Hunger Stalks

Despite billions spent annually to assist the poor across the Third World, a colossal hunger still stalks the impoverished who increase in number by the tens of millions each year.

Some 795 million people still suffer from hunger, according to Shenggen Fan, director general of International Food Policy Research Institute.

"Two billion people have hidden hunger," he said, meaning they are able to find something to eat but it may be scanty and may consist of poor quality food lacking nutrients and protein.

Things are not entirely gloomy. Millions of very poor people benefitted from aid, commerce, bigger harvests and improved nutrition - leaving the hunger lists by the millions. But this article is about those who remained behind.

And in a bitter irony, while so many are hungry, one third of the US population is obese. It was not supposed to be this way.

International development and relief agencies delivered millions of tons of food to Africa and Asia to avert famine. High tech satellite sensors told us when drought and plant disease would cripple harvests. Some sensors even checked the moisture in the soil.

Cell phones told farmers what prices coffee, maize and beans were getting in the capital city, making it harder for speculators to cheat them out of a fair price.

Smart phones allowed farmers to send photos of diseased plants to scientists in the cities or abroad to identify what virus or mold was attacking their crops. These experts in return advised how to combat the diseases or suggested alternate crops.

High tech sensors detect shortages of vitamin A, zinc and iron, which are needed for infant and early childhood mental and physical development.

So why are nearly three billion people still facing hunger? Why does India put enough manpower and cash into nuclear weapons and glossy shopping malls but still have the largest number of malnourished children in the world? Conflict and corruption are big factors. We spent billions in Afghanistan to build farm-to market roads. We gave away tractors, seeds and fertilizer. We trained farmers to grow profitable fruits and grains. But Taliban militants threatened or killed anyone who cooperated with the U.S. and NATO-funded projects. Opium proved more profitable than wheat.

Corrupt police and thugs are another obstacle to ending hunger. In Haiti, under dictator Jean Claude "Baby-Doc" Duvalier, farmers learned that when they planted high yield coffee plants supplied by foreign aid projects, local thugs seized their land. So they ripped out the new plants and planted the old, inferior coffee variety.

In Bangladesh, a multi-million dollar USAID project to improve irrigation by installing weir gates, backfired. Legislators learned about the project and bought up the soon-to-be improved lands, turning the local farmers into landless laborers.

Lack of security in poor countries means that after aid donors complete a project aimed to combat hunger, the local thugs, caste leaders, political cronies and other power holders in the Third World, simply take over.

In Haiti, when foreign Catholic priests organized coffee growers to haul their crop directly to the port and avoid speculators, the police stopped the trucks and turned them back. The priests were thrown out of the country and the farmers had to accept the price of the speculators.

Thousands of schools also were built by foreign aid but were soon shut or burnt by Islamist extremists such as the Afghan Taliban or Nigerian Boko Haram (which means Western education is forbidden)

Norman Borlaug, the American plant scientist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for breeding high yield wheat in the 1960s Green Revolution, told me that the "miracle wheat" almost failed because an Indian minister scoffed at the need to build fertilizer factories to fuel the hybrid plants.

Borlaug told me with a twinkle in his eye that he threatened to call a press conference to denounce the minister for killing the Green Revolution - and the Indian minister relented and built the factories.

In some countries today he might be deported or executed.

"Famine and conflict are linked," said Andrew Natsios, former administrator of USAID, who spoke at the same symposium as Fan, held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington May 11.

Natsios said advances in technology and logistics have helped respond to or prevent famine in recent years - such as the satellite-based Famine Early Warning System (FEWS). But he also noted that conflict and corruption remain obstacles to seeing that every human being gets a fair amount of food.

"Food has been used for a long time as a tool of war . . . It is likely to be used again," he said.

Nationalism is rising as another threat to world food security, warned Natsios.

A sign of widespread conflict is that 60 million people have fled their homes to escape fighting in Yemen, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo and many other countries of the Third World.

Borlaug and others have long called for creating roads across Africa and other regions to deliver cheap fertilizer and seeds to farmers and to market their crops to urban consumers. But many governments fail to invest in costly projects that are outside their capital cities.

Many leaders fear that unless they keep farm prices low to appease urban people, there will be unrest and revolution such as broke out in many countries in 2008 when global food prices spiked.

In one prominent East African country, foreign aid experts have long asked the leader to build roads and set up a credit system so merchants can buy surplus crops, store them till prices go up, and then truck grain to hunger zones. But that nation's leader blocked any spending and innovation that helped rival tribes and regions.

And now new threats of hunger are raised by:

- Climate change could create more farmland in the north but the stable soil and weather patterns of centuries which have fed us since ancient times are at risk.

- Newly-wealthy Chinese, Indians, and other Third World elites are switching from rice to beef which consumes water and grain.

- The U.S. and other producer nations are shifting some corn to produce biofuel, sending global grain prices up.

- The global population continues to rise, from 7 billion today towards nine or ten billion in the next few decades. Most of these extra millions will be born in the poorest countries already beset by hunger. Even the new varieties of genetically modified crops produced by scientists have not substantially increased output according to a new report issued May 17.

You can show a country the path to defeating hunger but you cannot force it to change the ancient ways of caste, religion, tribe and selfishness. So famine is likely to be with us a long, long time.