Hungry for something more…

Posted on December 2, 2011


One month ago, a child was born in a hospital in Lagos, Nigeria. It would normally be an inconsequential event – babies are born all the time, especially in a country with more than 155 million people. But this baby was born on the same day the United Nations Population Fund announced that the world population had hit seven billion. The 19-year-old mother, from South Africa, named her newborn child ‘Enough’.

Enough’s arrival has come and gone without too much attention but the milestone marked by her birthday invites us to think about something that’s all too easy to forget – we live on a planet that isn’t growing in size with our population. Constant growth – whether it’s in population size, GDP or consumption – is no longer sustainable.

In a world of seven billion, bigger is not always better.  And, in a world of finite resources, we need to find the balance to ensure that all of us have access to what is available, including one of the most essential ingredients of life: food.

At the moment, that is hardly the case. One in seven people go hungry. Most of those who go hungry come from the developing world, from countries such as Bangladesh, the Congo, Pakistan, Indonesia and Ethiopia. Many of those who go hungry are children, and geographically speaking, more than 70% of the world’s malnourished children live in the Asia region.

Three days after the world population hit the seven billion mark , Bangladesh observed Universal Children’s Day. To celebrate, I joined an event run by Jaago that saw more than 500 street kids taken to the local Wonderland and given free health checks. It was a chance for them to enjoy being children for a day – the smiles and the energy buzzing among hundreds of kids, many of whom were visiting Wonderland for the first and possibly last time, was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had here. Later on that day, around midnight, I looked out my cab window and saw the same kids, marked by their bright yellow UCD t-shirts, wandering the streets again, looking for money, shelter and food.

Since I’ve been in Bangladesh, food has grown into something much more than what I eat at meal time. I feel like every droplet of honey, every whiff of curry, every crunch of an apple is somehow more significant here – my meals have taken on lives of their own in my stomach and in my mind.

In the office of Hunger Free World, food finds its way into almost every conversation we have about development – there’s no point in building schools, hospitals or roads if the people who’ll want to use them aren’t getting enough food to survive. The right to food is one of the most fundamental human rights, and the many ways of protecting that right (through farming programs, agricultural cooperatives, school lunches, education, advocacy and so on) form the heart of Hunger Free World’s work.

I’m constantly reminded of how lucky I am to even have food. A quick jaunt down the street on my way to work leads me past rows of sobji-wallahs, men who sell fresh fruit and veggies from the back of their rickshaw carts. Among the wheels of those carts sit rows of beggars, chanting Allah’s name and hoping for some loose change to buy their own food.

Technically, ‘hunger’ refers to chronic malnutrition, which means that a person is not getting the essential nutrients needed for basic human health. But in my reality, hunger is something I’ve only ever observed – in Bangladesh, far too often. Coming from a life where I’ve never gone hungry, it’s difficult to fathom what it really means for someone to be starving, to feel as though their insides are gnawing at each other, to feel the emptiness of their stomach reflected as emptiness in their eyes.

Hunger and poverty are inextricably linked. Being hungry means being unhealthy and having little energy for work or school. That makes keeping or getting a job difficult which means that there’s less money available for the next meal. As the amount of food a person eats decreases, so does the level of nutrients they can absorb. So, poor health and low energy levels are perpetuated, as is the cycle of hunger and poverty, which is often passed on to the next generation.

The very first Millenium Development Goal is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Of the many global efforts to achieve this goal, Vietnam is considered to be a success story. Last year, a report from Oxfam announced that Vietnam had halved hunger and poverty five years ahead of the 2015 target, reducing hunger levels from 58% in 1993 to 18% in 2010.

Both Oxfam and the UN argue that Vietnam’s success can largely be attributed to agricultural land reform. The Vietnamese Government made land distribution more equitable, invested heavily in agricultural technology and maintained restrictions on rice exports until 2001, thus nurturing the domestic industry.

While Vietnam’s experience is evidence that hunger and poverty can be reduced, there is still a long way to go before the problems are solved. Of particular concern is the uneven nature of the improvements – women, children, ethnic minorities and people living in rural areas remain significantly more affected by hunger than other citizens.

When I visited Vietnam for the first time earlier this year, I was certainly struck by the affluence of the urban areas. But as I wandered down the alleyways of Hanoi, dodging scooters in search of steamed dumplings or the fishy broth of Pho, I sensed the same tension between old tradition and new money that can be found in the bustling shopping malls of Shanghai or the looming luxury hotels of New Delhi. Poverty lingers like a ghost in the background, hidden by the smiles of an aspirational middle class, cashed up and eager to make their fortunes at the expense of those who missed the wave of providence.

Improvements in reducing hunger and poverty do not equate to true progress if these reductions blatantly benefit some while leaving others further and further behind.

As a rice producer with a large agricultural industry, Bangladesh shares much in common with Vietnam. And, Bangladesh’s limited success in reducing hunger and poverty has been plagued by the same inequalities that can be found in Vietnam.

Much of the cause of this problem lies in the philosophy driving the ‘solutions’. Here, many policy makers argue that a growing population requires more food – it’s another facet of the ‘bigger is better’ approach, and it is the central attitude behind many global attempts to reduce hunger.

But others argue that there is already enough food for all the people of Bangladesh. Instead, the problem lies not in food production but in food distribution.

As UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Oliver De Schutter put it: “The key misunderstanding is that … you will not succeed in combating hunger by increasing the volumes available if at the same time you have a large number of people who are poor and for whom food is unaffordable, and who will therefore not have access to the food produced for the markets. … Hunger is not just a question of increasing production; it is also a matter of social justice, of combatting inequality and fighting against poverty.”

Of the one billion people who go hungry in our world, nearly 70% of these are food producers. They are hungry farmers – oxymorons created by an unequal system.

Yesterday, I finished three days of youth leadership training with the members of Youth Against Hunger. Driven by the desire to think about alternative ways of producing and sharing food, we’ve come up with a community project that will see rooftop gardens grown across Dhaka city.

As the rooftops of the rich become greener, the bellies of those who live on the streets will be filled with our gardens’ produce. The members of Youth Against Hunger will work with rubbish pickers, usually children who collect rubbish and re-sell their finds, to collect paper and food waste as compost for the gardens.

It’s a small step forward, and we have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. But it’s the beginning of something exciting – it’s about making use of what we’ve already got, and including the people that are hungry in the process of change. It’s about saying that ‘enough is enough’ and not letting the gap between rich and poor, healthy and hungry, increase at the rate our population is.

World Hunger
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