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close this bookOvercoming Global Hunger (WB)
close this folderSession two - macroeconomic reform: its impact on poverty and hunger.
View the documentMacroeconomic reform: its impact on poverty and hunger
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View the documentSpecial address: the scope for public action to reduce chronic hunger

Special address: the scope for public action to reduce chronic hunger

Ketumile Masire

Our purpose in gathering together here is not simply to talk about ways of reducing global hunger, but to seek consensus on concrete actions that can be taken now that will make a difference. I hope this conference will be a turning point in moving in that direction.

The response to the World Bank's initiative in organizing this gathering-inspired by the example and leadership of Congressman Tony Hall— is heartening. I am encouraged by the active participation in this conference of representatives of so many NGOs that are directly involved in activities aimed at overcoming hunger Their presence is a further sign of the growing cooperation between international development agencies, governments, and citizens' movements This could be a powerful coalition.

The task we face is a formidable one, but I am confident that by working together we can make real progress toward our ultimate goal of ensuring that no one, however poor, anywhere in the world goes to bed hungry Hunger is not just a problem the developing countries face. The hungry are found everywhere in the North and in the South—and this need not be so We have enough land and we possess the technology to produce enough food to ensure that everyone has enough to eat In short, the problem is essentially one of policies and purchasing power The challenge is to find effective ways to provide households with food and economic security.

I have not come to this meeting as a nutrition expert, or as a food economist, or even as a farmer, although I am one I am here as a political leader, because I recognize that hunger is not only an economic problem, but is also a political problem.

As we have heard, chronic poverty affects more than a billion. people Perhaps a better term to describe their hunger is as hidden, because it less obvious than the acute hunger of those suffering from famine, and consequently tends to be a neglected issue Food is the most basic of our needs It is regrettable indeed that despite so much affluence in the world, so many people go hungry.

Let me explain what I mean Other speakers have rightly distinguished between acute hunger caused by short-term emergencies and chronic hunger or long-term "endemic deprivation," to use a term favored by Professor Amartya Sen. Taking the case of acute hunger, I am convinced that there is no famine that we cannot overcome if we have the political will to recognize the onset of famine conditions and to mobilize public and private resources, locally and internationally, to deal with it We demonstrated this last year in southern Africa when we faced the worst drought in living memory, and overcame it. In South Africa alone, which is the largest producer of food in the region, cereal production fell from about 8.0 million tonnes in a normal year to 2.6 million tonnes. Throughout the region about 18 million people were short of food. Yet no widespread deaths occurred, and in some places children were even better fed than in years of plenty This was the result of improved food distribution by the famine relief programs mounted in the region.

When Botswana achieved independence in 1966, it was emerging from another terrible drought Its effects remain embedded in our collective memory. Through cash-for work programs and targeted feeding for school children, infants, and lactating mothers we managed to avert a disaster. At the height of the drought we were feeding almost one-third of our population It can be done. It was done.

Not all famine situations are acts of God. Some are man-made, such as those caused by civil wars. Such man-made tragedies derive from political misdirection, and their solution is, by definition, a political one. We, the political leaders, should always resort to peaceful resolution of conflict rather than the violence that is now afflicting the people of Angola, Burundi, Somalia, the Sudan, Bosnia, and Georgia.

The international mechanisms put in place after World War II—the UN system, the Security Council, UN peace-keeping forces, and the High Commission for Refugees-cannot cope with the terrible consequences of the breakdown of civil order occurring within member states.

Today the world faces a crisis that has grown to frightening proportions. The end of the East-West ideological conflict has lessened political controls in some parts of the world, but has also unleashed an outbreak of ethnic conflicts. The UN system was designed to take care of conflicts between states, but that is not the main problem facing the world today. We need new initiatives, new thinking, and a new political commitment to deal more effectively with the civil strife that now threatens all societies I look forward with keen interest and concern to hearing the proposals that Secretary General Boutros-Ghali may make later today on these matters. However, I am personally convinced that above all else we must seek to strengthen, and not to weaken, the UN system. We must give the secretary general the resources and the full mandate to assist effectively countries that are in domestic turmoil.

