Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Hunger is a phenomenon common to every living creature in this planet and as far as man is concerned daily intake of adequate calories, proteins and essential micro nutrients is a prerequisite for sustaining the life. As against this there are millions of people who have limited access to regular foods in adequate quantity & quality and according international agencies, Africa is the epicenter of acute malnutrition and starvation due to regular cycles of drought and famine. Countries like Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia bear the brunt of this tragedy. However they do get succor and solace from "generous" countries like America in the form of "Food Aid". Though the rich countries had promised aid to the extent of $22 billion for "licking" the food crisis through a sustained development program, actual economic aid is just trickling, grossly inadequate to tackle the crisis on hand. Without accusing the donors for basing their aid on self interest, it is a fact that the "strings attached" food assistance program is not effective as it ought to have been. An exhaustive expose of the real time ground reality in Africa has been recently brought out and it offers some valuable lessons to all the donors 

A common misconception is that hunger crises are about a lack of food. Yet there is food in Kenya and Ethiopia, and even in many parts of Somalia. The real issue is poverty. The people affected are poor to begin with; when things turned bad, they had no recourse. In April the World Bank reported that 44 million people worldwide were pushed over the edge by skyrocketing food prices. Such a perspective is largely missing in our food-aid program. It's like a health insurance system that waits until someone has a full-blown illness before he or she can get treatment. By the end of June, with the crisis in full swing, the United States had committed a total of about $64 million to Kenya, much of it in the form of food supplies (this doesn't include relief for the Somali refugees). But food aid loses at least half of its value, according to the Government Accountability Office, because we ship actual food instead of sending cash for local purchase, like most countries. And only $5 million was allocated to agriculture, nutrition, water and sanitation — about $1.33 per hungry person — things that would have helped people during lean times. Blame politics. Medium- and long-term planning is often the first thing to be cut from an aid budget. After the food price crisis of 2008, when hunger riots erupted around the globe, President Obama got the Group of 8 to promise $22 billion for agricultural development and food security. But many of those commitments have not been met. Meanwhile, this summer Congressional Republicans voted to cut the foreign food aid budget by a third, and more cuts are planned. And, of course, there is the matter of optics: donors want to see dead babies before they provide significant assistance, one frustrated aid worker told me. Blame also lies with the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments. In the northern district of Wajir, for instance, by July the central government provided only about half the food assistance that local governments requested, while Ethiopia, according to the BBC, misused aid for political purposes. It is an old story: sending emergency aid is clumsy, and often fraught with problems. As I was leaving a village that depended entirely on delivered water, I passed the water truck the villagers were waiting for, broken down by the side of the road. Aid officials say they realize that prevention is better than reaction. "We know how to do this," Rajiv Shah, the head of U.S.A.I.D., told me during a trip he made in July to Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp. "It is one-tenth the cost to provide effective agricultural support and help communities gain food security than it is to provide food aid at a time of famine."

It is no doubt laudable that the US government agencies have established significant presence in some of the vulnerable countries to monitor and predict drought and famine but the outside world comes to know about the seriousness of the crisis only after the worst is over. inordinate delay in responding to the call for help by these countries extinguish many lives due to starvation and diseases. The argument, that instead of outside food being delivered to the needy, a system of cash transfer enabling the affected population to buy local foods would be more effective, deserves consideration. It must be shocking to many to realize that hunger need not be due to insufficient food availability but on account of acute poverty with most poor ones having no money to buy food from local shops. Even in a country like India cash transfer system is being considered in place of Public Distribution System that will enable beneficiaries to buy the food from the open market. Unfortunately in almost all cases of food aid, the donors try to help their own cause by sending foods from their own country through their own vessels, transporting the same thousands of miles across oceans. This mindset must change and if aid is promised it must be provided the most efficient way with maximum benefit derived from it by the targeted population.


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