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Putting Food First

What is missing in international development is that, except for the occasional rhetorical flourish, most politicians remain out of touch, uncomprehending of life for those living at the brink of starvation.
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Let them eat cake.

Not since the famously callous phrase attributed to Marie Antoinette spread through revolutionary France has the world's political establishment been so far out of touch with the reality of hunger.

We simply don't get it. We rarely even talk about it. That may sound strange coming from a Jordanian princess, but as a UN Messenger of Peace I have made it my business to understand why 925 million of us still do not have enough to eat and to get to know some of those who don't. I've found the more you know about hunger, the more complicated it gets.

A few weeks ago the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) proudly announced the great news that the number of malnourished people in the world had dropped below 1 billion -- the first annual decline in 15 years. Shortly thereafter, these figures supported arguments at a UN Summit in New York that we were, in fact, making progress towards the Millennium Development Goals to cut poverty and disease.

Well in many ways we are, but there is little real headway on hunger. Basically, we are patting ourselves on the back this year because, for a change, the situation did not get any worse.

Politicians live to make promises. As a clever old Russian once put it: "We politicians cannot help ourselves. We promise to build bridges, even where there are no rivers." The Millennium Development Goals are perhaps history's greatest promises -- though this time there really is a river. When we adopted the MDGs in 2000 there were 830 million hungry.

Even after the recent drop, a decade later we are at 925 million. How is that progress?

We seem to have been deluding ourselves about hunger for decades. When I was a young girl, Henry Kissinger visited my father King Hussein in Amman on his way to Rome. The world was in the midst of a food crisis then and the US had just curtailed its soybean exports. Kissinger later made the historic pledge that within a decade no child would go to bed hungry.

You have to applaud him for promising big -- even the MDGs do not go that far. They only aim to cut the suffering roughly by half. Sadly, as the mid 1970s food crisis faded, the major donors and the development banks turned their attention elsewhere and slashed relative funding for agriculture by more than 70 percent. Farming has never been all that fashionable among economists or developing country politicians. Airports, massive dams, and factories have greater cache.

What's worse is that many experts denied the problem for so long, even as the numbers rose. General economic growth and employment generation were supposed to end hunger -- no need to bother about the farmers. According to FAO and WFP, the number of hungry actually started to climb back in the mid 1990s at a pace of more than 4 million people a year. The food crisis of 2007-8 pushed the ranks of the hungry past the 1 billion mark.

Who are the "hungry"? Well, most live a "hand to mouth" existence in the countryside outside the market economies that have sprung up globally over the last few decades. If you had to put a face on hunger, it would be young and female with a dark complexion -- and that goes a long way toward explaining why much of the world does not seem to care and why aid does not easily reach them.

Your chances of being malnourished go up sharply if you are born Black, Asian or female. A rapidly rising number of the malnourished are AIDS or TB victims and their families. What you won't see as often among the hungry are faces that are white or male. It seems that hunger is both racist and sexist.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the problem is that it is becoming invisible and implausible in a world where the number of overweight people -- 1.6 billion -- now far exceeds the number of hungry.

If an eight-year-old girl in Zambia is sickly and anemic, what difference does that make in our wifi world? How does that affect you? The occasional humanitarian appeal in Time, The Economist or a television ad does not make her real.

She is not our child. She does not live where we live.

Well, in fact, she is our child and we all have a stake in her development. Anemia impairs the mental development of 40-60 percent of children in developing countries and is the most prevalent form of malnutrition, affecting roughly 2 billion people.

Eradicating iron deficiency would, according to the World Health Organization, improve national productivity levels by as much as 20 percent. Imagine all that buying power. Healthy children make for healthy economies and markets from which we all eventually benefit. Those who are indifferent to the suffering, should at least recognize the economic value in ending it.

What can we do to turn this situation around? Impatient with the lack of progress on hunger in Africa by the traditional aid agencies and development banks, private donors led by the Gates Foundation have moved into the hunger arena and poured funds into Kofi Annan's Alliance for a Green Revolution.

With a budget of over $400 million, AGRA is the biggest operational anti-hunger initiative in Africa, and it is homegrown. It's first priority is introducing new high-yield seeds because that was the key to the success of the first Green Revolution which pulled south Asia back from the brink of mass starvation. Other new projects for small farmers, mostly women, will help renew soil fertility, build markets and introduce small scale irrigation.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has expanded its agricultural development budget to $1 billion, and the World Bank, recognizing past errors, has wisely doubled its own loan portfolio in agriculture. Recently, Arab nations have begun debating a massive $65 billion plan to boost food production in light of critical water shortages and huge food imports.

Some African Governments have begun adopting new approaches. A few years back I visited Malawi where the food situation was, to put it mildly, very precarious, but later the country managed to produce significant surpluses after adopting a fertilizer subsidy scheme. This is a sign that Africans can profit from trying new strategies.

Finally, MSF and UNICEF have spearheaded efforts to broaden the use of ready-to-use therapeutic foods to combat the destructive effects of malnutrition on children under 2. Early malnutrition leads to stunting and mental damage that cannot be completely overcome even if a child's food intake improves later in life.

What is missing is that, except for the occasional rhetorical flourish, most politicians remain out of touch, uncomprehending of life for those living at the brink of starvation. They have failed to put food first in global economic development and aid funding. Yes, promises are made, but often they are not kept. In 2008, the G8 pledged $20 billion in new funds for agriculture. Less than $500 million has actually materialized. It is time politicians made more than promises.