Regional organizations have a role to play too. One of the initiatives of the Global Coalition for Africa has been to explore ways to strengthen the role of the Organisation of African Unity in conflict resolution. More active mediation is one possibility. A pan-African mechanism for mobilizing peacekeeping forces is another. The key ingredient for success is imaginative and constructive political leadership I would like you all to note that as co chairman of the (Global Coalition for Africa, I will continue to dedicate myself to this task that I believe is so important for the future of our continent.

The suffering from famine is deeply etched in our conscience because of the high media attention it is given and because of the large numbers affected. Estimates indicate that at any one time between 40 and 50 million people around the world are affected. Nonetheless, I believe that we should give most time during this conference to discussing ways to lessen chronic hunger, the form of hunger associated with poverty. By that I mean a household's inability to produce enough food or to obtain the income to buy enough food for the family Chronic hunger deserves most of our attention because it affects such a vast number of people, and because we seem to have been less able to tackle it Although it is more deeply entrenched, it is not intractable.

With political determination governments can do vastly more than what is being done today to reduce chronic hunger We know this is true because countries at the same level of per capita income vary significantly in the proportion of their population that suffers from hunger.

During the 1960s and 1970s Sri Lanka showed us how a developing country could successfully administer a food voucher program that greatly reduced malnutrition throughout its population Costa Rica has much less malnutrition than its neighbors in Central America Since 1950 China has also achieved remarkable improvements in nutrition, even though it also suffered the worst famine in human history in the late 1950s In Africa we can draw similar lessons from the experiences of different countries Overall, however, the number of people in the world suffering from chronic hunger—roughly one in five is regrettably high and unnecessarily high We can and must do a much better job of targeting assistance to those most in need.

At the conclusion of the International Conference on Nutrition in Rome last year, governments committed themselves to preparing national nutrition strategies. It is quite tempting at such international events to make commitments that are no more than declarations on paper, and so many national strategies and action plans are being called for, such as environmental strategies, poverty strategies, sustainable development strategies, AIDS strategies, women-in-development strategies, health strategies, and water resource management strategies. Governments risk being overwhelmed. For this reason I fear that the call for a national nutrition strategy may be forgotten Let us therefore try to focus at this meeting on a few priority areas that governments could act upon and that are more likely to make a real impact on reducing hunger.

Acceptance of the hunger present in our societies is akin to an acceptance of poverty, and in that lies a great danger We see poverty as a long-term problem that countries will only overcome gradually as development takes place. The danger is that we will treat hunger in the same way, accepting it as a condition of underdevelopment, but that is a mistake. Hungry children become disadvantaged adults with low productivity This perpetuates the state of underdevelpment We can break this vicious cycle of poverty by targeting our efforts to reach those most in need.

Some have argued that for poor countries the only way out of the hunger trap is to become self-sufficient in food Sometimes people even argue that countries that promoted the expansion of cash crops did so at the expense of food crops, and in that way increased the prevalence of hunger. I do not subscribe to those views. In Botswana for years we subsidized production of our staple food crops heavily, even though the farming conditions we face as a semi-arid country are largely not favorable for cultivating food crops or achieving food self-sufficiency on a sustainable basis The soils are sandy and rainfall is erratic both over time and space. It is for this reason that our policy now is to achieve food security and not food self-sufficiency The revised policy gives farmers the latitude to produce crops of their choice, including cash crops, depending on the suitability of their land.

This food security policy has three components: · At the national level we follow our comparative advantage in producing livestock and drought resistant sorghum and other crops such as cowpeas and sunflowers We finance the importation of food to meet our food deficit by exporting minerals and manufactured products and by promoting tourism.

· At the household level our goal is to ensure that every family has sufficient basic income to buy the food it needs This means helping the food insecure groups by providing labor-intensive public works programs whereby people can earn a wage; distributing food rations to selected pregnant and lactating mothers, children under five, and those at school; and issuing food coupons to the destitute. This is in addition to our efforts to diversify income and employment opportunities in manufacturing, tourism, and other sectors of the economy.

