I can’t count the number of photos of emaciated children from East Africa that I have seen this year. Headlines citing death tolls in the Horn of Africa have become just another part of most of the United Kingdom’s morning commute. The United Nations estimated in September that 13 million people are currently starving in East Africa and that 750,000 people in Somalia are at risk of dying of hunger. It is time that the international community do something to address this grave problem.
On 24 September 2011 several world leaders met at the United Nations in New York to discuss strategies that could be developed to end starvation. Discussions led to the emergence of The Charter to End Extreme Hunger which not only acknowledges occurrences of extreme hunger in East Africa but also provides a succinct list of strategies that, if implemented, will bring real solutions. This charter has already been endorsed by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, UN OCHA head Valerie Amos, Norweigan Minister of the Environment and International Development Erik Solheim, UNISDR head Margareta Wahlstrom, and UK Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell.
One of the most critical elements of the charter is its promotion of local food production. The charter reads, “Failure to act is costing lives every day as people struggle to deal with shocks such as the changing climate and rocketing food prices. This has to change.” In order to achieve this goal the Charter urges signatories to commit to fulfil the pledges made to the l’Aquilla Food Security Initiative (AFSI), to develop a new plan to decrease malnutrition and food insecurity after AFSI expires in 2012, to spend 10% of national budgets on agricultural development, and to implement global and regional policies already in existence to promote food security for all.
Encouraging local food production may be one of the more challenging tasks of the Charter. The BBC reported on 24 September 2009 that South Korea had signed an agreement with Tanzania where 500 sq km of land in Tanzania would be developed to produce processed goods for South Korea. South Korea has signed similar leasing agreements with countries like Madagascar. The BBC explains that leasing land from poorer countries has helped nations like China, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait to ensure food security for their populations but has limited the ability of lower income countries to grow food on their own land. Decreased food yields have led to greater food instability and higher food prices. As prices increase lower income families have been effectively priced out of eating.
In the wake of early moves toward land-leasing for food production the World Food Programme (WFP) indicated that their 2008 target of feeding 73 million people had become impractical and that the WFP would have to either reduce rations or the number of people it attempted to help. In 2011 the WFP was only able to meet around a fourth of the need for food in Somalia. Incomprehensive performance of the WFP should be a signal to us that something is wrong with our food system.
The Charter to End Extreme Hunger affirms that strong local production is key to fighting malnutrition and food instability. Regional and global strategies, such as AFSI, are present but are not being enforced. The East African famine this year should show us the effect that malnutrition a continent away can have on us. We can’t erase the image of the hundreds of thousands of people suffering from starvation in Somalia but we can take preventive action in the short term to ensure that a crisis of this degree never happens again.