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.


Court Convicts Food Crisis Protesters
December 15, 2008, 3:30 pm
Filed under: Food | Tags: ,

An Egyptian court has sentenced 22 people found guilty of taking part in violent food riots earlier in the year in Mahalla el-Kubra. The unrest, the worst in 30 years, irrupted amid this summer’s food crisis and the government’s faulty agricultural policy.

Al-Jazeera’s Amr El Kakhy reports on the shocking outcome:

walid zafar

AIDS and the Food Crisis
October 19, 2008, 1:50 am
Filed under: Food | Tags: , , ,


In her book, AIDS and the Ecology of Poverty, Eileen Stillwaggon asserts that “Global AIDS policy has failed to stem the epidemic spread of HIV’ because the current policy attempts to stop HIV transmission at the last possible moment, instead of grappling with the underlying causes of the epidemic.” HIV is a global pariah, and while it does not discriminate based on color or creed, some 90% of victims come from the developing world. Its prevalence in subaltern societies is linked to the fact that people who are economically disadvantaged are more susceptible to infectious diseases, such as HIV and other maladies found predominantly in the developing world.

Stuart Gillespie, a senior research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute, connects the rise of global food crisis to the AIDS epidemic. As politicians and economists continue to discuss the implications of the current economic meltdown, and the looming recession that is expected to worsen in the coming months, what is not often discussed is how the liquidity crisis plaguing Western financial institutions will put further upward pressure on food prices around the world and specifically, in the developing world. Gillespie notes that there is no one singe factor that has caused the current crisis. Several months ago, Professor Dave Balaam from the University of Puget Sound, whose area of interest is in agricultural policy, came on the Melon to discuss the factors that have contributed to the food crisis.=

[audio:|titles=Interview with David Balaam]

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According to the World Food Programme, the majority of ‘high-risk countries’, meaning those countries that are in most need of the food aid, are in Sub-Saharan Africa, which, not coincidentally, is also the region with some of the highest HIV rates in the world. The link between poverty and HIV seems pretty clear.

Here are Gilliespie’s main conclusions:

  • Sudden increases in food insecurity often lead to distress migration as people search for work and food. Mobility is a marker of enhanced risk of HIV exposure, both for the person moving, and for other adults who may remain at home.
  • Food insecurity at the household level is likely to translate over time into higher rates of adult malnutrition with possible detrimental effects on immune status.
  • Where food insecurity translates into increased rates of maternal malnutrition, we can expect to see a rise in babies born with low birth weight, who in turn may be at higher risk of vertical (mother to child) HIV transmission.

Certainly, HIV and food insecurity are closely related to one another, and while poverty makes the effects of HIV more pronounced and HIV destroys a countries workforce, which worsens poverty levels. What is clear is that there is a vicious cycle between the two. But while billions are going into the developing world in order to treat and curtail the spread of HIV, very little is going towards one of the main risk factors: poverty. Once credit markets are restored, which most economics do not see happening in the near future, the focus should turn to poverty. It is only through fighting poverty that the billions spent on AIDS research each year will happen a tenable impact on global health in the world.

Food crisis talks set to begin
May 30, 2008, 12:16 am
Filed under: Food | Tags: , ,

The third world is taking a leading role in combating the food crisis. At the forefront is Venezuela and more specifically, President Hugo Chavez, who has blamed the global crisis on the current global economic system. Venezuela has not been immune from the crisis and Chavez has accused opposition forces of hoarding food and blaming the accordant inflation on Chavez.

From the BBC:

Envoys from 26 Latin American and Caribbean countries meet on Friday to discuss the rising cost of food and draw up a united policy for the region.

The talks in Caracas, Venezuela, mark the beginning of a week of meetings on the issue, leading up to a three-day UN food crisis summit in Rome on Tuesday.

According to the World Bank, global food prices have risen by 83% over the past three years.

The lender has announced a package of food grants totalling $1.2bn (£608m).

An influential report on Thursday warned that higher food prices might be here to stay as demand from developing countries and production costs rose.

Prices would fall, but only gradually, the report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said.
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Bush Seeks $770 Million More in World Food Aid
May 1, 2008, 8:09 pm
Filed under: Food | Tags: ,

The Washington Post is doing a magnificent job covering the food crisis. In fact, they have devoted an entire section of their website on the crisis.  This article from tomorrow’s paper discusses the Bush administration’s recent moves to assuage some of problems.  One can hope that this is not too late…although, no amount of aid is going to be sufficient if the underlying problems with the system are not corrected,

President Bush asked Congress yesterday to approve $770 million in new global food aid for the coming fiscal year, the centerpiece of an evolving administration response to a crisis that has sparked increased violence and hunger around the world.

Overall, he said, the United States is on track to spend nearly $5 billion on foreign food assistance in 2008 and 2009. “With the new international funding I’m announcing today, we’re sending a clear message to the world that America will lead the fight against hunger for years to come,” Bush said at the White House.

The president said he is asking Congress to include the money in a broader Iraq war funding bill for fiscal 2009 that the administration sent to Capitol Hill yesterday.

The proposal came under immediate criticism from some congressional Democrats and outside experts, who said additional money would do little to alleviate the current crisis if it is not available until the 2009 budget year, which starts in October. Bush has also requested $350 million in additional food aid as part of the 2008 supplemental Iraq war budget, an amount that top Democrats say is too little.

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Rice Crisis in the Philippines
April 29, 2008, 3:07 am
Filed under: Food, Poverty | Tags: , , ,

I have been really busy with school recently so I have not been able to write much and yet, I have been keeping up the food crisis. In the Philippines, where state subsidization has kept the crisis at bay, there is little the government can do to keep up with the growing problem. Once a rise exporter, the Philippines now imports its agriculture, which invariably leaves the country and its poor to the whims of the international market. This Al-Jazeera clip and Associated Press article explain the most rudimentary steps that the government is taking to alleviate the strain on the poor. The real solution will be for the nation to start up its agricultural industry, something that will take time and resources and an abandonment of the neoliberal economic model that has encouraged countries like the Philippines to not grow rice and produce what it has a ‘comparative advantage’ in.

MANILA, Philippines: The Philippine government plans to introduce “rice access cards” for the poor to use to buy cheaper subsidized grain to help stave off a wider food crisis, officials said Monday.

The rice cards are supposed to benefit the bottom third of the poorest families in the capital, Manila. Outside the capital, the government said it will distribute separate bank cash cards to help families in the poorest 20 of the country’s 81 provinces with quick money transfers.

The measures came as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration moved to cushion the impact of skyrocketing fuel and food prices. The Philippines has been paying record prices on international markets to make up for a 10 percent domestic shortfall in rice, the country’s staple.

Amid anxiety over adequate supplies of rice, the government said it has so far signed contracts for about half of the 2.1 million tons of rice it plans to import this year. The price of rice from Thailand, the world’s biggest exporter, topped US$1,000 (€640) per ton this month, up sharply from the start of the year.

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Jean Ziegler on Al-Jazeera
April 28, 2008, 10:56 am
Filed under: Food, Poverty | Tags: , , , ,

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and obviously one of foremost experts on food security offers an impassioned explanation of the crisis!