· We intend to maintain a strategic food grain reserve equal to at least three months of consumption to cover future drought emergencies, which seem to befall us for three or four years in every ten.

Despite these measures, between 10 and 15 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition That is low for Africa, hut not low enough. We recognize that we need to improve the targeting and management of our food programs. I hope some of the priorities identified by the experts here today will help us to achieve this.

I started this address by emphasizing the political dimension of hunger. I recognize that in mounting public programs to combat hunger, different political problems must be faced. While I believe that over time the benefits of economic growth do trickle down and that poverty is reduced, as East Asian countries have dramatically demonstrated in the past ten years, it is nonetheless a slow process If we are to reduce the numbers who are hungry in the short and medium term, we can only do so by transfering income from the better off to those in greatest need.

Charity begins at home, and each country must play its part. My own country spends some US$14 million each year on domestic food programs The U. S. government, I believe, allocates nearly US$40 billion each year for such programs. However, for the poorest of the developing countries, external aid, especially food aid, is vitally important The United States has been a major supplier of food and we are grateful to them for that I am told that the U.S. Congress appropriated US$15 billion for food aid in 1993, but that at the same time US$3. 5 billion went for military aid. In the post-cold war era, 1 would hope that these two figures might be reversed To put these figures in the context of Africa, let me remind you that total external food aid to all of Sub-Saharan Africa is no more than US$1 billion per year.

The domestic food programs are only short term measures The ultimate goal, as I have already stressed, is to raise the incomes of the poor. The challenge for political leaders is to support programs that enhance their citizens' ability to be self-reliant. In developing countries this means supporting programs that include land reform and targeted credit for the poor who can offer no collateral, for example, along the lines pioneered by Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.

Above all we must work harder to overcome the discrimination women face Regrettably, they and their children constitute the bulk of the hungry In southern Africa 80 percent of the rural poor are women with no land, no access to credit, and usually no coverage by public services such as agricultural extension.

I believe that a heavy responsibility rests on the shoulders of political leaders to adopt policies that will help the hungry, but governments cannot shoulder this task alone They need to work with the private sector. In this context, let me underline the importance of well-functioning markets In developing countries the private sector is generally reluctant to invest in remote and rural areas because of the lack of infrastructure Governments under such circumstances are forced to establish agricultural marketing parastatals to encourage agricultural development by purchasing and selling produce For most small farmers this service is necessary for some time until the private sector is fully developed Unfortunately, experience has shown that such parastatal organizations tend to be inefficient, wasteful, and costly. Thus promoting the development of a strong and competitive private sector by creating a conducive environment for its growth is preferable in the long run. Private voluntary associations and community based organizations also have a major role to play.

As I said at the beginning, 1 am delighted to see so many NGOs participating in this conference. The growth of NGOs strengthens civil society and buttresses the growth of democracy. By promoting a participatory approach and actively involving the beneficiaries in hunger programs, NGOs foster sustainable development and self-reliance. They can achieve an impact beyond that of governments. NGOs have a vital role to play that is complementary to the role of government I am much aware of the important contribution that such organizations have made in providing emergency relief operations in Sub-Saharan Africa. For example, during 1987-90, on average, 20 percent of bilateral cereal food aid to Sub-Saharan Africa was channeled through NGOs In the case of noncereal food aid, about 30 percent was channeled through NGOs.

The experiences gained from our recent drought have demonstrated that hunger is a multifaceted problem. I am convinced that we have to act proactively to reduce the vulnerability of our populations to food shortages. The imperative need to ensure that no one dies of hunger is a challenge that confronts all humanity Our ability to meet this challenge will succeed only if we focus our efforts and share responsibilities. The alleviation of poverty is a long-term objective, but the reduction of hunger is an immediate challenge that we must take up and win. Let us all rededicate ourselves to that goal.