On the road toward fulfilling the Bono-endorsed slogan, “Make Poverty History,” the world has hit an unexpected speed bump: prosperity. India’s expanding auto industry puts 4,300 new cars a day on already-crowded streets. Oil-wealthy Russia has doubled its meat consumption since 2000. Brazil’s sizzling economy is growing its use of steel at a faster rate (over 20 percent this year alone) than nearly any other nation. China has increased its consumption of eggs by a factor of ten in recent years.
Globalizing markets and economies have created new winners: Russia, China, Brazil, and India. The 2.9 billion people in these four nations are driving demand for consumer goods to levels the global economy has never seen before. In 2001, the financial press began using the acronym bric (Brazil, Russia, India, China) to denote the emerging $13.8 trillion powerhouse. The prosperity of these economically booming nations has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
But there are also new losers—nation-states living on the dark side of the new prosperity. It is worse than just grinding poverty. One expert whom Christianity Today spoke with estimates that worldwide, 25,000 people die each day of hunger-related illnesses. Most of these preventable deaths occur in regions with no oil, insufficient food, and unending conflict.
This new reality comes after 45 years of steady progress in global food production. Last year, for example, there was a record production of 2.3 billion tons of grain. But production has been unable to keep pace with demand. Grain stockpiles are at 30-year lows. Globally, 850 million people are chronically hungry. Experts cite the following reasons:
- Failed harvests. Since 2006, multi-year drought, cyclones, and other natural disasters have dramatically cut harvests in some food-exporting nations. A six-year drought in Australia’s rice-growing region, for example, has caused its harvest to plummet.
- Rising fuel prices. Demand for new oil and gas sources has triggered price spikes, thus increasing the cost of food production. Despite a recent decline from the $147-per-barrel peak this July, oil prices are still 60 percent higher than they were in 2005.
- Increased demand for grain. About 100 million tons of grains and oilseeds are being diverted to produce biofuels every year. China and other developing nations are annually using millions of tons more of imported corn, wheat, and soybeans to feed cattle, pigs, and chickens.
In the words of Tony Hall, Christian hunger activist, former congressman, and former U.S. ambassador to the UN World Food Program, these factors have combined to create a “perfect storm” for global hunger. “We have never had all these things come together at one time,” he said. In the past 18 months, the price of basic foods has skyrocketed. Experts estimate nearly 100 million poor people have moved from a subsistence lifestyle on $2 a day to $1 a day to cope. In Afghanistan, this $1 gap is the difference between living on a diet of bread and tea, and living on tea alone.
The past 12 months have been a roller coaster of gyrating prices, droughts, flooding, and food scarcity. In 2008, food riots and protests—in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, and Haiti—made global headlines.
In Haiti, 78 percent of the population lives on $2 a day or less. The Caribbean nation imports more than 50 percent of its food, while many Haitians use 75 percent of their already-meager incomes to purchase food. After rice prices doubled this spring, riots erupted, killing five people. The government reduced prices by offering a 15 percent subsidy. But this fall, four tropical storms, including hurricanes Gustav, Hanna, and Ike, claimed the lives of another 330 people. Storm damage made food aid even more difficult to deliver, placing millions of Haitians at greater risk of malnutrition and starvation.
David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, an advocacy organization to stem hunger, told CT, “Christian people need to know that the world has been making progress against hunger, poverty, and disease. I see this as God moving in our time. People need to understand that we are going through a very serious setback in that progress. We’re seeing a sharp increase in hunger in our own country and in developing countries. If we are going to get back on track, we need to be activist citizens and get our government to do its part.”
“This situation is calling out for action, political and spiritual,” Hall told CT. “This thing is becoming so big that we need to bring God into this and we’re not. We are attacking it piecemeal. We need to ask God’s wisdom and his help. We need a major fast and prayer across this nation. That’s job one.”
Crisis on the horizon
Twenty-one of the 35 nations hit most severely by food scarcity and high prices are in Africa, according to the UN. Of those 21 African nations, Ethiopia represents the worst of the worst. War, drought, famine, and starvation have been familiar to Ethiopians for generations. Right now, 14 million don’t have enough food. Stunted by chronic malnutrition, 12-year-old boys have the height and weight of American seven-year-olds.
In southern Ethiopia, a vast, Texas-sized rural area of subsistence farmers, grain prices have tripled in the past two years, while prices for coffee beans, their main export crop, have stalled. One of the biggest cash crops is khat. The poor and hungry chew its mildly addictive leaves as a stimulant and appetite suppressant.
Food aid is often distributed with armed escorts to prevent robbers or mobs from overwhelming relief workers. Religious tensions also run high between Christians and Muslims. From the village of Wondo Genet, Pastor Philip, who helps distribute food aid locally and asked not to be named for security reasons, told CT, “We do not give priority according to religion. We give priority according to need. Maybe they are Muslim or Coptic or whatever they are. We give to the most affected.”
