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Overnight hunger?

World Food Day recently passed without too much hubub. The coming of every WFD tends to be replete with your run-of-the-mill self-congratulatory prattle of policy-makers, miserabilist reports from NGOs and the always encouraging celebrity appeal.

But what’s changed? It’s been nearly 30 years since Amartya Sen wrote his famous essay on famine and democracy and seven since Alex De Waal wrote on “New Variant Famine”. While both of these works have sufficiently entered the mainstream, it looks like the core message has been forgotten.

Famine and hunger are not events–they’re a process. Famines don’t occur in vacuums and you can usually see one coming from literally, years away.

Take for example Western Chad which, as the FAO explains it, is “slipping into famine”. Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) is shockingly high at 26%….but what few mention is that this has been happening every year for decades. You’ll notice that GAM hasn’t slipped below 18% in 16 years. Yet World Food Programme and Action Against Hunger have pretty much been the only actors there for around twenty years, responding every year like it was an emergency. The blame isn’t on their shoulders, since they’re both emergency actors. We can’t really expect them to don their development hats and start digging at structural issues like infrastructure, price fluctuations, women’s social capital and agricultural policy that are probably at the root of this chronic emergency.

Why do policy makers cream their jeans at the chance to respond once the word ‘famine’ is used to describe a crisis, yet not so when the numbers are exactly the same, just without the arbitrary title of ‘famine’? Compare the GAM numbers on the chart for the dates of both appeals.

Famines are the result of a structural process that often involve years of declining productivity, policy choices, input access, seasonal volatility and market vulnerability among a host of other factors. Most importantly, they’re preventable. This year’s Sahelian food crisis, which currently totals 860,000 malnourished children could have been stemmed years ago if we accepted the fact that hunger  does not occur overnight. Nor is it sensible to argue ignorance. It’s not as if the alarm bells have not been rung over and over (and over) again during the past 5 frickin years.

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