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Freedom from hunger: privilege granted or acknowledged right? January 29, 2014

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, Pakistan, South Asia - General , trackback

Aly Ercelan and Muhammad Ali Shah

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.”

A recent publication of Rome-based UN agencies (FAO along with IFAD and WFP of the UN) aiming at global food security is worth a serious commentary for several reasons. One is the odious South Asian situation, which includes Pakistan, of socially imposed mass hunger and malnutrition, which affectsnot just women and men but also children. If there is a single issue that defines development, then it is the situation of children today and tomorrow (as UNICEF rightly underscores). Their under- and mal-nourishment leads to untimely death of hundreds of thousands before the age of five. Survivors face a cruel future in which both body and brain remain wasted and stunted. What then is the point of investing social resources in universal schooling? Avoiding hunger often leads to employment of children in distressingly hazardous conditions and at ruthlessly exploitative wages. Government commits funds for abolition of “worst forms of child labour” but what benefit can they have when their disbursement excludes full and productive employment of their parents?

A second reason is that the FAO retains an overwhelming influence upon sub-continental professional advisors as bureaucrats and consultants, even among those who are not obviously beholden to Washington. Thirdly, food security should be included in the post-2015 agenda for universal accountability of states and the international community to citizens. In fact, food security targets may well encompass necessary commitments in education and health.

This review summarises the FAO report – The State of Food Insecurity in the World  with an emphasis upon South Asian conditions. Its policy guidelines are to be examined critically in a follow up article, through a lens provided by another recent study – Alternatives & Resistance to Policies that Generate Hunger (by the Right to Food & Nutrition Watch.

The Food Insecurity report has three sections: Undernourishment; Dimensions of Food Security; and National Food Security. Each includes chapters on analysis and ‘key messages’ for public action. The chapter on dimensions reflects FAO ambitions to capture ‘voices of the poor,’ as a global tool for monitoring fulfillment of promises. A careful reading of the UNDP report on MDGs suggests that such future monitoring may well invite international censure for the Pakistani state!

The situation of undernourishment is spelt out as a bleak one not just in distant Sub-Saharan Africa but also for us in South Asia. Of the over 800 million (yes, hundred million) in global hunger, nearly 300 million are distressingly located in Pakistan and her neighbours. Neither state nor society can absolve themselves by referring to population growth as if it were independent of (mis)governance. It is also no solace to the chronically hungry to be told that hunger now affects a much lower proportion of fellow citizens.

Does chronic hunger capture the peaks of hunger? Obviously not, as the report warns “the prevalence of undernourishment indicator does not reflect acute, short-term changes in malnutrition resulting from short-term changes in the economic environment.…Price and income swings affect the food security of poor and hungry people more than the steady trend in the prevalence of undernourishment suggests.” A key message, which cannot be overemphasised for South Asia, is that “growth can raise incomes and reduce hunger, but higher economic growth may not reach everyone. It may not lead to more and better jobs for all, unless policies specifically target the poor, especially those in rural areas.”

The level of and trends in food security can be captured, FAO posits, by looking beyond static and dynamic determinants to outcomes. The determinants include “food availability, economic and physical access to food, and stability (vulnerability and shocks).” Outcomes include access and utilisation. Across these dimensions, the report proposes over two dozen indicators, including violence as part of shocks, which our friends in Balochistan and K-P recognise well as hellish local and international terrorism.

Utilisation of available food is seen to deserve, rightfully so, the largest sub-group of indicators in both determinants and outcomes – e.g. access to clean water and effective sanitation; stunting and wasting among children. Curiously ignored are child and maternal mortality as devastating outcomes of intense, prolonged hunger and malnourishment.

So how has South Asia fared? Globally, FAO finds that food availability has improved both per capita and in relation to need. However, it has remained almost stagnant in South Asia. The quality of possible diet is said to have improved, but South Asia has lagged in that “cereals, tubers and roots” continue to be the main source of dietary energy. Whether our region has fared well or badly in terms of access, FAO withholds comment. Perhaps because failure is obvious in the nearly unchanged number of the chronically hungry.

Utilisation of food intake depends upon good health. That in turn is affected by the availability of potable water, also determined by sanitation. FAO believes in the occurrence of much progress in these aspects. Its optimism may be rooted in confounding ‘adequate,’ ‘safe’ and ‘improved’ water. We are left wondering about the true shortfall of South Asia from the overall Asian incidence of 90 per cent having safe supply.

Stability in food availability depends on secure access, and both determine nutritional utilisation. The FAO employs a ‘suite of indicators’ for analysis, including dependence upon irrigation infrastructure and upon imports of food and agricultural inputs. In focusing upon food supply and food prices, the report concludes that price swings have been more moderate for consumers than generally believed. This is an odd conclusion, at least for South Asia. Climate change is emphasised as a factor in vulnerability, through droughts, hurricanes, etc., with a welcome reminder of the role of forests in reducing variability in food production through e.g. protection against floods and land erosion.

A matrix of correlations between all indicators is constructed to raise issues for policy research in developing countries. For example, why does mass hunger persist despite adequate food availability? Or, what explains widespread malnutrition when the incidence of hunger and of poverty is much lower? Such queries are fundamental to human rights, no less so in South Asia.

We examined similar issues some years ago, with data from the Pakistan Household Integrated Economic Survey (through support by Sohail Javed at the AERC). The more recent Pakistan National Nutrition Survey also confirms our puzzling findings. FAO notes in Pakistan that equity issues are present in that balanced diets are not generally available to the poor. The report makes an important point that small amounts of additional income may render a household as not poor but the incremental income may be insufficient to escape hunger.

The final part of the report deals with six specific countries identified as ‘outliers’, including Bangladesh and Nepal from South Asia. These two exhibit relatively low undernourishment for households but substantial stunting among children, with the probable explanation being recent reductions in hunger but several past episodes of hunger (and wasting). It is suggested that improved national availability of food has not resulted in better utilisation by citizens towards more nutritious diets. Not particularly enlightening for public action are the key messages: enhance agricultural productivity, increase food availability; promote remittances; and mainstream food security in public policy.

Any review of food security remains incomplete without considering alternatives, which should include suggestions for future public action based upon social justice e.g. agrarian reforms, and ecological sustainability e.g. privileging food crops with low water use. We intend to address such alternatives in subsequent articles that absorb other recent reflections. The latter include the flagship report of the FAO for 2013 which warns that “many major land and water systems are globally important and present substantial levels of risk, in terms of sustainability, productivity and capacity to address poverty and food security,” and proposes responses “in the world’s major land and water systems to promote expanded production within an ecologically sustainable framework, and with a focus on poverty reduction and food security.”

The authors acknowledge support from the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum and the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education & Research, with special thanks to Zeenia Shaukat.

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