When men eat grass

A while ago a pastor in South Africa caused a stir when he coerced his congregants to eat grass in the name of God. I found it particularly hard to be sympathetic to the faithful probably because I thought they should know better. However, when news of Syrians trapped in Damascus, with no food to eat or water to drink, resorted to gnawing grass, my heart ached. This was a cruel reminder as to why Amartya Sen regarded dignity as a pivotal component of hunger alleviation. It was also a reminder of the nexus between conflict and hunger. The jury is still out as to whether a cause-effect relationship exists between the two. Nonetheless, it does not require statistical rigour to note the diabolical vicious association between conflict and hunger.

In 1999, Africa was the continent in which major armed conflicts took place. It still is I presume. Most of these conflicts were protracted accompanied by complex humanitarian emergencies.

Continent Major Conflict Minor Conflict
Europe Russia(Chechnya)

Yugoslavia

Russia (Dagestan)
Middle East West Bank and Gaza

Turkey

 
Asia Burma

India(Kashmir)

India-Pakistan

Philippines(New people’s army)

Sri Lanka

India()

Nepal

Philippines (Mindanao)

Africa Algeria

Angola

Congo, republic of

Congo, Democratic Republic of

Uganda

Sudan

Burundi

Guinea-Bissau

Rwanda

Senegal

Sierra Leone

Eritrea-Ethiopia

Chad

Ethiopia (Ogaden; Oromiya; Somali )

South America Colombia

Peru

 

Source: Wallensteen & Sollenberg (2000)

Fifteen years later little has changed. The Central African Republic has recently been in the spotlight because of religious militias taking on each other. Some of the stories that emanated from C.A.R shocked even the stoniest amongst us. A few countries away, South Sudan was at it again. Therein, the conflict took an ethnic turn into what a leading media house in Kenya referred to as a silent massacre. Currently, close to 2.5 million people are in need of food assistance as markets have failed and the supply channels used to deliver food to the villages have been disrupted. The UN agency, WFP, has resorted to airdrops to deliver food. The conflicts are also felt in North-East Nigeria where Boko-Haram has been engaging the government in Guerrilla warfare. The most vulnerable group are school going children. The last time I checked 190 school girls had been abducted by the extremists.

I can go on and on but somewhere in Syria, men are eating grass because a regime which many perceive has overstayed its welcome, feels it has the right to determine who eats and who does not-literally. Now, I can furnish you with figures that show discrepancy between food production during times of peace and times of war; I can tell you that prior to 1994, a drastic fall in global prices of coffee reduced the purchasing power of rural Rwandese and consequently their living conditions, they, living in quiet desperation, found it easy to turn against each other when appealed to do so; I can remind you that it was the failure of Emperor Haile Selassie to respond to food shortages in Ethiopia that led to his overthrow. However, I feel we should end on a moral note.

In hunger and conflict, what once was abominable becomes the norm. Eyebrows are no longer raised when a woman and a man wielding a gun go behind a bush and later, the woman is spotted with a bag of flour. Jaws no longer drop when a man rips off flesh from a fresh human corpse using his teeth. Mothers do not utter a sound when their children are recruited into the army. Girls no longer have the strength to resist the soldiers’ forceful advances. These and other unutterable horrors of war are not new to us. Every day, we are fed with news of such from across the world. Some are so near us geographically, yet, far, emotionally. We have become so accustomed to the sounds of drones, blasts, screams, corpses on our TV screens that we forget that they too are human. We have become deaf to the tolling of the bell. We have forgotten that the death of another diminishes us. We have forgotten that it is a thin line between war and peace and while few strive to see that this line is not crossed, the indifference of most will inevitably lead to its crossing time and time again.

 

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2013: Year in Review

It is that time of the year when we must take stock of the year passed and measure our hopes for the New Year. 2013 was without a doubt a year of pivotal events, especially in my homeland Kenya. We had a peaceful general election in March- the first under the new constitution. We celebrated 50 years of independence hence joining a throng of other African nations that have achieved the same in the recent past. However, in spite of these positive developments, Kenya and other African nations are still bedevilled by hunger, corruption, disease, ill-governance, conflict and poverty.  This is reflected in the global reports of 2013. I will elaborate on some that focus on hunger.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2013

The GHI measures and tracks hunger globally and by region and country. It is computed by the international Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and employs three main indicators i.e. undernourishment, child underweight and child mortality. In 2013, the worst performing regions were South Asia and Africa South of the Sahara.  South Asia had the highest GHI score and this was attributed to social inequality and the low nutritional, educational, and social status of women.

The Sahel region was noted to be prone to hunger due to a number of factors. These included sporadic rainfall, locust infestation, crop shortages, and high and volatile food prices. These affected the food and nutrition security of the region negatively. Furthermore, conflict in countries such as Mali and Northern Nigeria exacerbated the situation. However, despite this grim picture, Ghana stood tall as it was among the top ten best performers in terms of improving her GHI score since 1990. It goes without saying that Ghana is one of the most stable democracies in Africa. Studies have proved there is a very strong positive association between democracy and food and nutrition security. Perhaps this is why Ghana attracts an even rosier review in The State of Food Insecurity in the world, 2013. However, I am anticipating. We will come to that later.

