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close this bookTackling Hunger in a World Full of Food: Tasks Ahead for Food Aid (WFP)
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Open this folder and view contents1. Food security: sustaining people
Open this folder and view contents2. The first goal of food aid: saving life
Open this folder and view contents3. Sustaining and enhancing lives
Open this folder and view contents4. Chronic hunger and weak markets
Open this folder and view contents5. The evolving nature of food aid and future needs
Open this folder and view contents6. Tasks ahead
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Executive summary

Food security is about people. Hunger on a global scale reminds us of the unfinished task of achieving sustainable food security for everyone, everywhere. Adequacy of food at a national level does not rule out hunger. The important goal of raising agricultural productivity is only one part of the solution. The attainment of food security involves eliminating current hunger facing hundreds of millions of people today, and reducing the risks of future hunger.

This paper argues that hunger is unacceptable in a world of plenty. Every effort must be taken to address both the symptoms and causes of hunger among the 800 million people who are undernourished today. The precise number of today's hungry people who can best be helped through targeted food aid remains to be determined. Nevertheless, this paper identifies three main categories of hunger in which food aid can play a principal role in helping households attain food security.

The first category comprises people facing acute hunger-victims of conflict and natural disasters. To people such as these, survival supersedes thoughts of long-term development; there is no longer term solution without first a short-term solution. Action against acute hunger is therefore the first priority in addressing food insecurity; hungry people cannot wait for longer-term gains in productivity to resolve their problems.

Secondly, there are people with critical needs at special times of the life cycle, including the new-born, infants, and child-bearing/lactating women. Those yet to be born suffer a lack of nutrients if their mothers are themselves malnourished since the "programming" of chronic diseases among adults starts with malnutrition among women during pregnancy. If constraints at birth are compounded by a continued lack of food, the danger of mortality is great. Children who survive severe malnutrition early in their lives are likely to become disadvantaged adults prone to remain poor, food insecure, and the probable victims of future emergencies. Actions taken to address the current hunger of mothers and young children therefore have significant outcomes on food security in the longer-run.

The third group, which partly overlaps with the first two, includes people with low and variable income, limited assets, few marketable skills, deficient purchasing power, and a lack of powerful advocates-the chronically undernourished. Hunger among such people is not just a manifestation of poverty, it is also a cause of their poverty. Removing current hunger is thus the first threshold to be crossed in eradicating poverty and establishing food security.

All three forms of hunger are universal. Recent tragedies in eastern Europe and former Soviet states show that no part of the globe is immune to hunger if conditions lend themselves to massive failures in access to food and health. However, the above three categories of hunger tend to be concentrated in more remote parts of the developing world that are served by poorly-functioning markets and have low agricultural productivity, high fertility rates, and a risk of natural disaster. These are the very regions where limited economic returns tend to discourage capital investments, and which governments and donors find the most difficult to reach. The structural problems of such regions are increasingly compounded by humanitarian emergencies associated with armed conflict.

Currently, most hungry people are found in Low-Income Food Deficit countries, particularly in southern and eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The latter region poses particular cause for concern, since over 40 percent of its population is chronically undernourished and it has recently faced an upsurge in conflict emergencies. As armed conflict has taken over from drought as a primary cause of famine, Africa has come to account for most of the world's refugees and internally displaced people. It is often the same people who face the chronic and/or life-cycle risks that are first and most at risk when battle is engaged.

Food aid is an essential resource for saving and sustaining life in emergencies, as well as for addressing the other forms of hunger. However, today's food aid is different from that of the past:

  • From being largely a bilateral resource used by governments to support broad political and economic objectives, food aid has increasingly become a resource used through multilateral and NGO channels for development goals and humanitarian relief, rehabilitation and preparedness.
  • The share of global food aid used for targeted assistance in both relief and development has risen from less than 30 percent in the early 1970s to close to 50 percent in the early 1990s.
  • Food aid is no longer mainly a means of disposing of industrialized countries' surpluses; it is increasingly provided, a) through cash purchases of food in de veloping countries, and b) from tight aid budgets in which food aid must com pete with other forms of development assistance.
  • There has been a decline recently in the supply of food aid-a drop from over 15 million tons of cereals in 1992/93 to around 8 million tons in 1994/95. This has been paralleled by drop a in the amount of food aid received by Low- Income Food Deficit countries-from over 11 million tons to around 6 million tons. Non-cereal food aid has represented a steady 12 percent of total food aid over this period. The decline in food aid supply is most damaging to the hungry in food deficit countries since it is they who most need, and benefit from, targeted food assistance.

Given that food aid is becoming an increasingly scarce resource, its uses and targeting will need to be refined in coming years. The guiding principles of food aid must be that of reaching the people who need it most, primarily in food-deficit countries, at times when they need it most, and in ways that achieve lasting impact as well as short term help. Thus, the first claim on scarce food aid resources should be targeted actions that address the major dimensions of current hunger.

First, food aid must be available to save lives. A direct transfer of food is often essential to ensure survival-the most fundamental of human rights. Yet, saving life with food is not an end in itself. Since food security is about sustaining people, relief actions are not just momentary palliatives against starvation. For millions of people, relief is the essential first step toward sustainable food security. But this first step must be followed by actions aimed at post-crisis rehabilitation of affected households and at sustainable livelihoods. Greater attention needs to be paid to the establishment of improved preparedness mechanisms against future disasters and appropriate investments aimed at reducing vulnerability to crises.

Second, food aid must be focused on key areas of human development, particularly on addressing debilitating hunger among women and children at critical times of their lives. Individuals have special needs at certain periods of their life; most notably babies in the womb, children under the age of five, and child-bearing or lactating women. If not met, early problems of food insufficiency lead to damaged health, nutritional status, mental vigour and labour productivity. Often such damage can never be repaired. Since there is no such thing as 'retroactive' feeding, nutritional losses of today cannot easily be made up for tomorrow. Food insufficiencies must be tackled head on, complemented by efforts in areas such as nutrition, health, education, skills training, reproductive health, asset creation and income-generation. Breaking the negative cycle of inter-generational hunger by investing in people, not just in their lands or their crops, has benefits that last across generations.

What is more, food aid often reaches women and children more effectively than other kinds of assistance and supports an immediate improvement in their productivity. Feeding children through schools in poorest regions of food-deficit countries has a pay-off in addressing current hunger as well as promoting longer-term human growth and productivity. Similarly, transferring food aid directly to women places a valuable, empowering resource in the hands of the person in the household most responsible for domestic food security. Women are more likely than men to use any additional income for ensuring a better diet for their family. The potential for food aid to bring assistance directly to needy women is large. Food aid often reaches hungry women where other resources do not. Food provided as wages or incentives often reaches women in food insecure households that may be 'crowded out' of projects offering cash resources.

Third, food aid must support actions against chronic hunger in regions where food insecure households are by-passed by mainstream development initiatives and where markets are weak. Hundreds of millions of people suffering chronic undernutrition need assistance to overcome their current hunger, but in ways that allow them to become active participants in development. Deficiencies in household purchasing power and productivity can be addressed simultaneously through labour-intensive works programmes that transfer an income to food insecure households while building infrastructure or enhancing soil and water management. Thus, food aid is the ally not only of the hungry people of the world, but also of the productive activities and markets on which the hungry ultimately depend.

Targetted food aid is the premier resource for addressing the current hunger of many millions of people in food-deficit countries. But, for food aid to adequately address today's hunger, the level of targeted aid reaching hungry people needs to be enhanced and protected from fluctuations in global supply, particularly in years of high world food prices.