What I am about to say may surprise you: we are actually, slowly but surely, winning the battle to end chronic hunger and even malnutrition. If you watch the news at all, you probably won’t believe me. But it’s true. Thirty-five years ago, around 45,000 people a day were dying of chronic hunger and hunger-related causes. Today that number is closer to 25,000. In no way, shape, or form is that acceptable, and we need to keep fighting, but this is an incredible feat we need to occasionally stop and remind ourselves of, and it’s even the remarkable given that the world population has increased significantly over this time period.
I updated my “Food” numbers yesterday and was happy to see the actual figures reflecting the above facts. (Unfortunately, I am on the lookout for much more accurate numbers — the ones I had been using were from a Wikipedia page, List of countries by percentage of population suffering from undernourishment but the most recent data was from 2006. I found more recent data last night, trying to delve through the myriad, byzantine website that is the UN, and found a site on the MDG’s which I was able to use, but this data is only from 2007. Suggestions welcome!)
Even though the data is not completely up-to-date, it did show an improvement in many countries, which was heartening. I know that we have slid backwards lately, due to food price increases, natural catastrophes, and conflicts, but I am hopeful that, in some countries at least, this downward trend in malnutrition has continued.
One country that is now at 95% “nourished” (which is the highest the UN numbers would go — the “100’s” on my Google doc are from other sources) is Ghana, which was at 92% in 2006. One of the organizations I support, The Hunger Project, is active in the country and you can see exactly how their strategy has worked here.
As the world has reached out over the last few decades to countries whose populations are suffering from hunger, we’ve also learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. In recent years, the aid community has become increasingly self-reflective and this examination has revealed some ugly truths.
- Throwing money and/or stuff at the problem doesn’t work — trillions of dollars (pounds, francs, euros, etc…) have been wasted on this strategy. (See Dambisa Moyo’s groundbreaking book, Dead Aid for a very honest — albeit no-punches-pulled — account.)
- Building stuff is not always helpful. (See this recent talk by David Damberger at TED.)
- Sometimes even help is not helpful, as when well-meaning but ill-informed aid workers in the DRC provided relief to Rwandan refugees during the 1994 genocide only to find out later that many of these same people went back to Rwanda and continued their slaughter. (This was outlined by David Rieff in his brilliant 2002 book, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.)
So what have we found that does work? One strategy that is slowly being acknowledged by the aid community is to simply listen to what those who you want to help have to say. That’s a great starting point. Much more on this later.
Thanks for stopping by,