Hope for ending hunger in our lifetimes

By Josette Sheeran
August 2, 2011

By Josette Sheeran
The opinions expressed are her own.

I will never forget holding my newborn baby in my arms watching a television report on the 1987 famine in Ethiopia – hearing the haunting cries of babies whose hunger could not be met by their anguished mothers. Tragically, today we are seeing the same images as the worst drought in 60 years again devastates the Horn of Africa, throwing as many as 12 million into desperate hunger.

But there are hopeful signs that today’s drought need not result in the tens of thousands of deaths that we saw in earlier decades. Other than the tragic situation in South Somalia, where those in control have blocked humanitarian assistance, the drought’s impact has been blunted by advance preparation and resiliency programs. WFP, with the support of many, has been scaling up for more than six months.

Through a community adaptation program called MERET, WFP has been supporting the Ethiopian government in sustainable land management and rain catchment which has vastly increased food production and mitigated the impact of the drought. In the dry Karamoja region of northern Uganda, local communities are showing more resilience than in the 2007-2009 droughts, thanks to a new system of communal food stocks that are replenished at harvest time.

We also know more today about how proper nutrition saves lives. Maternal and child undernutrition is the underlying cause of 3.5 million deaths in children under five each year, on average, one every ten seconds. The 2008 landmark Lancet series outlined that inadequate nutrition during the first 1000 days – from conception to two years old – leads to irreversible impairments in physical and cognitive development, permanently damaging the brains and bodies of a generation.

Nutrition must begin in the womb. That is why the world has correctly emphasized the first 1000 days as the way to break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. As Nicholas Kristof noted in a recent column, 1.4 million child deaths could be averted each year if babies were breast-fed properly. WFP encourages exclusive breast feeding for a minimum of six months and actively supports the work of WHO and UNICEF in this critical area. After complementary feeding starts, WFP provides young children and nursing mothers with supplemental nutritional foods.

Working with food technologists WFP is deploying products like WawaMum, which is a highly fortified chickpea paste that requires no water or cooking. In a supplementary feeding programme, using WFP’s new specialized products in Pakistan, 99 percent of moderately malnourished children recovered within 12 weeks.

Another example is school feeding, which costs less than $50 a year per child. In the poorest parts of the world, school meal programs can double primary school enrolment in one year. It brings girls to school that otherwise might never go. Studies published by the World Bank and the American Economic Review respectively found that one additional year of schooling for girls reduces infant mortality rate by five to ten percent while providing girls with an extra year of education increased future wages by 10 to 20 percent.

WFP is also helping communities break the boom and bust cycles of hunger. In Cameroon, where an estimated 2.8 million people are food insecure, WFP helps families survive the lean season by donating 10 metric tons of cereal for each community granary and helps train farmers in food storage management and financial accounting.

Community members can withdraw stocks from the granary during lean season, and later replenish it from their own crops during harvest with a little interest either in commodities or cash. Now there are over 500 granaries operating in Cameroon, and in many villages women comprise 75 percent of the participants.

Leveraging the power of technology, WFP is deploying what I call “digital food” in many nations, when food is present but the desperately hungry are too poor to access it. For example, WFP is providing families in the Palestinian Territories with an electronic swipe card that they can use to buy nutritious commodities in neighbourhood shops. This supports the local economy. Already in the West Bank over $1.7 million has been invested in local producers and dairy factories have reported a production increase of 30 to 50 percent.

To connect farmers who are marginalized and disconnected from markets, particularly women, WFP has launched an initiative called Purchase for Progress (P4P) in 21 countries. With support from Howard Buffett and Bill Gates, and many donor nations, WFP is empowering small holder farmers, many of whom were once dependent on food aid, with training in improved production, post-harvest handling and other key agribusiness skills. Already over $57 million has been purchased from small-holder farms through P4P.

These solutions are for more than humanitarian purposes: they are for finance ministers and prime ministers – because hunger and malnutrition reduce the earning potential of individuals and human capital of nations. Studies by WFP and ECLAC found that malnutrition can cost nations an average of six percent of GDP. Even more staggering than such losses is the return on investment to address malnutrition. The World Bank estimates that $10.3 billion a year in nutrition interventions in 36 countries with the highest burden of undernutrition would prevent more than 1.1 million child deaths and cut in half severe acute malnutrition.

But new information and innovations are not enough. Defeating hunger and malnutrition requires political resolve. It requires leaders who will stand up and say, “Not on my watch.” The kind of leadership we are seeing now from the G-20 and the African Union who have put food security at the top of their agenda.

The eyes of the world are again focused on extreme hunger due to the deadly drought in the Horn of Africa.
The world can break these hunger cycles once and for all. We have the knowledge, the tools and the experience to make sure that never again will a mother endure the agony of holding her child as they starve to death. Let us act now on our burden of knowledge.

Photo: A newly arrived Somali refugee washes her child as they await medical examinations at the Dadaab refugee camp, near the Kenya-Somalia border, July 23, 2011. REUTERS/Kabir Dhanji

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