Solving Hunger?

by Gary Kilmer

October 10, 2018

The good news is that the battle against hunger is slowly but surely being won [1]. Before the stones and arrows start flying my way, I hasten to point out that the progress is not everywhere and it is not all the time. The long-term trends seem to be in the right direction. However, a lot of work remains to be done to reduce inequalities within and among communities and countries, and to increase the pace of this improvement for the poorest and most vulnerable among us.

There is nothing simple about reducing world hunger. Neither, in my mind, is it subject to the “big” solutions often promoted by the international development agencies, local governments, or some of our NGO colleagues. There is a tendency, especially among single-issue groups, to define the “hunger” problem as being the result of a single factor (low agricultural productivity, inefficient storage and distribution systems, lack of credit, gender, flawed land tenure systems, lack of timely market information, poorly developed supply chains, climate change, globalization, etc.). Each of these factors, of course, plays a role in the total problem of world hunger – in different ways in different places. It is my experience that huge investments in any single one of them will not be the magic button that solves the problem. Inter-agency fighting about which of these issues is most important in a given situation is unlikely to create positive change. It is more likely to result in a waste of resources and confusion among those people who are meant to be helped.

Reducing hunger in the world is not just a matter of increasing food aid, producing more food, or developing more efficient storage, marketing, and distribution systems. Hunger will not be resolved by focusing on individual self-sufficiency (grow what you eat) or central planning with bureaucrats telling farmers what they must or must not plant. My conclusion, after a long career working at or near the grass roots around the world, is that the solution involves facilitating comparative advantage throughout the economic system. Small-scale farmers, agro-processors, input suppliers, government agencies, bankers, and many others all have important roles to play in improving the productive efficiency of the food system at the community, national, and international levels.

We should also be aware that sometimes the solution to “hunger” has nothing to do with food production at all. In some communities, what people need is a job that will provide enough income for them to buy the food that is already available.

My own experience has been that the best we international development “experts” can do is to take people (small-scale farmers, entrepreneurs and others) where they are: work with them to understand what it is that is limiting the results of their labors and help them to overcome those constraints and get to the next level. This new and somewhat higher level will then be a new base from which to reach further and gradually influence the bigger changes that need to be made for progress to continue. Our financial and material input should be limited to contributing to the one-time costs of overcoming those constraints, while counting on increased recurring costs to be covered by increased results.

Some of our colleagues believe that simply making more micro-lending available to small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs will be “the” solution, assuming that these folks will be able to put the loans to good use, improving their standard of living on a sustainable basis. Others believe that the insertion of a major bit of infrastructure (e.g. a government-owned pack house, market stall, or new irrigation scheme) will be the stimulus needed to make things better. My experience is that either of these approaches might be part of a solution, but that finding the “right” mix of interventions is a matter more of art than of science. While lessons of experience should not be ignored, the “right” answers are not generalizable. The best solution will be the result of a lot of conversation between the outside “experts” and the people on the ground, as well as research into the climatic, geographic, economic, social, political, historical, and other realities of that place.

Many basic “tools” for addressing hunger are readily available for adaptation to meet the needs of specific situations. What we as development professionals need to do is work with the concerned people in a given situation to identify and adapt the most appropriate of these tools and apply them to the situation. These tools might be as simple as developing demo plots to show the results of specific production practices, or as complex as planning the development of sophisticated agro-processing and marketing enterprises, or helping government improve its quality inspection and certification programs.

There are numerous simple lessons that I have learned over the past nearly 50 years I’ve been engaged in these efforts, but those are topics for another day. I have discussed and illustrated several of these lessons in my blog, developmentcowboy.com. Readers are invited to visit the site and respond if so moved. Contrary (or additive) arguments are welcome to advance the discussion and the state of the art.

[1] Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now, Viking Press, 2018, pp 68-78

Share Your Thoughts

Have you had first hand experiences with solving hunger? If you have been involved at household level to national policy level, what worked and what didn’t? If you’d like to respond with an opinion or article, you can find us on Twitter @HungerNotes, or on Facebook at World Hunger Education Service – Hunger Notes.

About the Author: Gary Kilmer is a development economist and veteran of many years working with small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs around the world. His experience includes grassroots level work as a Peace Corps Volunteer (Kenya), program and project design and implementation experience in Ghana, Indonesia, Palestine, Armenia, and Moldova, and short term technical, training, and management assistance to programs in about 40 other countries. In all of this work he has taken a  pragmatic approach to grass roots development based on strong partnerships with local people involved and learning from experience. Some of the lessons from this experience have been gathered in a blog site (developmentcowboy.com). All readers are invited to visit that site, review Kilmer’s experience, and leave their comments.

*This is an independent article and does not necessarily reflect the views of WHES.

  • World Hunger Education
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  • For the past 40 years, since its founding in 1976, the mission of World Hunger Education Service is to undertake programs, including Hunger Notes, that
    • Educate the general public and target groups about the extent and causes of hunger and malnutrition in the United States and the world
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