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
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
©DANIEL CIMA / AMERICAN RED CROSS
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.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD
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,
WHO: Farmers whose animals depended on rain-fed
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
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
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.
SOURCE: UNITED NATIONS FOOD AND AGRICULTURE
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
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
©DANIEL CIMA / AMERICAN RED CROSS
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
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
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
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.”
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.”
NOTES FROM THE FIELD
Food and hope in Namibia
SHIMIZU / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION
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
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.
FROM THE FIELD
Cash in the hand in Niger
A. SALTBONES / NORWEGIAN
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
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.”
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
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.
DANIEL CIMA / AMERICAN RED CROSS
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.
Kanongodza – Never a spectator
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
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
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.