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Food Security – a paradigm shift

In spite of decades of dedicated effort and billions of dollars in aid, hunger still stalks the world. Why is hunger so entrenched? And what is the Movement doing about it?

ON a hot day in the remote Malawian village of Chimpholi, more than 100 children at a day-care centre are ready for lunch. One by one they collect a plate containing a handful of porridge.

Sitting under a tree, Yohane Chabwera, 6, is worried. It is the orphan’s first meal of the day and most likely his last. “I didn’t have enough — Iam still hungry,” he says in a faint voice.

A drought has left more than one-third of Malawians in need of food aid. John Zuze, a teacher at the centre, tells Francis Musasa of the Malawi Red Cross Society that it’s getting worse. “Our concern is that children may be unable to attend school due to hunger. That will have a long-term impact on the development of the country.”

The world had seemed to be winning the battle against hunger. From 1970 to 1997, the number of hungry people dropped from 959 million to 791 million, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), thanks mainly to dramatic progress in China and India.

Yet today the WFP estimates that well over 850 million people — or one person in seven on earth — are ‘food insecure’. The International Federation defines food security as everyone always having “physical and economic access to buy produce, obtain or consume sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for a healthy and active life”.

Hunger and malnutrition are the top risk to health worldwide, with 10 million people a year dying of hunger and hunger-related diseases, according to the WFP. This problem is greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Orphans like Yohane Chabwera in Malawi are most at risk, as well as children under 5, pregnant and lactating women, people with disabilities, older people and those displaced by conflict or disaster.

A woman sits with her child at a hospital in north-eastern Kenya, where there has not been enough rain for more than two years.

Hunger hot spots include Afghanistan, Bolivia, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Mongolia and several countries in Central America.

But in sub-Saharan Africa, 203 million people — of an estimated total population of 700 million — are undernourished, that is, they do not get enough calories or nutrients for a healthy life.

Hunger is not just a matter of short-term suffering — although that is tragic enough. A lack of adequate energy and nutrients rob children of the chance to grow up healthily and reach their full physical and mental potential. The result is that people cannot learn as much, work as much or earn as much. And communities, countries and continents are deprived of the chance to fully develop and thrive.


Water for schooling in Eritrea


WHAT: In 2005, the Red Cross Society of Eritrea rehabilitated a bore hole and installed a hand pump for 855 people in four villages near Hagaz, north of the capital, Asmara.
WHO: Farmers whose animals depended on rain-fed crops.
WHY: After four years of drought, girls walked up to 30 kilometres to fetch water. Children did not attend school or were too tired to study. There was a risk of sickness from the shortage of water. Failed crops led to malnutrition.
RESULT: Water is within 30 minutes’ walk. School attendance has increased.
COMMENT: Would-be schoolgirl Gidey said, “I am eager to go back to school and have more time to study.”

So if hunger is the problem, then surely the answer is food?

Not necessarily, says Mija-tesse Ververs, International Federation food security and nutrition officer. Food aid deals with the emergency phase of hunger, when people are at risk of starvation. “Food aid should be a last resort — it won’t help the underlying causes of long-term, chronic food insecurity.” Food insecurity is not merely a shortage right now. It is a complex issue with behavioural, biological, environmental and political components. Certain countries or regions are more prone to natural disasters such as drought, floods or animal and plant pests, which reduce the availability of food. In many places, the environment limits arable land or water supplies for crops and livestock.

On the human side of the equation, poor farming knowledge means people do not get the best yield from their land and crops. Perhaps plots, divided by inheritance, are simply too small to generate a decent living. Poverty can put seeds, tools and fertilizers out of reach.

Within households, some nutritious foods might be avoided for traditional reasons. Storage, preparation and cooking techniques can deplete food of nutrients. Additionally, in some cultures, women and girls eat after the men and boys have had their fill.

Conflict adds to the difficulties of farming and taking products to market. And people displaced by conflict are unlikely to have access to prime agricultural land (see the box on page 7).

But AIDS, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why food insecurity is so tenacious in sub-Saharan Africa. Two-thirds of the people living with HIV/AIDS — 24.5 million people — live in this region.



Lethal nexus

Deep in the bush in eastern Zimbabwe, Phiaodonia Chivandire, 18, lives with her younger brothers and sisters. They were orphaned by AIDS five years ago.

