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close this bookTackling Hunger in a World Full of Food: Tasks Ahead for Food Aid (WFP)
close this folder1. Food security: sustaining people
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentTimes of plenty do not rule out hunger
View the documentHumanitarian crises and acute hunger
View the documentHunger within the household
View the documentThe chronically poor and hungry
View the documentThe geography of hunger


Food security is about people
1.1 Food security is about people. It is about the access required by all people at all times to safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life. It is about a life free of the risks of malnutrition or starvation.In this sense attention is needed both to long-term goals of raising agricultural productivity and world food supplies, and to the short-term problem of hundreds of millions of individuals who go hungry today. Hunger is not just a manifestation of poverty, it perpetuates poverty. The attainment of food security therefore involves eliminating current hunger and reducing the risks of future hunger, not just ensuring the supply of food at a global level.
1.2 This paper elaborates priorities for food aid in a world of persistent hunger and increasingly complex humanitarian emergencies. Targeted food aid is the premier resource for addressing the urgent needs of many millions of hungry people in food-deficit countries. That said, food aid is not the answer to all hunger in the world. Some conditions of hunger are more appropriately tackled through interventions based on the targeted delivery of cash or other resources.
1.3 The exact number of hungry people who are best served through targeted food aid remains to be determined with precision. Nevertheless, this paper does identify three categories of hunger as priority areas in which targeted food aid should play a principal role in coming years in helping households to attain food security. This new thinking is an elaboration of recent discussions within the governing body of the World Food Programme (WFP 1995a).

Times of plenty do not rule out hunger

Hunger in a world of plenty
1.4 Hunger is indefensible in a world full of food. At a time when sufficient food is produced at a global level to meet the needs of every individual alive, an estimated 800 million people suffer chronic undernutrition, and as many as 2 billion more people lack essential micronutrients (FAO 1995a). The reality is that adequacy of food at a global, national or even regional level does not rule out serious hunger at a local level. With almost 100 million new people likely to be added to the world's population each year during the coming three decades, there is an urgent need to ensure that today's hunger is addressed today-not left for tomorrow when its severity and impact may be compounded.
1.5 Hunger has chronic, seasonal and short-term (acute) dimensions. Chronic hunger is a consequence of diets persistently inadequate in terms of quantity and/or quality, resulting from household poverty. Seasonal hunger is related to cycles of food growing and harvesting. Acute hunger, by contrast, arises from absolute shortages of food, often due to climatic vagaries or other natural disasters; or to inaccessibility of food because of armed conflict, or massive collapse in purchasing power associated with disruptions in labour or food markets.
1.6 While the dimensions, causes, and consequences of hunger differ widely even within the same country, all least-developed, food-deficit countries, and many middle-income countries are inhabited by hungry people. These people do not have uniform characteristics. Just as some regions of a country are devastated by drought while others are not, some people suffer extremes of hunger and others do not, even in the same household (Webb and Von Braun 1994). Three main categories of hunger are identified below.

Humanitarian crises and acute hunger

1.7 The first group comprises people who face the threat of starvation, and perhaps the violence of physical assault. These are the victims of humanitarian crises. Where the cause of acute hunger is a natural disaster, such as a drought or locusts, actions need to be swift to assist people in their home areas in order protect their livelihoods. Without a swift response, loss of life and productive assets, through farm and livestock sales and seed consumption for survival, can result in a long-term erosion of development potential for whole regions. For example, the international response to exceptional drought in southern Africa in 1991/92 was successful in preventing widespread famine mortality. Yet, the scale of the drought was such that countless households lost many of the productive assets and had to use up income reserves in order to survive the crisis.

For victims of humanitarian crises, survival is the priority

1.8 Problems of hunger are compounded by displacement associated with conflict, the immediate cause of most crises since the early 1990s. The hungry are often forced from their homes by civil or international strife. In these so-called "complex emergencies" innocent people are often uprooted from their homes; they lose most of their possessions and face months, perhaps years, of misery; and they may face death. To these people, survival supersedes thoughts of long-term development.

Hunger within the household

1.9 Secondly, there are poor people who are more vulnerable than others at critical times of the life cycle, including babies in the womb, the new-born, young child-bearing/lactating women. Those yet to be born suffer a deficiency of nutrients if their mothers are themselves malnourished since the "programming" of chronic diseases among adults starts with malnutrition among women during pregnancy (Hoet 1995). The dangers of premature birth, low birth-weight at normal partum, and growth retardation due to nutrient deficiencies or health problems represent major constraints to normal childhood development.

Eradication of malnutrition would reduce children' deaths from infectious diseases by 50 per cent

1.10 If the constraints at birth are compounded by a continued lack of food, the danger of infant and child mortality, or at least sub-optimal growth, is huge. Food-deprived children will be smaller and more likely to die young-it is difficult to make up for damage inflicted in the first 5 years (Pollitt et al. 1995). Increased incidence of disease has a greater negative impact on child nutrition among households that are already calorie-deficient than among food secure households (Haddad et al. 1995). Conversely, if malnutrition were totally eradicated from the globe the risk of mortality among infants exposed to infectious disease would be lowered by more than 50 percent (Pelletier 1994). The associations among food, nutrition and health are crucial. Unless actions are taken today to remove the threat of hunger there are likely be around 200 million chronically underweight children under the age of five in the year 2020 (FAO 1995b; Rosegrant et al. 1995).
1.11 But, even if children survive severe malnutrition early on, they are likely to become disadvantaged adults, possible victims of future emergencies. They will be less productive and thus be faced with the chronic burdens of poverty. Mothers will face harder pregnancies and give birth to nutritionally-compromised children, and both men and women will face health and productivity constraints. In sum, hunger begets hunger.

