the country,’ says Devereux, who points to the mid-1980s famine in Ethiopia that killed one million people, affected eight million others and prompted the Live Aid concerts. ‘The Marxist government [in Ethiopia] actually bombed the food markets; drought was used as a weapon.’ Devereux endorses international pressure that ratchets up accountability for famine prevention. ‘If famine happens, someone has allowed it to happen. We saw that with Al-Shabab [an Islamist militant group in Somalia], which prevented aid getting to areas in which it was needed in Somalia in 2011. That cost 250,000 lives. The capacity to prevent famine is there, the problem is faulty security and conflict.’

Resized2August 2011: Women queue at the Dadaab refugee camp during a famine in Somalia. SHUTTERSTOCK/HIKRCN

Levine looks back to Ethiopia in the 1980s and notes that ‘there was a drought, but its effects were intensified by a civil war. It wasn’t random who died – those at the bottom of society died.’ He points out that there was a 30 per cent drop in food production not only in Ethiopia but also in Uganda at the same time. ‘But you don’t hear about the Great Uganda Famine, because there wasn’t one. If the UK ever faced the same problem, the government of the day would import more food and stick a couple of pence on income tax to pay for it later.’

The issue, Levine suggests, is more about wider political accountability. ‘There has never been a famine in a country with a free press.’ Devereux agrees, drily noting that ‘democracy is a good antidote to famine.’

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Long-term strategies needed

While politics is generally the catalyst that can tip a region or country into famine, Jon Cunliffe, Middle East regional director for Action Against Hunger, believes that the underlying rhythms of subsistence farming provide the opportunity for vulnerable people to be exploited. Cunliffe refers to ‘the hunger gap’ – the period of time between a crop being planted and it being harvested. ‘For a subsistence farmer, any change during this period puts them at risk,’ he says. ‘They don’t have assets to draw on – if they have nothing to sell, they become at risk of famine.’ Often, erratic weather is the final straw that tips livelihoods that were already acutely vulnerable over the edge. ‘Politics can make that vulnerability much more exaggerated. If a country has functioning governance, then climate change can be mitigated more effectively.’

Yet there remain unrelenting pressures on food security that leave communities vulnerable to the politics of the day. As Husain puts it, ‘In any given place, it’s never a single thing – conflict and climate come together.’ According to AAH, severe drought is a leading cause of undernutrition in more than a third of countries that have seen a rise in hunger levels in the past 15 years. Droughts lead to steep falls in food production, which means less income for small producers and higher food prices – putting a healthy diet beyond reach for the poorest people. ‘The days of saying climate change is a hoax are over. It’s here and it’s real,’ says Husain. ‘We see shrinking growing seasons, with real consequences for subsistence farmers and those in the rural economy.’

Levine argues that what’s really being talked about – and needs to be addressed – is food insecurity. ‘Hundreds of millions of people face food insecurity all the time,’ he says. ‘It means a daily struggle, not quite enough food, very unpleasant trade-offs, such as kids not going to school because what little money a family has must go on food. But that’s not starvation and it’s not famine – it’s desperate poverty. The reality is that millions have always gone to bed hungry. We’re simply getting a new appreciation of the way people have been living for ages.’

While conflict and climate change have long affected people’s ability to produce or afford food to feed their families, Covid-19 has now added another layer to the challenges faced by most vulnerable groups, through increased unemployment, loss of remittances and weak economies. ‘The problem is that you can’t lay famine at the doorstep of Covid – things have been unravelling for a few years,’ says Husain. ‘What Covid did was to double the numbers of people facing famine.’

Longer-term solutions include development of sustainable domestic food markets, social protection schemes and, simply put, more employment. In 2005, India passed the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act that ensured people in rural areas 100 days work at a minimum wage every year. Policies like these ‘helped ensure that countries such as Bangladesh, Russia, China and India have left behind the horrific famines that they endured during the 20th century,’ says Levine. Grass roots social-protection schemes create a snowball effect, adds Husain. ‘If you give money to people who need things, they will spend that money, not save it. That creates jobs and incentives to produce food to sell.’