“We did start to plant a garden to grow food but the rains washed it away. We have seeds and we would like to plant them but there’s no one to help us. We’ll try to replant,” Phiaodonia tells Leigh Daynes of the British Red Cross. The teenager, whose school fees are paid by the Zimbabwe Red Cross, dreams of becoming a nurse.

In homes where someone has HIV/AIDS, much of the household income will be spent on medicines or doctors. Often, someone will drop out of school or the workforce to care for an ill family member.

There is a lethal nexus between food and HIV/AIDS. People living with HIV/AIDS need more calories and nutrients each day. In addition, malnutrition hastens the progress of HIV/ AIDS and opportunistic infections. Finally, without good nutrition, antiretroviral drugs are not as effective.

Stigma and discrimination compound poverty. In the Gitari Marigu slums of Nairobi, Josephat, 37, is trying to figure out how his wife, Mercy, and their four children under 6 will survive. “Getting food is a problem,” Josephat tells journalist Kathy Donaghy. “We cannot even afford to pay the rent. Once employers discover I’m HIV positive, they will not give me a job. The children don’t go to school because we can’t pay the fees.”

Women in Ikaatini village discuss solutions to a water shortage with representatives of the Kenya Red Cross Society.

Food is political
The national context matters, too, says Mcbain Kanongodza, International Federation food security operations manager for southern Africa. Governments sometimes focus on food aid at the expense of programmes that would assure longer-term food security, he says.

“While drought might be an issue, I am convinced that we are focusing on the wrong factors,” he says. “We have perennial sources of water in our region. If priority were given to investing in irrigation systems, it would take a prolonged drought for people to start talking of food shortages. We have to make optimum use of available resources and southern Africa has enormous water sources.

“Governments spend a lot of money importing food in times of drought. If that amount were invested in irrigation, the whole song would change.”

But Kanongodza warns that the Movement can’t do everything. “Food is political and getting involved will always touch on the political side. The Movement only comes in to complement the government’s efforts.”

Beyond truck and chuck
For millions of people, lean seasons between harvests are a normal part of the year that they plan for and cope with. It’s when the problem lasts a long time that families can get into trouble. Over time, if they eat fewer meals, they risk their health and therefore their earning potential. Spending less money on health or education can have long-term consequences for the family.

Later, when hunger really begins to set in, families might be forced to adopt drastic measures that can have far-reaching and tragic consequences for their own food security. They might sell productive assets like farmland and tools, over-exploit resources such as fish or trees, take children out of school, move off the land into town or send girls and women into sex work, which could expose them to HIV.

Fighting increases hunger in Somalia

Good rains in Somalia have provided some respite from the severe hardships of recent months, but drought and a rise in armed conflict still present vast humanitarian challenges.

“For sure, the rain has given us some hope,” says Nurto Omar, a 27-year-old widow living in a camp for displaced people in the town of Brava in southern Lower Shebelle region, 150 kilometres south of Mogadishu. “But we still have nothing to go back to; we have lost everything.”

While the country can expect an acceptable harvest in mid-2006, hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to cope, having exhausted their reserves of food, livestock and household possessions. As many as 400,000 have fled their homes.

In February the ICRC launched an emergency operation targeting about 1 million people with food, seeds and household items, water and sanitation projects and livestock support. It is focused on drought-affected areas where herders and their livestock traditionally cross to Ethiopia and Kenya in search of pasture. Since the rains failed on both sides last year, they have had nowhere to go.

This year the rains have been good. For many, however, it will make little difference.

“The Red Cross support came at the right time,” says Farah Mohamad Idow, who lives in the village of Marian Gubay in Lower Shebelle. The region was not the worst hit by the drought, but has had to accommodate about 20,000 people who fled from neighbouring areas.

“If you receive guests, you have to help them,” he says. “But our crops have failed too. We share what we have, but there is only so much we can cope with.”

One more round of ICRC food aid is scheduled before the mid-year harvest. Red Cross officials say that if the rainy season is good, food deliveries will then end. Food distribution is a delicate business. Provide too little and the humanitarian mandate to help vulnerable people becomes meaningless. Provide too much and you risk not only destabilizing the domestic market but also setting the stage for exacerbated tension and conflict. In effect, killing with kindness.

Until the harvest, however, many farmers will remain without food and many herders will not find the income to replace their dead animals.

