The Looming Silent Tsunami

Josette Sheeran, Samuel Worthington and Robert B. Zoellick - Photo Credit: World Bank

Yesterday, I attended an event at the Brookings Institution, the focus of which was the “silent tsunami,” a term coined by the World Food Program’s Josette Sheeran to describe the growing global food crisis. The panel was comprised of Sheeran, World Bank President Robert Zoellick and Samuel Worthington, President of InterAction, a coalition of U.S.-based NGOs that deal specifically with issues of poverty. To call the topic of discussion dismaying would be a profound understatement. I’ve covered food security a few times before, especially at the height of the crisis in 2008 when food prices around the world were leading political instability in several countries.. Things were bad then, but they can in fact get much worse in the years ahead.

As it stands, some 17% of the world’s growing population lives in hunger and 90% of malnutrition can be found in only 36 countries. Worse, with a little more than 5 years left until 2015, the Millennium Development Challenge goal of reducing global poverty and hunger by 50% seems highly unlikely. With the current global financial crisis, donor countries are finding it increasingly difficult to contribute to organizations such as the World Food Program. And the programs that do exist have neglected agricultural development. All of this while global food prices have increased by 50% since 2000.

According to World Bank estimates, more than 53 million more people will be pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the current crisis. What, if anything, is the solution? What is needed, according to the panelists, is for governments to take ownership of food security issues by implementing targeted safety nets. Food stamps here in the United States, for example, are an effective safety net. Sheeran mentioned Brasil’s Bolsa Família, a safety net program started in 2003 as part of the countries larger Fome Zero plan of eradicating extreme poverty, as a successful model. One reason that Bolsa Família is so powerful is that it is targeted. Under the program, poor Brasilian families are given stipends, but only on the condition that parents put their children in school and have them vaccinated and that pregnant women seek neonatal care. The highly successful program reaches more than 11 million families in the country, especially those in the Nordeste, where poverty is most acute.

The program’s success has also been credited to the fact that the direct cash transfers are preferably made to the mother. The program is hailed as one of the best anti-poverty measures in the world. According to the World Bank, “Ninety-four percent of the funds reach the poorest 40 percent of the population. Studies prove that most of the money is used to buy food, school supplies, and clothes for the children.”

What is needed is for all governments to adopt a similar strategy that gives agency to the poor but also makes the assistance conditioned on other development goals, such as education. The food security issue must shift from a humanitarian one and into a program of long-term stabilization. Simply put, as the food crisis grows and donors are less capable of dealing with it, national governments must tackle the issue head-on and take ownership of poverty.

One part of the discussion specifically interested me. In discussing the causes of the food crisis, Zoellick, who has long championed free trade, mentioned the current impasse at the Doha Round as a contributing factor to global food insecurity. In fact, he mentioned trade barriers and the practice of hoarding as contributing to the crisis. Both these points are very valid. The disconnect, at least in my eyes, is that while trade barriers do often exasperate some problems and lead to market inefficiencies, free trade itself can also make problems worse. For example, Sheeran mentioned the World Food Program’s program of buying all of its iodized salt from Senegal. Under free trade, iodized salt from Senegal would face a tough time competing with cheaper imported salt from the United States or China, putting Senegalese manufacturers out of business. If trade barriers produce negative results, what then are the shortcomings, if any, to the free trade paradigm advanced by Zoellick? Unfortunately, the question and answer session ended before I could ask him the question.