What is hunger? An abdominal pang you feel around midday? A craving for snacks at five in the afternoon? For over a billion people worldwide, hunger is a chronic state: suffered almost all the time, every day.
It’s a struggle of mental endurance as well as sustenance. I once went five days without eating, but I knew at some point I’d be able to eat, so while I became thin and tired, I was never mentally weakened. Chronic hunger leaves no such comfort; it’s as psychologically debilitating as it is physically emaciating.
This month the United Nations meet in New York to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals. Despite what those assembled will say, MDG 1, to halve between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of people suffering from hunger, is an embarrassing failure. There were 817 million hungry people in 1990. We were aiming at close to 400 million. Today there are over a billion. So why have we failed so spectacularly to solve the problem of hunger, what causes it and can we do anything to solve it?
Humans have never conquered hunger. Look back through the records of ancient Rome, China, the Mayans – all were beset by food crises that lead to famine and starvation. But today, as rich countries’ supermarket shopping aisles are stuffed with thousands of foodstuffs, a phantasmagoria of branded edible products, man has hopped on the moon, and we have instantaneous satellite communication technology, how can we still have failed to master hunger?
Before trying to prescribe solutions to it, we should understand that hunger is not a distinct entity; there is no single hunger, but multiple hungers, of diverse forms, severity, duration, origin and consequence. Hunger can be seen as a nested concept, within the larger bracket of ‘food insecurity’, and part of a process that leads to undernutrition, or clinical forms of hunger, resulting from serious deficiencies in one or a number of nutrients (protein, energy, vitamins and minerals). A food insecure person can become hungry if their food availability, access or utilization fails.
Decades of research and indeed the lessons of history have shown that hunger does not necessarily stem from inadequacy of food output and supply, as alarmists from the production side and neo-Malthusian development theorists are prone to propagate. The warnings that world food output is falling behind population growth not only fail to address the causes of hunger, but also blind us from the complex range of causes that demand our attention.
Steve Wiggins from development think tank ODI says, “It’s never about food availability [production]. The big issue is distribution.” Wiggins adds that “people go hungry because they are poor.” Wiggins proposes poverty reduction and a focus on child healthcare as macro and micro level solutions to hunger. However, macro increases in income have not translated into proportional decreases in hunger.
Oxfam’s Chris Leather describes political will, community-based participation, good governance, fulfilment of ODA pledges, social protection, appropriate humanitarian assistance, international systems, multilateral collaboration and accountability mechanisms as priority areas for solving hunger. The list is exhaustive, and narrated with weariness, so as to make these concepts mundane, like a shopping list. Hunger is always highly localised; such all-encompassing prescriptions seem almost abstract.
The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, perhaps the world’s most renowned scholar on famine and poverty, has maintained the need for a nuanced analytical approach, yet even he veers into prescriptive overload. Economic growth, expansion of gainful employment, diversification of production, enhanced medical and health care, safety nets for vulnerable women and children, increasing basic education and literacy, strengthening democracy and reducing gender inequalities are, he argues, the right causal avenues to address.
The problems lie in our social, political and economic systems; most were not designed for the purpose of sharing goods equitably. The ‘smaller’ our world appears to have become through miraculous transport and communications achievements, the more tragically evident this fact becomes. Despite the advantages of globalization and the supposed dominance of liberalism in the international system, we nevertheless remain unable to re-organise these systems according to all peoples’ equal needs. This failure is ultimately an ethical one.
At the global level, tackling hunger requires structural changes, like transforming global trading systems. U.S. and European subsidies schemes render their leaders’ rhetoric on the benefits of the free market hypocritical. Most African countries have gone from being net food exporters in the 1960s to net food importers today. As the prices of imported commodities creep up again, millions more risk going hungry. At the rural community level, where most of the hungry are located, we need to focus our efforts on expanding social protection and promoting nutritionally-enhanced, pro-poor agricultural development.
Progress should be about fulfilling mankind’s needs. Today’s political, economic and ethical systems incentivise economic growth and individual wealth over real human equality. If we really wanted to address people’s hunger, we would change these systems, and the systems of thought that underpin them. Hunger is becoming one of the great moral failures of the 21st century; it doesn’t have to be. We need to galvanise our moral and political strength to change this.