On Resilience: Hunger, Food and Disease Outbreaks

March 15, 2020

The current coronavirus (COVID-19) global outbreak – pandemic – may very well have implications for hunger and food security. This would be particularly so in poorer, developing countries where large urban populations may depend on fragile supply chains for food.

We know that shocks – including wars – can impair movement of basic life-sustaining foodstuffs, as in Yemen today. We also know that food is an intrinsic part of how we currently address some diseases. Many humanitarian agencies have published at length about the value of ensuring food and nutrition for African families affected by HIV/AIDS.

Food aid has been important for helping families or breadwinners to self-quarantine after being identified as having been in contact with a carrier of a disease in other instances. For example, in West Africa in 2014/2015, and in Central Africa today, nonprofits and the World Food Programme have been providing food or food-purchasing vouchers to families under watch for suspected new cases of Ebola.

Food aid also helps promote compliance for health care. Often food aid is helpful to ensure prenatal screenings in programs in refugee camps for pregnant and lactating women. As another example, in many countries today, low-income persons with Tuberculosis (TB) find it hard to take the complex regimen of drugs necessary each morning without food also provided, so aid agencies provide food assistance alongside the medical assistance to ensure compliance.

Hunger may also appear as a secondary crisis following the shocks of a larger pandemic. Often in pandemics, ports shut down, trade freezes up, and food does not transport as it had. Any time a city or region is quarantined, it automatically poses constraints to food trade.

Indeed, the food aspects of a pandemic could prove to be the most controversial, posing major policy dilemmas with highly variable outcomes. Many experts believe that the most variable or preventable forms of death due to a pandemic are not from the immediate medical impact, but from the food and social effects. A global public goods perspective of a pandemic suggests that whereas health programs are a win-win for everyone, other goods, such as food, energy, or oil, are competed over and may become scarce.

As of today, the World Health Organization has defined the current COVID-19 spread as a pandemic. From the past, we understand that many pandemics tend to flow as waves. The 1918 flu influenza killed 100 million people, by some estimates, and circled world several times over the span of a year. Health science was so imperfect in that time, and World War I was such a distraction, that the existence of a pandemic killing people from India to Africa to Illinois was not immediately understood. In today’s world, the extent of an outbreak is more immediately tracked and mapped, with the consequence that travel and markets freeze up.

To understand the counter-intuitive ways that markets may respond to fears, consider the large number of people who died in India due to famine during World War II. In 1941-42, a severe famine killed up to two million people in the Bengal region of India. In studying this famine, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen recognized that it occurred despite a better-than-average local food harvest. Food was sequestered and kept out of retail networks due to an overall atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety about future events, i.e. an invasion by the Japanese army (which never occurred). This led to a lack of food availability in markets for most of the consumers. The lesson is that events in one domain (war, disease) can lead to market disruptions that can worsen poverty and hunger, and in some pockets of the world, starvation.

The diagram below depicts one scenario of how a disease may pass through a country during a pandemic, similar to the 1918 case. The inner full lines depict the period when it is spreading person-to-person in a particular country – a few months – during a year. The broken line above it depicts the shock wave that is longer as markets tighten and access to food becomes limited. This diagram comes from a USG-funded interagency working group of UN agencies and NGOs in the 2000s, looking at scenarios of how a pandemic might unfold:

Diagram courtesy of Steve Hansch

 

That same study found that:

“The increase in food prices for some countries – those that are not food self-sufficient but depend on grain imports – will be sharper and higher than that seen in 1974 or in 2008, when food price increases made international headlines as a pervasive crisis.  The tightness in food markets in 1974 and 2008 provide some lessons about the dynamics of global food markets, though a pandemic’s effects on food trade could be far more lethal.   Just as occurred in 2008, food trade will become restricted and food will be rationed and hoarded, with the result that food prices will increase for most locations where populations aggregate (cities, towns), though food prices will decrease in rural agricultural areas.  Even if the virus spreads from foci to foci, along lines of airplane travel, or migration, the wave of food panic may be more diffuse and global.”

The study also cautioned that in many locations, as commercial food pipelines break down, stores that sell food (particularly in urban areas) will likely be in a hurry to disburse fresh (perishable) foods to friends and family before the markets shut down to avoid ransacking. If the store owners trust rumors that food transport will be interrupted and their inventories not replenished, they may see an incentive to protect the store itself by closing it down, boarding it up and posting “no more food” signs, rather than face break-ins, threats, or government requisition.

For these and other reinforcing dynamic reasons, food prices may inflate in urban areas many times above normal levels over the first few weeks of a pandemic. For poor families who are already spending their limited income largely on food, increased prices leads to reduced consumption. Most famines in modern history have shown that increased food prices lead to increased hunger and malnutrition-related death.

