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Some African Governments Ignoring Food Security Committments - 2003-09-23

What happens when well researched, science-based, food security recommendations are ignored by the governments they’re intended to help? That’s the question posed by a report issued here in Washington recently by the International Food Policy Research Institute, known as IFPRI. The report was written by Lawrence Haddad, the director of IFPRI’s Food Consumption and Nutrition Division.

Mr. Haddad says there are three main reasons for governments’ lack of consistent participation in food security efforts - information – capacity – and commitment.

He says, "I guess in many ways it can relate to an information gap, it can relate to a capacity gap, and it can relate to some kind of commitment gap."

Mr. Haddad says inadequate information leaves governments unaware of the extent of the problem. And they may not be aware of the consequences of food insecurity and the most effective way to deal with it.

Mr. Haddad says communicating effectively is complex and involves more than just research organizations like IFPRI. He says the organization works in partnership with researchers in the countries – and that adds credibility to their findings -- more than that of an outside agency only.

Regarding capacity, he says a government may not have enough people, money and resources -- or even the right environment -- to do the job.

As for commitment, Mr. Haddad says governmental priorities dictate how high hunger is on the agenda – if it is not a pressing problem in the government’s eyes, it won’t be addressed. He says another factor in determining commitment is amount of time it would take to solve the problem.

"Dealing with hunger and malnutrition is very much a long-term kind of thing -- you need to stick with it. And very often the payoffs only come down -- ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road. And of course politicians are not really interested in those kinds of things," he says.

But the IFPRI director says there may be other constraints that prevent governments from establishing their own priorities -- especially in Africa. Examples include debt, protective tarriffs, climate, and conflicts inherited from a previous government.

Mr. Haddad returned to his three main points -- information, capacity and commitment. He said when a government faces problems in all those areas, its problems can sometimes be overwhelming.

He says, "It’s not easy to do, it requires sustained commitment, a strategy, action on many fronts, and I think often it’s because the issue is not politicized sufficiently. It’s easy for the governments to get distracted by something else."

Mr. Haddad says getting effective, sustainable programs to feed the hungry is difficult if the people who need the food have no role in implementing the policy.

"The people you’re trying to work for -- the people you’re trying to invest in -- are the ones with the least power to actually make sure that what happens is in their interest," he says.

Mr. Haddad says a fundamental concern should be how to give the poor a greater say in decisions affecting their future. He says in developed countries this is done through unions. But he says in developing countries the work is informal and difficult to organize – especially in non-democratic nations where civil society organizations are not allowed.

In his article, Mr. Haddad points out that some programs to fight hunger are successful for unexplainable reasons. For example, the program called PROGRESA in Mexico continues to do well, despite political changes there. This program succeeds, he says, while good initiatives in other countries are forgotten.

Another example is found in Kerala, India, where Mr. Haddad says there’s a higher commitment to investing in humanity, while in other, much wealthier areas, there’s less concern with human development.

Mr. Haddad says despite the difficulty in explaining why some programs are effective and others are not, the widespread communication potential of the internet is giving a voice to the disadvantaged and putting pressure on governments to act.

He says, "Where there’s the internet, there are active external NGOs and there are large numbers of poor people with a relatively free press, I think you’re going to see governments coming under increasing pressure to do something about poverty and to do something in terms of cold hard cash."

Mr. Haddad says IFPRI believes that if 15 billion dollars a year were added to the money that developing country governments are presently spending on aid, it would make a considerable difference. He says if the additional 15 billion a year were spent over the next 17 years on health initiatives, clean water, and education, the 150-million malnourished kids in the world today would be reduced to 75 or -- at most -- 80 million.

Mr. Haddad says even 15 billion dollars would be nothing but “a drop in the ocean” compared to what the United States and the European Union currently spend generally. And he says the extra money would make “a huge dent” in malnutrition.

He says, "And that huge dent would be an investment that those kids would carry with them throughout the rest of their lives. .. … this is really like a vaccination for these kids. We make them much more resistant to everything that life can throw at them throughout their entire lives. It’s really a fantastic investment in our future as well as theirs."

Mr. Haddad says such an infusion of funds would be a “permanent, irreversible investment” that would improve their health and economic “trajectory”. He says today’s malnourished children would be less likely to drop out of school, have children early, and get chronic diseases. If IFPRI’s projection is correct, by the year 2020, the number of malnourished children in the world would be reduced by half.