Some countries exhibited significant increases in their GHI scores, the worst performers, all of them in Africa, are Burundi, Comoros and Eritrea. The report attributes increased hunger in Burundi and Comoros since 1990 to prolonged conflict and political instability.

The following are excerpts of what the report says of some African countries:

  • The three countries with extremely alarming 2013 GHI scores—Burundi, Comoros, and Eritrea— are in Africa south of the Sahara.
  • Burundi, Comoros, and Eritrea currently have the highest proportion of undernourished people—more than 60 percent of the population
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo, with a population of more than 60 million, still appears as a grey area on the map because reliable data on undernourishment are lacking and the level of hunger cannot be assessed- High-quality data for the Democratic Republic of Congo, as for other likely hunger hot spots such as (Afghanistan) and Somalia, are badly needed.
  • Mali, Sierra Leone, and Somalia have the highest under-five mortality rate, ranging from approximately 18 to about 19 %.
  • The HIV and AIDS epidemic, along with high income inequality, has severely undermined food security in Swaziland despite growth in national income. Because of drought, more than one-quarter of the population depended on emergency food aid in 2006–2007, and the country’s GDP per capita declined between 2007 and 2010. High unemployment, overgrazing, soil depletion, and the risk of future droughts and floods pose persistent challenges.

 

The State of Food Insecurity in the World; the multiple dimensions of food security, 2013

This annual report communicates progress made towards achieving the 2001 Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on Hunger i.e. halve the proportion of hungry people in the total population and the even more ambitious 1996 World Food Summit(WFS) goal on hunger i.e. halve the number of hungry people. It should be noted that both goals have 1990 as the starting year and 2015 as the target year. However, the WFS goal is harder to achieve because of the high rates of population growth in many hunger-affected countries. The report estimated that to meet the WFS target, the number of hungry people in developing regions would have to be reduced to 498 million by 2015, a goal that is out of reach at the global level.

In 2011-2013, 842 million people i.e. 12 % of the total world’s population were unable to meet their dietary requirements. This means that one in eight people were likely to have suffered from chronic hunger.

Africa remained the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment (on in four people) within which the sub-Saharan region had the highest (24.8%) prevalence of undernourishment.  The report concludes that Africa is not on track to achieve the MDG hunger target. Nonetheless, Ghana goes against the grain. It had met its 2015 MDG hunger target by 2000–02. By 2011-2013, less than 5 % of its population were undernourished. It was also well on track to meet its MDG poverty target before 2015. This impressive record in a region not known to post such is attributed to a robust economic growth (its GDP grew by an average of 4.5% a year since 1983 and by an impressive 14 % in 2011), market reforms and favourable terms of trade and investment climate. However, all this would not be possible without the peace and political stability that Ghana enjoys. In fact, I dare say, this is the impetus that fuelled Ghana to meeting the MDG hunger target by 2000-02.

In stark contrast to Ghana, Uganda records a dismal performance on its progress to meet the MDG hunger target. Firstly, the prevalence of undernourishment has been increasing since the early 2000. This is attributed to discordance between food production and population growth. Uganda has an annual population growth of 3.2%, one of the highest in the world. This rate combined with a declining food production per capita, unequal distribution and access to food have rendered one third of Uganda’s population to be chronically undernourished.

Conclusion

African countries performance in regard to ending hunger leaves a lot to be desired. While the continent boasts of having the largest tracts of unused arable land, it also holds the unenviable title of the continent with the highest number of hungry people. Much has been said of this discrepancy and quite a number of recommendations have been suggested. Despite of all these efforts, the changes over the years do not merit the investment made into bringing about those changes. As we measure the hopes that we have for the New Year, it is my sincere hope that we see much more political commitments made towards ending hunger globally and especially in Africa. It is also my sincere desire that we witness significant changes in the indicators of hunger in the foreseeable future. Perhaps approaching the year 2015, measuring of progress made towards MDGs and post-2015 development agenda will fuel efforts towards eliminating hunger. Meanwhile, remarks made by José Graziano da Silva (FAO Director-General), Kanayo F. Nwanze( IFAD President) and Ertharin Cousin (WFP Executive Director) in the foreword to The State of Food Insecurity in the world, 2013 ring ever so true…

“Ultimately, political stability, effective governance and, most importantly, uninterrupted long- term commitments to mainstreaming food security and nutrition in policies and programmes are key to the reduction of hunger and malnutrition”

NB: A more concise review of 2013 can be found at http://www.hunger-undernutrition.org/blog/2013/12/happy-new-year-a-look-back-at-2013.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Hunger-undernutritionBlog+%28Hunger-Undernutrition+Blog%29

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