16 Oct 2013

Fast Food, Slow Food and No Food

Today in scores of nations across the globe there will be conferences, speeches and editorials to celebrate World Food Day. School children will learn all about the latest issues -- fast food versus slow food, food losses and waste, farming and global warning. Surely this is a good thing -- unless you are among the world's 842 million hungry. Few of them even know there is a World Food Day.

For years the conventional wisdom among developments experts and economists was that ending poverty would end hunger. Globally, we have made good progress in cutting poverty in half and reaching that UN Millennium Development Goal by 2015. But somehow the number of hungry has declined little. We still have more hungry people than the populations of the United States and the European Union combined.

While we have failed to make much headway on hunger, donors have drastically cut back their commitments to food aid. In the mid 1990s global food aid reached a peak of nearly 17 million tons, but then dropped sharply to 10.5 million in 2001 and has since collapsed to just 3.9 million metric tons in 2011 - a 75 percent drop overall. Nearly all the largest contributors today were at or near historic lows in the tonnage of food they provided in 2011. Aid officials cite sharp food price increases and try to disguise this huge decline by publicising donations in cash terms not tons of food reaching needy people, which is what really matters.

When asked, development officials often explain that they have shifted funds from food aid into "food security projects" to solve the root causes of hunger. Yes, there has been a modest increase in these projects and that is surely a very positive step, but the OECD reports that the percentage of development assistance devoted to food security still remains stuck at a measly 7 percent. If these projects were sufficient, would we not see more downward movement in the numbers of malnourished? And why act as if we must choose between food security and food aid when we clearly need both?

I sometimes wonder how you would explain this food aid versus food security debate to the hungry themselves. How would I explain it to a distraught African mother as her skeletal baby clung to life in a therapeutic feeding centre in Sudan, Niger or Somalia? How would I explain it to an anemic young girl too tired and hungry to walk to school or study once she got there? Food security projects are critical, but they feed no child today. The lives of hungry children go on while we wait for a return on these investments. Lack of proper nutrition in the first 1000 days of life can undermine mental and physical performance for an entire lifetime. Millions of children in poor countries have already been irreparably damaged. They cannot learn properly, they cannot grow, they cannot compete. Their lives are already over.

If donors are really serious about reaching out to the hungry, they can. First, rebuild food aid levels and sharpen the focus. MSF, UNICEF and WFP have promoted integrated aid packages that give children in poor communities high nutrient foods like plumpynut/plumpydoz or advanced corn-soy blends, clean water, parasite control and nutrition education. Much larger investments in projects like these could have a huge impact. Second, curb the remaining agricultural subsidies in richer countries that make it difficult for developing country farmers to compete. Third, reform biofuels programs so they do not  push up cereals prices and add to the ranks of those who cannot afford enough to eat. Finally, provide all of the extra $30 billion in annual investments the Food and Agriculture Organisation says are needed to curb hunger worldwide.

Until we take real steps like these, we will be stuck in a world of fast food, slow food and no food. And that is nothing to celebrate.

Princess Haya Al Hussein is a UN Messenger of Peace focus on hunger and poverty and the founder of Tikiyet Um Ali, the first food assistance NGO in the Middle East in her native Jordan.