Elimination of hunger in our lifetime can be a reality

Opinion: In a time of plenty, no child should suffer hunger

 ‘Hunger steals a child’s future. The effects of hunger do not stop there. Hunger exacts a heavy toll on national economies.’ Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

‘Hunger steals a child’s future. The effects of hunger do not stop there. Hunger exacts a heavy toll on national economies.’ Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Wed, Mar 12, 2014, 00:01

It is a tragedy that in today’s world hunger still threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, devastating children’s futures as it did in Ireland only generations ago.

As we all know, in the 1840s, famine and starvation killed a higher proportion of the population of Ireland than they have done in any other famine anywhere in recorded history.

Today, improved national and international responses thankfully mean that famines are rare, but the heavy toll of chronic hunger, affecting those who simply do not get enough of the nutritious food they need for a healthy diet, remains a devastating reality in too many communities around the world.

One-quarter of the world’s children under five – some 165 million – suffer from stunting or early-life growth failure. We now understand that stunted girls and boys are more likely to underperform in school. Moreover, when they mature they are more likely to earn lower wages, to have children at an earlier age, to experience poorer health and to live a life of poverty. Hunger steals a child’s future.

The effects of hunger do not stop there. Hunger exacts a heavy toll on national economies. Compelling evidence gathered by the World Food Programme and national governments from the Cost of Hunger studies in Africa revealed the crushing impact of hunger on the economies of sub-Saharan African countries.

The study found that hunger results in annual losses of economic productivity, ranging from 6 per cent of gross domestic product in Uganda to a staggering 16 per cent in Ethiopia.

At the same time, many of these same countries are experiencing impressive economic growth. Unless hunger and chronic malnutrition are addressed, these twin ailments will continue to drag them backwards and undermine the long-term sustainability of any economic gains.

Economic impact
Today we are fortunate to understand not only the cost of hunger but also what we must do to eliminate it worldwide. To address the economic impact of chronic hunger, we need the right mix of policies that allow urban and rural families to sustainably access healthy and nutritious food.

Equity must be hard-wired into all our global efforts to ensure nobody is left behind. We must recognise that income inequality is a significant factor that lies behind the failure of most of the world’s poor and hungry to meet their food needs.

Economic growth must be inclusive, supporting employment and incomes for the most vulnerable and better access to markets for businesses and farms.

Meeting the needs of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable will require more than economic growth alone; growth must be accompanied by investments in nutrition, safety nets and social protection.

Targeted nutritional support must be provided to those who are at-risk today, so that we can break the intergenerational cycle of hunger. Meeting the specific needs of adolescent girls, pregnant women and nursing mothers will help protect the next generation.

In addition, social safety nets are an essential part of the modern toolkit that enable the poorest and most vulnerable people who are hungry to escape the vicious cycle of chronic hunger. These safety nets or social protection programmes, such as cash transfers to communities participating in public works schemes or school-feeding programmes, help reduce vulnerability and support resilience to hunger.

These tools often provide the hand-up that families need to more fully participate in growing economies.

For family farmers, social protection programmes should increase their capacity and help connect them more directly to markets, strengthening their resilience.

Safety net and social protection efforts also potentially provide broader economic benefits. Evaluations of cash transfer programmes in Malawi, Ethiopia, Mexico, India and Colombia show economic multiplier effects totalling €2-€3 for every €1 distributed. Additionally, every euro invested in a nutritional-intervention or stunting-reduction programme, generates economic benefits ranging from about €4 in the Democratic Republic of Congo to €48 in Indonesia.

Clearly, eliminating hunger and undernutrition will potentially generate significant economic returns. We will only realise the full potential of economic growth and development when we secure food and nutrition for all. However, achieving the global benefits of a hunger-free, nutrition-secure world requires universal implementation of the appropriate programmes in every community and in every country where needed, not just in the least-developed ones.

The UN secretary-general’s Zero Hunger Challenge provides us with the framework for achieving our shared global goal. Importantly, in Ireland and its people, the world recognises that we have a bedrock of support.

A new landscape
In these times of plenty for so many, not a single child should suffer the consequences of hunger today. Ireland, because of its history and empathy, demonstrates the enlightened leadership necessary to transform the landscape for the poor and the marginalised.

Working in partnership with Ireland and other like-minded governments, we can turn the elimination of hunger from a goal to a reality, as we strive together towards a world of zero hunger. In words often spoken by the late Nelson Mandela, it always seems impossible until it is done. In our lifetimes, it can be done.

Ertharin Cousin is the executive director of the United Nations World Food

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