Measures such as cash payments and early warning systems, innovative when they first emerged, are now established as mitigation techniques. Artificial intelligence and satellite mapping are also making a huge difference. In Bangladesh, hit this year by floods that covered a quarter of the country, early-warning systems provided four days’ notice of the coming deluge. This triggered anticipatory payouts – cash delivered via mobile phones through a social-safety-net programme – that gave 20,000 families the resources to move their valuables out of harm’s way. ‘The aid community has got a lot better,’ says Levine. ‘It’s not just about throwing sacks of maize out of the back of a plane. We’re pretty good at stopping people dying in large numbers.’

As with many public health measures, the world doesn’t tend to notice when something terrible is averted ahead of time. In 2019–20, there were apocalyptic warnings of desert locusts that were destroying crops in East Africa, putting five million people at risk of famine in the worst infestation for 70 years. ‘But the desert locust famine never happened – the international community responded,’ says Devereux. Interventions included manual and aerial spraying of pesticides. Grants, including US$500 million from the World Bank, enabled countries to provide immediate support to affected households through social safety nets such as cash transfers, while investing in the medium-term recovery of agriculture and livestock production systems and rural livelihoods.

Longer-term strategies, as well as short-term pre-emptive measures, are required but will necessitate a change in mentality from the international community, suggests Cunliffe. ‘It’s not just governments that work on short-term election cycles – most development projects only last one or two years,’ he says. ‘This can’t be about the white aid worker flying in to save a country – it’s about building up partnerships and the long-term capacity within a country. You need to build skills and governance. Education is fundamental, that is what pulls a country out of a dire situation.’

Education is one of several major components that, if put in place, make the prospect of famine recede, says Husain. In addition, he highlights the empowerment of women, social protection schemes and investment in rural infrastructure, such as feeder roads, internet access and electricity. ‘If you don’t put the access in place, why would a food producer do anything more than produce at subsistence level?’ he asks. ‘People talk about equality of income, but it’s more about equality of opportunity. If you build a road, you give someone the means to take their food to market.

‘It’s a long piece of work, the results won’t be seen by the politicians who begin the process, so it’s a question of political will. But we know it works – we saw this after the Second World War, when the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Japan were on their knees.’

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cover imageFebruary 2017: In a refugee camp in Taiz, Yemen, a child is given a drink of water. SHUTTERSTOCK/Akramal Rasny


By any measure, Yemen is the world’s worst on-going humanitarian crisis. At the time of writing, 13 million people out of a population of 29 million are being helped by the WFP. By June 2021, this figure, AAH projects, will rise to 15.5 million. Across Yemen, five million people are ‘just one step away from famine,’ according to the UN. 

‘What we’re looking at with Yemen is a famine that could unfold on the scale of nothing we’ve seen since the 1970s and Biafra,’ says Cunliffe. An embargo by Saudi Arabia and the UAE means that it has become all but impossible to deliver food aid to a country that, even before the latest crisis, relied on imports for 80 per cent of its food.

‘Yemenis are either selling assets to buy food or have sold all their assets and have no money to buy food, or there is no food to buy,’ says Cunliffe. ‘The government has collapsed, the health system has collapsed, there’s no social protection, there’s no access to potable water. We’re seeing the return of diseases that had been eradicated, such as dengue, malaria and leishmaniasis. There are hundreds of thousands of cases of cholera.’

UN agencies and NGOs such as AAH are simply unable to deal with 15 million people in such extreme need of help, warns Cunliffe. He points to the root causes: conflict and key actors refusing to allow aid to enter the country. ‘The only thing you can push for is some sort of peace agreement and then allow aid relief and trade to resume. It’s very frustrating – this was not pre-ordained.’

In March, the UN hoped to raise US$3.85 billion from more than 100 governments and donors at a virtual pledging conference to avert widespread famine in Yemen but received only US$1.7 billion – less than half of what was needed. ‘Millions of Yemeni children, women and men desperately need aid to live. Cutting aid is a death sentence,’ António Guterres, the UN secretary general, said.