The longer hunger persists, the harder it becomes to resolve

1.12 Given its inter-generational reach, the longer hunger persists the harder it becomes to resolve. Actions to address the current hunger of mothers and infants have significant benefits for long-term food security. Investing in people, not just in their productive assets (such as land, tools, and crops), represents a 'pre-investment' in food security.

The chronically poor and hungry

1.13 Thirdly, there are households with low and variable incomes, limited assets, few marketable skills, and few powerful advocates to act on their behalf-the chronically poor. These include many smallholder farmers, landless and/or daily labourers, livestock herders, and the unskilled unemployed. Numbering hundreds of millions, these people earn less than US$ 1 a day, of which roughly 70 percent tends to be spent on food consumption, and they subsist in an abject poverty that never rules out hunger (WFP 1995a; FAO 1995b).

Hunger perpetuates poverty

1.14 Persistent hunger, largely found in low-income food-deficit countries, is a stumbling block to efforts aimed at eliminating poverty, and is thereby self-perpetuating. Chronic hunger is part of a vicious cycle of low productivity and earnings, ill-health, indebtedness and malnutrition. Past investments made by vulnerable households are eroded by chronic hunger, and future incomes are also compromised. Hungry children cannot derive full benefits from their education, even if they manage to gain access to formal education. Poor women cannot invest sufficiently in their own, or their childrens' future, since they are fully preoccupied by the multiple problems associated with current hunger.
1.15 Overlapping with the group that faces persistent calorie shortages is an even larger number of people exhibiting micronutrient deficiencies due largely to dietary inadequacies. Roughly 2 billion people are currently at risk of iodine deficiencies which can cause considerable brain damage and cretinism as well as goitre. Almost 500 million women are thought to suffer from iron deficiency anaemia, leading to poor health and low birth-weights. Over 200 million children experience inadequate consumption of vitamin A (WHO 1992; UNICEF 1995). The latter is a deficiency responsible for mental and physical impairment among children, blindness and increased risk of death from common diseases.
1.16 Addressing such micronutrient deficiencies is a relatively inexpensive and cost effective exercise, particularly when compared to the scale of emergency interventions needed to respond to widespread nutritional failure. Ignoring mild symptoms of malnutrition today can lead to acute symptoms tomorrow.

The geography of hunger

Hunger is a global problem
1.17 Nowhere is immune to hunger if conditions lend themselves to massive failures in nutrition and health. Recent tragedies in eastern Europe and former Soviet republics have underlined this fact. That said, hunger affects certain people in certain places more than others. For example, acute hunger that can lead to famine tends not to be found in cities (unless they are placed under seige or devastated by conflict), or in regions of high agricultural output. Widespread, acute hunger has not been prevalent in temperate climates in the absence of war or discriminatory policies for 150 years. It tends not to be found where transaction costs for food marketing are low.
1.18 By contrast, the kinds of hunger that need to be addressed by targeted food aid are widely found in regions where economic returns to agriculture tend to be low, and in which there are high transactions costs due to deficient infrastructure and inefficient markets. This combination of risks is characteristic of the poorest countries of the world, particularly low-income, food-deficit countries located in the semi-arid, warm sub-humid and cool tropics (Sharma et al. 1995; Rosegrant et al. 1995). Additional nutrition problems are to be found among impoverished households in urban slums worldwide. The latter are often attributable to insanitary living conditions and certain micronutrient deficiencies that may not be best tackled through food assistance.
1.19 Currently, the largest number of people facing food deficiencies are in Asia (Figure 1). The number of people not eating a minimum diet in southern and eastern Asia is estimated to be over 500 million, equivalent to 18 percent of the population of the region (ACC/SCN 1993; FAO 1995b).
1.20 In South Asia, more than two-thirds of the hungry are to be found in the driest agro-ecological zones of warm tropics (Broca and Oram 1991). Their diet is dominated by coarse grains such as millet and sorghum (with other cereals and cassava acting as important complements). While rice and wheat were the star performers of the Green Revolution, the driest areas of the sub-region benefited relatively less from such technologies than did the moister tropics and sub-tropics.
1.21 Hunger and poverty increased in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean in the structural adjustments of the 1980s. The number of chronically undernourished is estimated to have grown from 46 million in 1980 to over 60 million in the early 1990s; this amounts to 14 percent of the population (FAO 1995b). Considerable improvements are anticipated in malnutrition rates in these two regions during coming decades, as they are relatively less poor than sub-Saharan Africa and generally enjoy better market and institutional infrastructures.
1.22 Sub-Saharan Africa shows the most cause for concern, characterized as it is by a decline in domestic per capita production, high fertility rates, natural disasters and the growing problem of emergencies displacing huge numbers of people. Over 200 million (more than 40 percent) of the continent's population is chronically malnourished (FAO 1995b). Roughly 50 percent of Africa's poor inhabit semi-arid regions and therefore depend on low and variable rainfall for food production (Broca and Oram 1991). As a result, local diets are dominated by low-yielding coarse grains (traditional maize, millet and sorghum) and roots and tubers that have so far shown limited potential for productivity increases.