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Feast and famine

December 14th 2012

That could describe agency life, though luckily it doesn’t. Feasts are upon us. Fortunately famine is not. But for many people, it’s close.

Famine tends not to be a word we use much these days. Because on the whole we don’t see it any more. After the horrors of the mid-80s and Michael Buerk’s BBC reports from Ethiopia that provoked LiveAid, governments and NGOs have put in place monitoring systems that warn of impending problems. Largely, they succeed, and emergency supplies can be shipped in time. 24/7 digital news means famine can’t be hidden by governments who wanted to hide it in the past, and a strong media keeps government honest. The last time that happened was North Korea in the  late 1990′s, when an estimated one million people died.

But that doesn’t mean the media always covers an impending crisis. It’s not really news, is it, if people aren’t dying and there aren’t shots of flies on eyes.

Because of that, we lose sight of the fact that hunger, painful gut-gnawing hunger, is a fact of life for millions of people, every day. Ironically and tragically, this success at preventing famine means it sometimes doesn’t seem enough of an emergency for us to give money. Helping prevent a situation where people might need their lives saved isn’t as compelling as actually saving their lives when it gets too bad. Just how real is the need, anyway? “if we don’t, it could …” has a touch of crying wolf about it.

Millions go without adequate food.  As we saw in both East and West Africa last year, sometimes the response isn’t enough, quick enough. People have been reduced to eating leaves and ants. People have died unnecessarily. Malnutrition – not eating enough of the right kinds of food to have a balanced diet, is even more common. A third of children who die before the age of five – still several million each year – die because they are so weakened by hunger and malnutrition they can’t fight off common diseases.

Hunger in the world is real. And in a world where there’s enough to eat, and we can afford to use farmland to grow crops to turn into fuel instead of food,  that is a scandal. Especially when it’s rarely our farmland that gets turned over to bio-fuels, but land poor people could use to grow food for themselves. In fact, poor people are having their land grabbed, sometimes violently, to make way for corporate bio-fuel agriculture. Imagine explaining to someone that their children will go hungry because the crops being grown on their land has to power your car?

There are a lot of people on this planet. But there’s also more than enough food. It is not the availability of food that’s the problem, it is poverty, injustice, and the difficulty people have getting access to it*, whether growing enough  or buying it. I was a teacher in Sudan in the mid-80s. I remember learning that Sudan was still exporting rice while people were dying of starvation. Poor people simply couldn’t buy what was available on the open market. Commercial farmers will sell to those who can buy, not give to those who in need.  And when there’s a sense of scarcity, prices rise, putting food even further out of reach for the poorest.

It’s complicated. Of course it is. We do grow enough food to feed the planet. But there are pressures that make malnutrition worse. Increasing food productivity involves economies of scale. This can limit variety and choice (think the decline in English apples). There’s an environmental impact from intensive farming, overuse of fertilizer and pesticides. There are questions about genetic engineering, not necessarily for reasons of health, but because  of contaminating the natural gene pool. Climate change and concern over carbon fuels has driven biofuel technology.

The conversion of farming from food to fuel has contributed to food price rises. And to make matters worse, there is evidence of investment banks like Goldman Sachs engaged in the unsavoury speculation on the futures of food prices, driving prices even further up and out of reach. Multi-national companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Google have been in the news recently for avoiding paying tax in the UK through smart off-shore business structures. This isn’t new. It’s been happening around the world in poor countries even less equipped to manage a robust corporate tax regime. Corporate social responsibility is more than charity partnerships. It’s doing the right thing, and paying tax where you do business.

Markets are part of the solution, of course. There are innovative programmes where people are provided with vouchers to exchange for food in local markets, contributing to the local economy and allowing people some dignity, rather than take hand-outs.

We’re not immune to this  question of access closer to home. Rates of obesity are rising. That’s not about availability of food. But it is about the wrong kind of food, and access to the right kind of food. Super-sized junk or processed food is often the cheapest food which is why people on the lower economic rungs  of society have the most endemic nutrition-related health problems. Food nutrition and health of poverty, justice and access in the North as much as the South, even if the consequences aren’t as dire. Earlier this year the spectre of child poverty here in the UK raised its head again.  For many children, a school lunch may be the only hot meal of the day.

In June 2013 World Leaders will be meeting in Britain and have convened a Hunger Summit. Aid organisations will be campaigning on a broad agenda to end the scourge of hunger in our time. Their plan is a mix of aid, proper controls over corporate tax and transparency, and stopping land being taken away from people who need it to feed themselves. If there’s enough food in the world for everyone, it can be done. We don’t have to leave it all to governments though. We can all do our bit to think more and do better with regard to food.

So, in this season of feasts, as ever, spare a thought for those less fortunate than ourselves.

I know we’re an Agency, but we are Good People and we take the Good bit very seriously. We are extremely proud to work with amazing  clients who each in their different ways work with people around the world to tackle poverty and inequality. We’re humbled to have made our own difference in the world, through our work with all of you.  You are all amazing people to do what you do, working for inspirational causes.

In our own small way, we are delighted that our Good Christmas Cards will be providing Christmas lunch to those of our neighbours, right on our own doorstep, who need a bit of support and company, at Blackfriars Settlement in Southwark.

Be a part of it. Join our table and have an amazing Christmas!

*Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize Winner for Economics, was the first to explain that famine was not the result of lack of availability of food, but lack of access to it, in his 1981 book Poverty and Famines.


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