No one knows just
how high grain prices will go. The crisis has prompted food
riots in more than 30 countries to date — in Africa,
the Middle East, Asia and the Caribbean. Cyclone Nargis, which
wreaked havoc in Myanmar, has compounded the misery. The Movement
has many ongoing food and economic security programmes worldwide
that address medium- to long-term food availability, accessibility
and utilization. In Geneva, the ICRC and the International
Federation have set up task forces to address the humanitarian
consequences of increases in food prices, and also to monitor
their effects (e.g., civil unrest, access to food and essential
household needs, security). As far as possible, both organizations
aim to sustain current food security programmes despite rising
The International Federation’s secretariat recently
issued several reference documents on food price increases
including Practical Guidance on Food Prices, which is aimed
at National Societies and details specific action to be taken
in addressing food price increases. In April 2008, the International
Federation launched a food security initiative for Africa.
It targets communities vulnerable to disasters and/or affected
by HIV and AIDS. The objectives are to improve and scale up
community-based food security programming in 15 African National
Societies, increasing both awareness and capacity of long-term
food security issues in the next five years. In this connection
the International Federation will adopt the most appropriate
responses to address both transient (acute) and longer-term
(chronic) food insecurity, through recognizing and supporting
household coping mechanisms.
In July, the International Federation's new secretary general,
Bekele Geleta, called on industrialized nations to invest
in long-term action to fight hunger. "I urge G8 countries
to prevent the food crisis from further escalating by supporting
long-term community-based food insecurity prevention programmes,
so that people always have enough to eat no matter whether
commodity or fuel prices go up or down."
ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger noted in May, "The
recent rise in food and fuel prices is making life even harder
for poor people already struggling to cope with the effects
of war and internal violence." He added that the ICRC
will provide additional food and other relief for the people
worst affected by the combined impact of rising food prices
and armed conflict.
Sorghum seeds were among the items distributed by the ICRC
to vulnerable people living in the districts of Dar Sila and
Assoungha in eastern Chad, June 2007.
©MICHAEL VON BERGEN / ICRC
Barbara Boyle Saidi.
©THIERRY GASSMANN / ICRC
"A vicious cycle"
Barbara Boyle Saidi, head of the ICRC’s Economic Security
Unit, looks at the underlying causes of the food crisis and
the strategies needed to address it.
The crisis is getting worse by the day. What
are the main contributing factors?
What we are looking at is a broader structural crisis, of
which the food crisis is just one of several symptoms. A range
of interrelated factors are at play. Drought and climate change
have led to a slowdown in the growth of agricultural production.
In Australia, wheat production plummeted by 52 per cent between
2004 and 2006, while grain production dropped by 13 per cent
in the United States and 14 per cent in the European Union
in the same period. The use of biofuels — mainly corn-based
— is also contributing significantly to the current
shortages. Rapid urbanization and changes in eating habits
in the West and in the so-called emerging markets, primarily
in Asia, have driven up demand for food, putting further strain
on supply. Speculation on food commodities is also a major
That said, this is not the first time we have faced such
a crisis. During the oil crisis in the 1970s, the price of
wheat reached current levels. Subsequently, the Green Revolution
restored balance to the grain markets.
What are the main consequences of this crisis
in the short and medium term?
As one aspect of the current economic crisis, the food crisis
requires fundamental structural reform to stabilize the situation
in the long term. In the short term, however, we are caught
in a vicious cycle in which consumers are variously affected.
Protests against the price increases are taking place daily,
generating all sorts of tensions. Bear in mind that in developed
countries, average consumers spend around 15 per cent of their
income on food. In emerging countries, this proportion rises
to 30 per cent, and in countries affected by armed conflict
and drought or other disasters, more than half — even
three-quarters — of a household’s income will
go on food. Increases of the kind we are seeing inevitably
undermine expenditure on other basic necessities, such as
health or education. In many countries where the ICRC is active,
there has been a gradual decline in living conditions, of
which the main signs are the sale of jewellery and of land
or other productive assets, the depletion of savings and lastly,
a reduction in food consumption which could lead to famine.
Without major structural adjustments, the small-scale farmer
will not be able to benefit from the current high prices,
for lack of guaranteed access to key markets.
People struggling to cope with the effects of armed conflict
or other situations of violence are facing an additional burden,
as seen for example in Chad, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and
Haiti. Detainees are likely to be affected if the rise in
food prices is not compensated for by prison budgets or if
their families are no longer able to support them. The dependency
of displaced populations and the sick or wounded on aid may
How can the ICRC help the most vulnerable people,
those who are hit by both armed conflict and rising food prices?
In countries affected by armed conflict or other situations
of violence, the ICRC stands ready to step up its humanitarian
response to emerging needs caused or exacerbated by rising
food prices. For instance, the ICRC expanded its operations
in Yemen and Somalia.
The ICRC urges authorities, and law enforcement agents in
particular, to protect populations from any possible outbreak
of violence related to high food prices, and to take all necessary
measures to prevent excessive use of force when confronted
with mass protests and riots. Those wounded in the wake of
riots must receive immediate medical attention. The ICRC is
ready to help National Societies provide first aid to those
who might need it.
Will the ICRC have to adapt its economic security strategy?
Not at first glance. The ICRC’s main concern is to pinpoint
where there is a problem in the food chain and then halt the
downward spiral while helping to revive the household economy.
For example, if food is available but too expensive, as opposed
to not available at all, it may be preferable to provide small-scale
cash assistance or food vouchers rather than direct food aid.
Such information also enables us to decide whether to take
action at the level of the small producer (supply) or of the
Broadly, what are the implications for the Movement?
In the countries hit by the crisis, national staff working
for National Societies, the ICRC or International Federation
are, or will be, affected as consumers. The most vulnerable
are very often National Society volunteers. In terms of the
response, National Societies are likely to be in greater demand
from humanitarian agencies to address the immediate needs
caused by the food crisis.
A dialogue is under way between the ICRC and the International
Federation, which should lead to an overall Movement strategy
in the near future.
Interview by Jean-François Berger