“You have to put the drought in the context of the complete lack of infrastructure caused by 15 years of conflict,” says Ahmed Hassan, president of the Somali Red Crescent Society. “Whether it rains or not in Somalia is just one factor among many underlying problems.

“We have to look at the longer-term perspective. For me, our operations are about the provision of some of these vital services.

Mark Snelling
British Red Cross information officer

Since February 2006, fighting between Islamic militias and warlords has engulfed Somalia, especially the capital Mogadishu. During these clashes — the most violent in a decade — many people, mostly civilians, have been killed or wounded. Between January and June, the ICRC and the Somali Red Crescent Society increased their support to Keysaney and Medina hospitals in Mogadishu where over 1,700 victims of the fighting were treated. During this period, the ICRC and the Somali Red Crescent provided over 300,000 people with food, delivered half a million litres of water per day to some 180,000 people and renovated 123 water supply systems in drought affected areas.

The combined effects of HIV/AIDS, entrenched poverty and weak governments leave people exposed to food insecurity and vulnerable to chronic hunger that lurches into acute emergencies at times.

Food aid can save families from having to take the desperate measures that could hamper their long-term food security. But it comes at a price. Food aid is expensive. Food requires careful shipping, handling and warehousing. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that bringing in food aid was about 50 per cent more expensive than buying food locally.

Often, the food provided is not what people need. When maize was distributed to Kenyans whose staple was rice, they sold it at the market to buy rice. They made a loss on the deal but they did not know what to do with the maize. In some cases, people did not know that boiling a blend of corn, soy and oil makes a nutritious porridge. In Ethiopia they fed the strange mixture to animals and in the Sahel they gave it to children to eat raw.

Some food aid is imposed by donors and does not have a lasting effect because it is not suited to the economy or society of the hungry country. It can destabilize markets and cause inflation.

So any food aid has to be temporary, says John Roche, senior food security officer with the International Federation’s Africa department. “We’re trying to push beyond ‘truck and chuck’, and looking at some of the systemic issues of food security.”


Paradigm shift
After recognizing the limits of food aid, many humanitarian agencies are moving to a more holistic, longer-term approach of ensuring households can meet their basic economic needs. The aim is to strengthen people’s resilience to food insecurity by building on their existing healthy coping mechanisms and resources. The key parts of the new approach — a paradigm shift away from ‘truck and chuck’ — include early warning systems, integrating food security into other programmes and using agricultural aid and training to help people fend for themselves.

Oleg Blinikov, a physician and the International Federation’s health coordinator for the food crisis in the Sahel, explains how safe water fits into the food security equation. “If you don’t have access to clean water, you get intestinal infections that end up in diarrhoea. Children with diarrhea can’t absorb nutrition.”


Food and hope in Namibia


WHAT: Home-based care volunteers at the Namibia Red Cross’s Mapilelo project give 500 people a monthly food parcel. After six months, people move on to income-generating activities such as tourism, poultry or fish farming or gardening.
WHO: Chronically-ill people (with tuberculosis or living with HIV/AIDS) on medication.
WHY: Poverty, high HIV/AIDS rates, drought and floods have left people unable to afford enough food.
THE AIM: With adequate nutrition, medication helps people become strong enough to work and be independent.
RESULT: Increased self-sufficiency. With food as an incentive, more people are coming forward for health care.
COMMENT: Charity Silangani, from Choi village, says, “I was stranded when the food parcels stopped. But now [as a result of the income-generating activities] I can grow my own food and buy my own necessities.”

Diarrhoea and other diseases weaken breadwinners so they are less able to support their families, says Blinikov. “Though water and sanitation projects are often considered too expensive, they are nevertheless the first alternative, together with hygiene awareness programmes, to reduce poverty and malnutrition on a sustainable and long-term basis.”

Kjell Magne Bondevik, the UN special humanitarian envoy on the food crisis in the Horn and East Africa, says, “We know that there will be recurrent droughts. It’s not a question of if, but when we will have a new drought. And so we have to prepare people better to meet this.”

Often, the food security approach moves the focus from relief to recovery and development — because the best insurance against food insecurity is development.


So if a holistic food security approach is the right one, why isn’t it being carried out?

For many donors it is easier to fundraise for emergencies, which deliver short-term gains.