Experts recommend that key national-level goals are to reduce national panic and distress migration (for instance away from urban areas to rural areas). Therefore, food programs can support leaders by helping them to maintain credibility when communicating to the public that people need not panic about food shortages; therefore, governments need to have some credible back-up reserves of food with which to promise to provide targeted food for the malnourished. Many governments already dabble in maintaining emergency reserves of food. So, when an outbreak—such as COVID-19—begins to spread on the health side, governments can and should begin to quietly store and then allocate food resources to work with civil society agencies, such as the Red Cross, to quickly pre-purchase and move food storage to decentralized locations, to reach the most vulnerable people.

About the Author: Steve Hansch is a WHES Board Member with long-standing association with Hunger Notes.

The Impact of Unequal Wealth Distribution on Poverty Worldwide

September 29, 2019

While it is often said that more people were pulled out of poverty over the last century than in the whole history of mankind, there is still much work to do. Some numbers about Africa’s economy can seem encouraging at the surface level, but the harsh reality is that Africa still has some of the most unequal societies in the world. It is a continent still affected by political conflicts and corrupt governments. Let’s take a look at some of the effects of unequal wealth distribution worldwide, and what the prospects look like for the future.

Poverty in Africa is Decreasing, But Not Fast Enough

While some countries have had a renaissance, such as Rwanda or the Côte d’Ivoire, poverty on the continent remains very real, and out of the world’s poorest countries, 24 out of the 30 were located in sub-Saharan Africa.

One obstruction seems to be the huge gap between the immense wealth of a small group of persons and the rest of the population. Then there’s the specter of military conflict and rebel activity, often fueled by shadowy groups and old colonial powers.

Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where most of the world’s cobalt is produced, have been torn apart by conflict for decades. While the high demand for cobalt should have been a windfall for the impoverished country, a handful of warlords in highly disputed regions are the only ones benefiting from it, not to mention that political tensions are never good for foreign investment.

Africa is Not the Only Continent to Suffer from Poverty

South America, Central Asia, and various parts of Eastern Europe are also suffering from extreme poverty and inequality. As we can see on this map, the average income in countries like Afghanistan is below the $600 mark. This can be attributed to decades of conflict, the lack of infrastructure, and a lack of natural resources. The yearly income in Ukraine is also shockingly low at about $2,660, though the gap between the highest and lowest annual incomes is not as drastic there as it might be in other countries—a vestige of the old communist era.

What Are the Solutions?

The solution to the problem should eventually come from different parties. A long-term solution to poverty would be for foreign aid to focus on helping countries become more self-sufficient, through self-determination and development opportunities.

Infrastructure will also have to be improved, starting with roads and communications. Wireless has been a huge boon to Africa, and more people than ever have had the chance to get connected. This is in large part what has contributed to the sudden growth. Finally, leadership in these countries will have to be either pushed or forced to redistribute wealth and uphold the rule of law, either through sanctions or direct action. However, this approach could also lead to more inequality, as governments will often end up funding rebels who will then become the new financially elite, perpetuating the same cycle over and over again. One example would be Ortega in El Salvador.

The problem of poverty is a complex one. Aid efforts that give the impoverished increased access to education, financial mobility, more stable governance and better infrastructure should be given more attention. Much work still needs to be done, but there is still hope.

 

About the Author: William is a climate/weather enthusiast who takes a great interest in topics related to both climate change and weather. He graduated with a degree in chemistry from the University of Dallas. He is currently retired and lives with his family in Dallas, TX.

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

The Brand Agency & Foodbank Fight Hunger This Christmas With Empty Packet Of Cereal

In light of the federal government’s recent threat to reduce funding for food relief organisation Foodbank, The Brand Agency has launched an innovative new product to go on Western Australian supermarket shelves and raise funds over the Christmas period.

http://www.bandt.com.au/campaigns/brand-agency-foodbank-fight-hunger-christmas-empty-packet-cereal

How Blockchain Can Be Used to Address Food Security in India

Every night, 200 million people in India go to sleep with hungry stomachs. Ranked 105th on the 2018 hunger index, India is home to the largest undernourished population in the world. These grim statistics are counter intuitive in light of India’s significant gains in agriculture production, which have advanced the country from famines to food surplus, the paradox being hungry people and food surplus in the same place.

