“My father sold me because we had nothing to eat”, says 8-year-old Sakeena of Afghanistan, who was sold by her father to a forty year old man as his third wife.
Roger Moore on his return from Zambia had this to say-“ People have to walk miles to get food. It was horrifying to see orphaned children who had not seen food for 36 hours. How can they concentrate on empty stomachs at school? All they feel is hunger.”
Everyday, across the world, an average of 24,000 people die of hunger. When calculated, it comes out to be 1000 people every hour. If a jet carrying 500 passengers crashed, it would be an enormous news story. But the number of deaths due to hunger is equivalent to such a crash every 30 minutes.
This is the 21st century- the age of improved food production, the age of biotechnology, the age of genetic engineering; and we are still grappling with hunger. Today even a developing country like India can boast of cell phone connectivity in every village; we are members of the elite nuclear club; we have a highly skilled human resource pool and yet hunger persists in our backyards. To ignore the hungry and malnourished on the ground that ‘we seem to be doing all right’ is, in the words of Dr.Amartya Sen, “gloriously stupid”.
A staggering 800 million in the developing world remain locked in a desperate cycle of hunger and poverty. Lack of food and malnutrition weakens people and makes them more susceptible to diseases. They lose their strength to work and their will to live. In a tragic cycle, hunger creates poverty and poverty creates hunger. Such poverty can be dynastic. Once a household falls into a poverty trap it can prove especially hard for the descendents to emerge out of it.
Every problem; from poverty to child prostitution, child labour to overpopulation, violence, civil war and even terrorism can be traced back to one and only one common factor- hunger.
What causes world hunger? Is it inadequate food supply?
On the contrary, abundance not scarcity best describes the world’s food supply. Sufficient food is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day, enough to make most people fat! Globally there is enough for all. Unbelievably, even countries where large sectors of the population are starving to death, actually export food. Hunger, then is a question of “maldistribution” and inequity- not a lack of food. That is why despite abundance, hunger hovers; despite progress, poverty persists.
The problem is that food is neither produced nor distributed equitably. Very frequently the poor in fertile developing countries stand by and watch with empty hands and empty stomachs- while harvest after harvest are exported for hard cash. Short term profits for a few, and long term losses for many.
While people in rich countries fight against the consequences of over eating and obesity, others fight for grim survival. The tragic irony is that those poor farmers actually growing the food are either starving to death or committing suicide. An additional irony, those reaping giant profits of agro-business – pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers and large farms- also pass huge environmental costs on to the poor. Thanks to pesticides and chemicals we have a poisoned eco system with polluted waters and a depleted soil.
Too many governments are making informed deliberate choices. Poverty doesn’t emerge from nothing. Hunger doesn’t come from nowhere. These are our choices. Sadly the spread of hunger has been institutionalised. Hunger is not a natural disaster. It is a disaster caused by human behaviour.
The fight against hunger may be difficult, but it is a battle that can and must be won. As Johannes Rau puts it- “Trying to do something about hunger is not a hopeless task. Just 20 years ago, 29% of people in the so called ‘developing nations’ were malnourished. Today the figure is 18%, although the world’s population has increased dramatically.”
Hunger exists not as a local or national problem but as a global problem. Lets face it. In the rich countries no one can seriously believe that he can live on an island of prosperity surrounded by a sea of sorrow and suffering. Barbed wire and walls are no response to refugee flows, to hunger and poverty.
As much as we need an international coalition against terrorism, we also need a global alliance against hunger.
Many countries may not be bothered about hunger; but they are definitely bothered about human security. Hunger and human security are inextricably linked. If hunger persists, the threat to human security persists. But as long as countries like US, UK and France continue earning more income from arms export to Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America than they provide in aid, then eradicating hunger becomes an impossible task.
Government policies do matter. But there is also a need to raise the global consciousness of the importance of equitable food distribution.
The ability to obtain enough food for an active healthy life is the most basic of the human needs. All of us have a responsibility to create a world where all people have the chance to lead lives free from hunger.
We need to fight hunger for the sake of children who go to school on an empty stomach.
We need to fight hunger so that girls like Sakeena are not sold for food. And we need to fight hunger for the sake of peace. Because as Willie Brandt rightly said-“ As long as hunger persists, peace cannot prevail.”