When the food aid trucks arrive, local leaders use information gleaned from household surveys to decide who gets fortified grain and other foodstuffs. CT interviewed Pastor Philip during his U.S. visit to raise additional aid funds. “We are focusing on the rural area. The women and children are most affected. The mothers give priority to children. Everything is finished before mothers get something. That is the saddest part.”
Eastern Africa’s 19 nations have a total population of 300 million. On average, 80 percent live on no more than $2 per day, and most farmers live from harvest to harvest. In urban areas, millions of Africans cannot find food; when it is available, they cannot afford it. In Nairobi, Kenya, more than one million routinely go hungry. In Zimbabwe, it is projected that over five million of the country’s 12 million will be starving next year.
For Bishop Paul Mususu, head of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia, which is active in helping drought and flood victims in rural southern and western Zambia, the region’s crisis has “almost become a norm.”
One of the biggest, most haunting questions for church leaders, field researchers, and policymakers is this: How much of the current crisis is manmade? The UK-based charity Christian Aid supports food aid programs across Africa, and it disputes suggestions that the food crisis is primarily due to natural factors such as droughts, flooding, or cyclones. “This is a crisis of man’s making—not nature,” reads its food crisis report from July. There are many factors in play:
- Sharp reductions in government subsidies, paired with an end to many price controls
- Little investment in modernizing traditional agriculture
- Food aid distribution tainted by partisan politics
- Cash crops such as cut flowers, tobacco, or biofuel grains displacing domestic food production
- Food insecurity due to violent conflicts.
At the grassroots, food insecurity is a fact of life for millions of people. Frail and malnourished, Eunice Emanure lives in Gangura village, a cluster of huts along the Southern Sudan border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She goes without food because the little she had was looted when a rowdy band of Lord’s Resistance Army militia swept through her village.
“They came into my house and took everything,” she told CT.
In lush northeastern DRC, the residents of Nyabondo go without food because there is not enough stability to grow crops or rear livestock. Villagers told CT how they survived in the jungle on anything and everything after a hostile rebel group raided their village.
In Mogadishu, the war-ravaged capital of Somalia, aid workers cannot deliver food for fear of being caught in the crossfire between feuding factions. Aid workers die in these skirmishes, but even more Somalis die from lack of food. In Sudan’s warring Darfur region, 100 UN trucks delivering food have been attacked this year.
In Nairobi, Evangelical Fellowship of Kenya program coordinator Sophie Nyokabi is still shocked by her August grocery bill. “I spent twice as much as I spent in January,” she told CT. But on the other side of Nairobi in Kibera, one of the world’s largest slum communities, thousands starve annually because they cannot afford the food on display in the unlicensed kiosks along the dust-choked streets.
Worse may yet come for Nyokabi, Kibera residents, and all Kenyans. Christian Aid says, “Food prices [in Kenya] are expected to remain high into 2009 as a result of reduced cultivation [due to the displacement of 500,000 people in the food-growing Rift Valley], low stocks, and high fuel prices.”
In Zambia, villagers in the southern province live on so-called famine foods (wild fruits, nuts, and roots). Their crop was swept away by floods. In Lusaka, the capital, one family of eight lives on the edge as food prices have increased by 50 percent since January. They alternate eating meals.
Tokunboh Adeyemo, retired general secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa, has traveled to nearly every African country and has rarely been so alarmed. Adeyemo believes that if the food situation is not addressed effectively, it may trigger new conflict. “We are sitting on a time bomb,” he told CT from a book-crammed study in his Nairobi apartment. “When hunger becomes anger,” he says, “people will fight.”
Food Aid Myths
Starting with an act of Congress in 1954, the United States has given more money and food to fight global hunger than any other nation. It translates into $1.2 billion a year in aid.
But three years ago, Christopher Barrett, a Cornell University professor and development expert, coauthored the heavily researched Food Aid After Fifty Years: Recasting Its Role, which gave a devastating critique of food aid. It showed how attempts, especially by the United States and charitable groups, go awry all too frequently. “Food aid is a deeply flawed instrument,” he writes. In Barrett’s opinion, the following are the core problems with food aid:
- Conflicts of interest. American food aid primarily benefits agribusiness, American shippers, and politicians—not hungry people.
- Few reforms are ever implemented. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including faith-based groups, are “reluctant to rock the boat” because they fear an overall decrease in resources for aid programs if they take on politically entrenched interests. (Even the Bush administration had a rough time pressing Congress for food aid reform in the recently approved Farm Bill.)
- The food aid system is inefficient, untrustworthy, and costly. The aid does not reliably get to hungry people. It may arrive too late to do much good. It’s extremely expensive, for example, to ship two million metric tons of grain from the American Midwest thousands of miles to hungry people in remote places. Only 35 cents per $1 of food aid goes for actual food. The rest goes to pay for transport.
The most controversial practice in American food aid is called “monetization,” the practice of American-flagged vessels shipping grain to foreign markets. With careful controls in place, this non-emergency food is sold. The money is then used to provide local assistance, which, in some cases, includes valuable programs to modernize local food production.