Solving Dietary Issues Through Public Private Partnerships: An Example from the Field

October 19, 2018

Every October, World Food Day is celebrated around the globe. Unfortunately, hunger is increasing, not decreasing. After a period of decline, world hunger is on the rise again. Today, over 820 million people are suffering chronic undernourishment [1]. While the reasons for the rise in hunger are complex, the role of the private sector, while acknowledged to be a key component in solving hunger-related issues, continues to be debated. This piece will present one of many personal experiences with the role of public private partnerships in addressing hunger.

Since 1979, I have been involved with the implementation of multimillion-dollar agriculture field programs around the world. They have had, as their aim, to improve food security either indirectly through income generation through agro-related activities and/or directly with farming households through improving productivity and dietary diversity for their own consumption. Private sector involvement has always been integral part of these programs. Private sector engagement in food security is nothing new. It has been around since the domestication of agricultural crops and livestock. Today’s global food supply chains impact local food systems everywhere, both positively and negatively.

In recent years the international development community of practice has focused in on the role of the private sector in improving dietary quality, especially in vulnerable populations. Data from food insecure countries show diet-related micronutrient malnutrition, especially vitamin A and iron, to be serious issues impacting maternal and child health. Many food insecure countries have limited financial and human resources to combat micronutrient malnutrition, so using their limited assets strategically is a high priority. Countries grapple with a key question around private sector engagement: How can government serve as a big picture “market enabler,” and stop taking on actions that the private sector already does?

I recently facilitated a discussion group on this very topic as part of a long-term advisory assignment in Sub-Saharan Africa. The country was in the process of developing a multi-year plan for agriculture. Our discussion group consisted of private sector actors from throughout the agriculture supply chain (small growers, input suppliers, buyers, and processors), as well as NGOs and public sector actors from the ministry of agriculture, which included a policy maker and key personnel in charge of outreach. One of the big changes the government was committed to was transitioning from their role as “market maker” to “market enabler.” This included a desire to concentrate more on how to solve dietary issues, especially micronutrient malnutrition, through the marketplace as an enabler.

The group selected iron-fortified beans as a case study to illustrate how the enabler process could be achieved. First, we reviewed recent data that indicated women in the country who consumed iron-fortified beans significantly improved iron levels in 128 days [2]. Next, the group agreed that the type of bean tested in the consumption trial is consumed widely and is easily grown in traditional mixed cropping systems. Next, we asked the food processor about iron-fortified beans who stated his company was in the final stages of setting up a processing line for canned beans using locally grown beans. The processor could see the competitive advantage of marketing highly nutritious beans in a country where diet-related iron deficiency was so prevalent; as long as using iron-fortified beans would not cost more than conventional beans, he would consider buying them.

At that point the group turned to the public sector participants from the ministry of agriculture. The outreach/extension director stated that if the buyer was committed to buying iron-fortified beans, and since beans are traditionally grown, the extension team could come up with an outreach plan to provide skills to improve productivity throughout the supply chain to produce the quantity and quality required. NGOs attending the discussion indicated that they would support demand creation for iron-rich beans through their behavioral change communications work. Finally, the policy maker spoke. He now understood how an identified dietary gap could be used to drive an agricultural supply chain. He understood the role of the ministry as a market enabler for the private sector in creating demand for nutrient-dense foods that should have a positive impact on micronutrient malnutrition.

This example highlights how nutrition-driven value chains present opportunities in which key actors identify a common interest and then proceed to build a public–private partnership to resolve the issue.

[1] FAO 2018 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report.

[2] The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 146, Issue 8, 1 August 2016.

Share Your Thoughts

What has been your experience with the role of public-private partnerships in addressing hunger-related issues? What worked? What didn’t? If you’d like to respond with an article or opinion, you can find us on Twitter @HungerNotes, or on Facebook at World Hunger Education Service – Hunger Notes.

About the Author

Since 1979, Paul Sommers has been an active proponent for the integration of agriculture and nutrition. He holds academic degrees in both agriculture and nutritional sciences, and has taught both subjects as a faculty member in the California State University system. He has promoted the market-driven link through a variety of channels including USAID, Peace Corps, NGOs, the United Nations, and the World Bank. His field activities have included on the ground technical assistance in over 55 countries, management of long-term food security projects, capacity building through community-based workshops and the publication of several field training manuals, and “how to” books on the food production nutrition linkage for community outreach staff. The author’s blog is: https://psommers92024.wordpress.com

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

Solving Hunger?

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.

Rising obesity in Africa reflects a broken global food system

When I visited Kigali, Rwanda’s capital last week, I noticed an array of new fast food restaurants downtown. This is not an exception — chains such as Burger King, Pizza Hut and KFC are proliferating across Africa. Meanwhile, obesity rates are skyrocketing across the continent.