Politics of Poverty

A wake-up call on hunger and malnutrition

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Women from the village of Saré Sambel in southern Senegal work in the community garden which is a source of food security, peace, and environmental balance in communities that border The Gambia. (Photo: Keith Lane / Oxfam)

Food insecurity is rising, but political will to fight it remains in question.

The injustice of hunger and undernourishment is getting worse. That is the headline takeaway from the new – and newly named – State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2017 co-published by a handful of UN agencies this month. Globally, 815 million people are food insecure. This is a sudden reversal from two decades of almost continual decline in the number of people who are not getting enough food to eat. With famine declared in South Sudan earlier this year and near famine conditions persisting in Yemen, northern Nigeria and Somalia, the report poses the troubling question of whether this is just a temporary deviation from progress made or the beginning of a long-term reversal in the fight against hunger.

The report is a welcome return to data availability measuring food insecurity. After 2015, the FAO suspended publication of hunger numbers as it updated the format of the report. The new figures are also augmented by data on malnutrition including obesity, stunting, wasting, anemia and rates of exclusive breastfeeding. Thematically, the report also underscores the point that war is a major driver of hunger: more than half of all people who are food insecure live in countries affected by conflict.

For the US and the global community, will this new data serve as a wake-up call for action? So far, signals from the Trump administration suggests it has little interest in responding with the necessary resources and resolve that will make it possible to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2, to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

In its first budget, the administration proposed a radical slashing of foreign assistance, including for food security and agriculture development. The grinding poverty that faces smallholder farmers makes them particularly vulnerable to hunger, so focusing on agriculture and rural development is critical in the fight against hunger.

Trump’s proposed budget for USAID in fiscal year 2018 merges the Development Assistance account with three other accounts and collectively cuts them by 44 percent. If enacted, significant cuts to the Feed the Future initiative, USAID’s flagship program on food security, nutrition and agriculture development, are probably inevitable. At least for now, Congress has shown no signs of taking President Trump’s direction. In fact, at least for this fiscal year, Congress has responded to unprecedented crisis with robust humanitarian response funding.

Despite pushback from Congress, the vision for a smaller US footprint for US foreign assistance generally and food security specifically, is being reflected in decision-making by USAID. Since it was launched, Feed the Future supported targeted investments in 19 focus countries, but USAID has recently announced that in the next iteration of the US-supported global food security initiative, only 12 countries will be included. No doubt, USAID made careful decisions about which countries to include in the initiative given clear pressure of reduced resources and less political support from President Trump; but with hunger on the rise, the need for smart, targeted foreign assistance to support agriculture development is growing not shrinking.

Paired with the president’s budget request, Secretary of State Tillerson is also undertaking a reorganization of the State Department, and here too there are signs President Trump is walking back historic US leadership. Secretary Tillerson recently announced that the Special Representative for Global Food Security, a position intended to elevate diplomatic aspects of food security and nutrition, will be transferred out of State Department and to USAID. Consolidating and streamlining US government resources to fight hunger makes sense. The sprawling federal bureaucracy with some role in global food security can appear unwieldy. Efforts should be made to ensure the US government presents a coherent and clear approach to improving food security and nutrition especially for smallholder farmers and populations – like children – most vulnerable to malnutrition. Putting USAID at the forefront ensures that the expertise of the agency is fully leveraged as a leader in this effort.

For USAID to take up this responsibility, it must be empowered to sit alongside its State Department counterparts. Otherwise, elimination of the Special Representative for Global Food Security is a de-prioritization of these issues in global forums. So far, there is little sign this will happen. Witness for example, the failure of G7 leaders earlier this year to make meaningful progress on prior commitments to fight hunger. US indifference was a key factor in the collapse of Italian efforts to generate new financial commitments to reduce global hunger and malnutrition.

We may very well see this same indifference carry through next month when The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) meets in Rome. As the primary UN body responsible for developing policy guidance on agriculture development and food security, the CFS has a duty to bring stakeholders together to identify solutions to the multiplicity of factors that contribute to hunger. It should also serve as a monitoring body and a space for countries to build political will to tackle these challenges. Recently, the US has contributed to the work of the CFS mainly by trying to restrain its role; on issues such as monitoring progress on SDG 2, for example. Without a clear directive from the State Department and strong leadership from USAID, this negative US position may remain or worsen.

There is no doubt other countries will continue to push the CFS forward, but whether any of them will fill the leadership gap left by the United States is far from certain. For the 815 million people who are hungry, there is no time to wait.

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