Critics believe this practice drives down the price of local food, thus undermining local farmers. Last year, the U.S. charity care rocked the development world when it decided to turn down $45 million in food aid for monetization. care said monetization was working against its goals of reducing poverty and chronic hunger. Forgoing monetization, the UN World Food Program and many other nations typically purchase grain in regional markets and use that for aid efforts in nearby countries.
Unlike years past, the U.S. government does not maintain warehouses stuffed with surplus food. Today, the government buys food in American markets. Barrett told CT, “We lose a great deal of value in taking cash to buy food to ship food to turn it back into cash. It’s very wasteful of taxpayer dollars.” (Barrett said that in short-term emergencies, it makes sense for food to be shipped in to save the starving.)
Several large aid agencies continue to participate in monetization, including Catholic Relief Services and World Vision. Robert Zachritz, World Vision’s director of advocacy and government relations, told CT, “We have supported monetization. Is it a perfect tool? No. It can be an effective tool that saves lives.
“About 75 percent of the longer-term development programs are through monetization. World Vision’s position is more practical. If you remove that resource, it won’t be replaced.” He said monetization programs are subject to careful controls to prevent damage to local markets and they limit excessive profits for shippers. He said Europe transitioned from in-kind food donation to all-cash. But afterward, total aid declined 50 percent.
Zachritz is keen on emphasizing that no one institution has “the total answer” to global hunger. “We need good governments. We need businesses. We need the church, the faith-based community. We need big NGOs. We need smaller NGOs. If you look at Bill Gates, he cannot solve this by himself. The church cannot solve this by itself. We need to work together. Where you get synergy, that’s where you develop the answers.”
In some parts of East Africa at least, that kind of synergy is possible. There is a growing desire for political and church leaders to address chronic hunger using every resource they can throw into the fight. “All of our global resources have been mobilized to respond,” says Stuart Katwikirize, emergency affairs adviser for Africa with World Vision, based in Nairobi.
But coordination has proven difficult. Over the years, Katwikirize has observed this pattern: A drought hits and people lose all of their crops; then a flood follows and more losses are incurred. This is clearly the case in the Horn of Africa, where droughts are followed by floods, which are then followed by severe droughts. “The same people affected by the flood are now affected by the drought. I know—I have been there,” says Katwikirize, who travels extensively in these areas.
He cites Kenya as an example. “Northern Kenya is not a poor place. Local pastoralists know when there will be a drought.” Instead of losing their animals, they destock by selling some of their herds so that they remain with fewer animals during the drought and also have cash to buy food and restock after the drought.
“They are willing to sell at least half their stock,” says Katwikirize. There is one big snag: The government has never invested in the development of infrastructure in the region. “Who will go to buy their animals if there is no road?”
The end result: Thousands of cattle die and large clusters of human populations find themselves desperate for food aid.
Many church leaders agree that governments must bear a large portion of the responsibility. Adeyemo posits that while droughts are inevitable, starvation is not. Africans must find ways to harvest extra water when it rains heavily and to harness solar energy in drought-prone but sunbathed areas.
Adeyemo believes one main cause of the food crisis in Africa is poor management. Africans must learn to manage their resources effectively. He cites the biblical creation account. Humans were created after all resources for their survival were put in place. Africans have to maximize productive use of their God-given resources.
But the problem that frustrates Adeyemo even more is “leadership ineptitude”—the failure of African leaders to bring about enduring solutions to African crises such as food availability and accessibility. “They keep blaming colonialism 50 years later,” says Adeyemo. Instead of pointing fingers, he says, African leaders must devise and implement ways of combating the food crisis.
Adeyemo has three ideas:
- African governments must put more money into agriculture than into buying guns. “Right now most money goes into defense.”
- Leaders must decentralize development programs to reach rural areas where food is produced. “Our city facilities are overstretched.”
- New ways must be developed to make farming financially sustainable. “Our farmers are languishing. We have to scale up the status of food producers.”
Adeyemo’s call for Western Christians is to not grow “weary” in developing new ways to respond, since food aid alone will never solve these problems. Adeyemo told CT there is a better way. “Give me the recipe. Do not just give me handouts.” He believes that with the right kind of help, Africa can feed itself.
Adeyemo moves aside the papers on his desk and leans forward to drive home a passionate plea: “Give us the right type of missionary to empower our people to produce their own food.”
Beyond his call for prayer and fasting, activist Tony Hall, author of Changing the Face of Hunger, has one small idea to fight the big problem of global hunger. He learned it from Mother Teresa during a visit to India.
“When you are with the poor and helping them, God is there. That is a beautiful place to be. Mother Teresa taught me my first lesson. She said, ‘Do the thing in front of you.’
“What’s going on in your church? Pay attention to what’s in front.”
Timothy C. Morgan is CT’s deputy managing editor. Isaac Phiri is a journalist based in Lusaka, Zambia.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today.