The International Federation’s Mija-tesse Ververs remembers a dilemma faced in Niger in early 2005. “We knew the harvest would not be sufficient yet we could not find donors. It’s tremendously frustrating to come up with lower cost interventions and not be able to get the funds for them.”

In addition, the traditional ‘home’ of the Movement is in conflict and disaster, not long-term development. But John Roche says food security can be built into disaster management and other programmes. “The challenge is to change the way we react to disasters and rebuild livelihoods.” In the first stage of a disaster, National Societies provide food and shelter, but in parallel they can put in place programmes that make people less vulnerable to future disasters.


Cash in the hand in Niger


WHAT: In November 2005 the Red Cross Society of Niger gave US$ 240 each to women in more than 5,700 households in central Niger. In all, 34,000 people should benefit.
WHY: Locusts and drought ruined harvests and pushed food prices too high for many families. Many families sold basic assets and borrowed money.
THE AIM: To increase household self-sufficiency.
RISKS: Staff and volunteers were travelling with cash. Inflation might result. Families could spend the money on non-essentials.
RESULT: Assessments showed people used the money to repay debts, buy food and replace household equipment, farming tools and livestock. The price of some food rose slightly.
COMMENT: Amina Laouali, from Batthe village, says: “I am delighted. In the past we suffered a lot. One-third of the money will go for my children’s needs, another third to buy millet and the final third for livestock.”

The future
There are several positive developments. There is some hope that the burden of AIDS will lessen. UNAIDS’ 2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic shows that the prevalence of HIV/ AIDS is declining in parts of India, Kenya and Zimbabwe. But some of the epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa are still expanding.

Across Africa, National Societies are running food security programmes that should bear fruit long after the acute hunger is over. Mcbain Kanongodza says integrating food security with HIV/AIDS programmes is already paying off in southern Africa. “More households have been reached and there are reports of a reduction in deaths as the HIV/AIDS programme alone did
not have the resources to give people a
full food basket.”

Some donors are recognizing that long-term development is needed alongside emergency aid and they are funding programmes that match this. But securing funding is still an uphill struggle.

In the Sahel in mid-2006, as the lean season again began to bite, the WFP warned of an interruption in aid unless it received more funds. “Every year is a crisis year for the poorest people of the Sahel. People should not be chronically short of their daily needs in the 21st century,” Mustapha Darboe, the WFP director in west Africa, said in a statement.

Once adequate funding becomes available, if anyone can make a difference in the battle against food insecurity, then it will be the communities themselves. John Roche says the Movement has a unique advantage in addressing such a complex problem effectively and at an early stage.

“We have people on the ground. That’s where our strength lies. People at the community level have their finger on the pulse.”


©Kenya Red Cross Society volunteers are part of the solution to food insecurity.

Rosemarie North
Rosemarie North is International Federation editor of Red Cross Red Crescent.
With contributions from Tapiwa Gomo, Melanie Jackson, Cathy Lengyel, Risco Lumamezi, Tony Mwangi, Aster Solomon and John Zarocostas.


Mcbain Kanongodza – Never a spectator

©TAPIWA GOMO / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATIONMcbain Kanongodza is based in Harare as the International Federation’s food security operations manager for southern Africa. Before that, he was the Malawi Red Cross’s refugee operations manager, director of programmes and, for seven years, secretary general.

What causes food insecurity in southern Africa?
Factors include drought; the fact that about 40 per cent of the people live in abject poverty which leaves households intensely vulnerable: the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has made the situation worse; an increase in the price of farm implements, which has denied the majority of the households the chance to engage in meaningful agricultural activities; and bad agricultural policies and bad governance. Donors have contributed by forcing governments to institute policies which have largely failed to increase household or national food security, reduce poverty or diversify agriculture.

How are things in Malawi?
Many of my relatives and family members are food insecure. Introducing them to innovative methods of farming is one way to assist. The methods allow a subsistence farmer to produce more on a small plot, something that is not done in many communities due to lack of knowledge. People are dying because of a lack of knowledge.

What motivates you?
I got involved in food security as a food producer in my country as a response to my long-standing desire to make food available to marginalized groups such as orphans and the aged who have no capacity to fend for themselves. The suffering I have witnessed in some communities is a humanitarian call to me never to be a spectator but one of the implementers on the ground, working with food-insecure communities and hoping to serve those that can be reached.


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