The benefits of peace

The WFP says that each dollar of spending on long-term initiatives can save three dollars in humanitarian aid, as well as avoiding disruption and losses for families. ‘We always talk about the cost of doing something – we should be talking about the costs if we don’t do it,’ says Husain. ‘It’s to our collective benefit that we sort these things out. If we don’t address these issues, you see famine and migration. If people stay in their own country, you pay US$90 per capita [to improve things]; if they migrate to, say, Europe, it costs US$4,500 per capita.’

Husain’s concern is that Covid-19-era financial belttightening will make problems even worse. ‘In the past 12 months, governments have spent US$20 trillion on Covid – that’s 20 per cent of global GDP,’ he says. ‘The problem is not going away, but from now on, we have less capacity, less money to deal with it. Just when needs are increasing, we’re getting a financial crunch – that’s where the “bad” comes in. There’s not much leverage left.’

Leverage of one means or another is going to be needed, with the WFP forecasting that if nothing changes, the number of undernourished people will exceed 840 million by 2030. Right now, we live in a world that produces enough food to feed its entire population but where more than 1.5 billion people can’t afford a diet that meets the required levels of essential nutrients; and more than three billion people can’t even afford the cheapest healthy diet.

While Covid has set back progress, Cunliffe believes that forward momentum is irreversible. ‘I have to be optimistic,’ he says. ‘Great progress had been made pre-Covid, but Covid is a significant hole in the road and it may take more than ten years to get back on track.’

There is room for optimism, Devereux points out. ‘The Horn of Africa and Yemen are probably the last famine-prone regions in the world,’ he says. ‘That is a good advance on 100 years ago.’ Nor, he emphasises, are the solutions particularly complex: ‘Healthy diets, nutrition, employment schemes… we know what works.’ Yet he tempers his optimism when he turns to the question of whether famine will ever cease to be a political tool. ‘As long as there are conflicts, people will lose access to food and there is a choice those in power make as to what happens next.’

It would be naïve, suggests Levine, to assume that enlightened governments will always prevail. ‘You can argue about what is really needed to address food insecurity: whether it’s more deregulation to create jobs, more tax to provide support. Those are routine debates,’ he says. ‘But we need to think more about poverty and inequality in the long term and that’s where political will comes in. Allowing a famine to happen – that is a direct choice that governments make.

‘I would love there to be a silver bullet, a miracle crop that will get rid of hunger, but those wouldn’t get us off the hook,’ he continues. ‘There has to be a mood for change. You have to fight hard just to stand still – there will always be new wars, new warlords.’

However, claiming ignorance, or just standing by, is no longer an excuse, suggests Husain. ‘In previous centuries, when these things were isolated, we didn’t know until after the event that famine happened, but we can’t say that any more. The tangible benefits of peace are bigger to a larger group of people than the benefits of war to a smaller group of people. We can change the world for the better; we need to get the “wrong” right.’

Women and hunger

Inequalities that exist within families or communities, for example because of age or gender, have a huge impact on malnutrition levels. Women and girls often eat last and least. Girls might be attracted to, or pushed into, early marriage, while boys separated from their families during an economic migration might slide into malnutrition if they can’t care for themselves, warns Action Against Hunger. In the south of Madagascar, for example, girls and women lose most of their decision-making powers upon the payment of dowry.

Women generally have smaller and less muscular bodies than men and need about 25 per cent less energy per day. However, they require the same amount of nutrients, which means they need to eat more nutrient- rich foods than men. But this is often unaff ordable as foods rich in nutrients – such as fruit, vegetables and meat – tend to be the most expensive foods.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women need to consume foods even richer in nutrients to maintain their energy and nutrition levels. Lack of access to a healthy diet puts pregnant women at greater risk of complications during pregnancy and birth. Many infant and young child deaths in developing countries are the result of the poor nutritional health of their mothers. Teenage mothers and their babies are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition. In Bangladesh, stunted growth has been linked to the heavy workload of women living in Rohingya refugee settlements, while women’s low levels of decision making is a major factor in undernutrition among children in Uganda.

In one project, which aims to empower women to become community health workers, Action Against Hunger seeks to bridge the gap between communities and the health system, trying to ensure that community health workers have the skills to both diagnose and treat malnutrition cases in the villages where they live and work. By going from mother to mother, home to home, they can reach more children and provide them with care and treatment and, ultimately, save lives.

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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