The crisis the world forgot

Brian Stewart on the other world crisis, global hunger.

It says a great deal about the general instability of our age that the world can misplace entire crises in the shock of the latest alarms.  

The G20 summit in London this week was chiefly concerned with what some now call The Great Recession across the developed world.  

But what happened to The Great Global Hunger Crisis? You'll remember how it swept across large parts of Asia and Africa over the past two years, provoking widespread hoarding of rice and grain as well as food riots.

Village women in Chirumhanzi, Zimbabwe, wait for food handouts from Oxfam in January 2009. At least five million Zimbabweans rely on food aid and the number is rising because of recent crop failures. ((Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press))

It has since almost entirely disappeared from the news. But not from the real world.  

In reality, the now largely overlooked food crisis is continuing to devastate much of the poor world and to reverse some of the historic advances over the past dozen or so years in reducing global poverty.

Until fairly recently, hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Africa and South America were moving into better lives, even joining the middle class.  

But the lack of investment in agriculture, along with the rapid rise in commodity prices and the ravages of the current recession, has now cast an estimated 90 million people back into abject poverty.

The total now living in such extreme conditions is once again climbing above one billion, the first absolute increase in the hungry and destitute in a generation.

'It's a mess'

When I was in London recently I spoke with Tim Lang, who's studied the economics of global food production for more than three decades. Lang is one of Britain's leading development experts and an adviser to the World Health Organization.

"In 2007," he said, "I started being optimistic for the first time in a very long time about world food policy. It looked like world leaders were going to be coming together and taking very seriously the coming food crisis.

"But then it actually started dropping off the agenda the moment the credit crisis happened. The leaders came to the UN and to the Food and Agriculture Organization in June 2008. But their minds were already on the meltdown of the capital markets."

World leaders from the 20 largest economies gathered in London for a G20 summit on the international recession amid an unprecedented security operation and protests in the streets. ((Simon Dawson/Associated Press))

For the media, capital markets dominate global news even though one-third of UN nations — 60 overall — face growing food shortages and have large segments of their populations spending 75-80 per cent of their incomes on food.

To those like Lang who track agricultural production, there appears little hope of a turnaround in the near future.  

"We've got a highly divided world of 6.7 billion people," he says. "One billion are suffering malnutrition and hunger, 1.3 billion are overweight and obese. It's a mess."

A hungry planet

Indeed, it would be very difficult to exaggerate the gravity of the food crisis. Everyday, 24,000 children die from hunger related diseases — that's one every 3.6 seconds.  

The world should have enough food, but agriculture has suffered from severe under-investment for over 30 years.

Corn, sugar and petroleum products eat up steadily increasing amounts of prime land. Water is also in short supply, while populations are rising and countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China have been growing richer and adding more (grain-consuming) meat to their diets.

Together these things comprise  the burning fuse of the 21st-century food crisis. And now you can add in the fact that food aid from rich donors has also been collapsing in recent months.

Of the $20 billion in new aid pledged by developed nations less than 20 per cent has actually been delivered. These countries are reneging on promises as their own economies weaken.

Neglect can be dangerous

But possibly the gravest danger at the moment is the one least talked about.

It is that, as economic protectionism rises, the jobs of many so-called guest workers will be sacrificed first.

These workers send home over $200 billion annually in remittances to family members in the poorest nations. This amount is three to four times the level of international aid.

In London, the head of the British Overseas Development Institute, Simon Maxwell, warns that the sacrifice of foreign workers could be the last straw collapsing a generation  

"Countries which have a very heavy dependence on remittances, you know Kenya for example, see remittances that are down 40 per cent and falling rapidly.

"Mexico, where did their remittances come from? The United States. Those are falling. Bangladesh exports a lot of labour to the Middle East, but now the number of people leaving Bangladesh has dropped dramatically. And developed countries have become quite protectionist in terms of stopping migrant labour coming in. New rules, new formula, new quotas."  

Anti-poverty activists have been trying to nudge the wealthy G20 nations into reversing labour protection rules and spending stimulus money in developing countries. But given the air of barely suppressed panic in the rich world, that approach is unlikely. 

For the wealthy nations, the future is too uncertain as the full blast of the economic crisis has yet to hit. That means the poorest countries will continue to receive minimal attention, which can have an impact well beyond their borders.

The UN estimates 27 nations are approaching violent instability as their brief period of food prosperity comes undone.

Given these realities, ignoring one crisis for another is not likely to increase the security of an increasingly troubled world.