So WFP is now calling Corn Soya Blend “Super Cereal”… sigh.
In the wake of rising commodity prices, there’s been quite a bit of talk in the newspapers and blogosphere arguing both sides of the debate. While most of the attention focuses on the negative impact food prices have on the poor, Tim Wiggins, at ODI argues that rising commodity prices can provide an export boon for low-income countries.
Let’s consider five countries: Burkina Faso; Ghana; Indonesia; Kenya; and Nicaragua; then see the likely impact through changes in the value of their trade in 10 of the most commonly traded items – maize, rice, wheat; palm oil; tea, coffee, cocoa; sugar; cotton, and rubber.
When you look at the data and it is clear that all five countries get a large boost to their export revenues – by around 20% in two cases, by 40% in another two, and by more than 100% in Burkina Faso – the latter thanks to it being so heavily dependent on cotton, the price of which has risen dramatically over the past six months.
The argument here is sensible and should be taken into consideration by those seeing the price rises as negative alone. However, this school of thought tends to ignore the real problems of vulnerability created by price hikes.
His solution for those negatively affected by the price rises mirrors others in the same school of thought: target countries with high rates of hunger that are also net importers of cereals.
The problem with this sort of thinking is that it looks at food security as a problem of food production. Today, increasing proportions of the worlds hungry are located in countries without food defecits. In 2008, India was the world’s second largest producer of both wheat and rice. Yet in the same year, it was also home to the world’s largest number of undernourished people.
Likewise, Chad, which only has a 2% food deficit is currently seeing Global Acute Malnutrition rates of 27% in its western provinces.
Food is an issue primarily about distribution. Focusing on deficit producers or net importers alone will hardly be sufficient to address the problem posed by price hikes. To assume that food-deficit countries is to ignore intra-country inequality: generally regarded as a bad move.
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.