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Policy provokes me to think and write. I currently work in ivory towers inspiring people to engage in their world. I am a student of the human condition and my classroom is the world. I don't need credentials to have an opinion but I've got paper to prove I know a few things about public health, social welfare and economics. I'm coming out of the tower and taking the words to the people and hope you will send some words back at me.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Global Hunger, Capitalism and the Aid Business

Food and Festivities
Riding on the coattails of the London 2012 Olympics, there was a Hunger Summit - another grand meeting of officials who fly in business and first class to be put up in 5 star hotels where they eat sumptuous meals right before they meet to discuss how they are going to feed the world's hungry. They even roped in gilded Mo Farah and other Olympic-related media darlings to get some press. Seriously?? They needed Mo Farah to do this for them to take the issue seriously?

Like the Family Planning Summit which preceded the Olympics, there are grand promises made by the 'Western' countries about working together towards eliminating world hunger. Co-hosted by Cameron and Michel Temer (VP of Brazil - host of the next Olympics), it has had to fight for page space among the continued media blitz, tsunami and hurricane of Olympic-related press. Of course, this summit came out of the last G8 summit in May when Obama made promises to African leaders on the issue.

Everyone acting on good faith, with lots of data and charts ('infographics') and public health specialists buzzing about at media events that will go quiet about hunger come tomorrow morning. Because unless there is famine involved, most people do not think about hunger. Perhaps they could sell the soundtrack of last night's closing ceremony to raise money. Quicker than getting together another bunch of singers to do a Hunger Aid song.

Boosting Agricultural Production
There will be plans for boosting agricultural production (let's ignore the drought in the USA that is going to raise the roof on grain prices), increased financial commitments to research (let's ignore double dip recessions and 'interesting' food products), more efficient distribution (let's ignore noone wants to fund infrastructure) and I'm sure some new software program for phones or something that will be a 'key' factor in making this all work. And yes, the capitalist countries of the world are going to try and promote local production (which is the best plan) in a global environment where a handful of food producers control not only production but processing. And we also have to ignore the economic foundations of national economies that are often based in agricultural products that noone can eat for nutritional purposes; items such as coffee and tea, which are vital to economies but do little to feed populations.

Subsistence Farming
In the area of Jamaica where my parents live, smallholder farms get killed off by US imports because should we 'protect' our market, the USA would WTO us back into being a repository for their market products that make their markets grow and puts us at an economic disadvantage in the balance of trade game. So I'm suspicious of how the USA will balance their need for exports (thou shalt not mess with the farm lobby if thou wants to be elected) with local need for food that doesn't require thousands of miles of infrastructure and does nothing but drain local coffers - both individually and nationally.

Eradicating Global Hunger
Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is a Millenium Development Goal with very ambitious targets that seem to have come out of the mouth of a beauty pageant contestant. With the 2015 end date on the MDGs closing in and failure eminent the UN now has a target for 2025 (who picks these years?) and Cameron has a target for 2016 (related of course to the next Olympiad) that will fit into this larger UN target. Perhaps if countries could plan beyond election years, these long-term targets may actually be achieved because although my colleagues like to insist that they are just there to motivate, I think if any of these Olympic athletes kept failing to meet their targets, they would quit and find another vocation, but in public health, we just keep marching on. Simply means another report about what went wrong and how we can fix it when we set the next target.

Eradicating Child Malnutrition in the UK
A glimpse at the Twitter feed generated by the #globalhunger tag includes this post from DFID (UK Aid) which quotes Prime Minister Cameron as saying:"While we all enjoy #London2012 there's another world where children don't get enough to eat". His focus is on reducing child malnutrition rates in poor countries as he moves into being the head of the G8 (how many numbered G's are there?)

I am hoping Mr Cameron may include reducing child malnutrition in his own country as part of his goal. As a social worker in Redbridge back in 2010, I was shocked at how few resources there were to feed hungry people who for one reason or another did not qualify for benefits.

Eradicating Hunger in the USA
As for the USA, with recent cuts in food stamps (a cash for food benefit program) and an expansion (and institutional entrenchment) of food banks, it hardly befits the government to think it can solve the hunger problems of poor, disorganized nations that are less agriculturally developed. California may feed the world but there are thousands of Californians that are what the US government calls 'food insecure' (i.e. not sure where there next meal is coming from).

Hunger Summits & Careers
I am exhausted by grand summits and meetings. Each one following the next with final reports begun to be written before meetings occur. Photo op upon photo op of smiling guys in suits shaking hands making commitments (like their marriage vows) that they know they cannot keep. And noone holding their feet to the fire because fiscal promises like electoral ones are best taken with a strong dose of cynicism.

Among the noise on Twitter was even a job posting for a Campaign Communications Coordinator to work on the food and hunger campaign that will be sponsored by UK NGOs. As I feared, another summit means the aid business gets a boost, everyone goes home feeling good, more miles in their affinity programs, another report to write and present at a meeting. And unless something miraculous happens, it goes back to being business as usual.

Because if the country sponsoring this meeting has the same nutrition problems with its poor kids that its had since the creation of sociology, I will await with unabated breath to see what becomes of yet another summit about some problem faced by rich countries that they want to solve in poor countries.

Hunger and Income
Perhaps we could just guarantee people an income and they could deal with their food and family planning issues on their own without some Peace Corps (nothing against them just an example) volunteer or Ivy-league trained NGO professional from 10,000 miles away telling them what to do.

It's worth a try, no?