Food Aid for the Hungry?
Between 1996 and 2006, the number of chronically hungry people in poor countries increased by over 20 million. Today, 850 million people—13 percent of the world population—cannot afford their most basic food needs. And every year more than 8 million people die as a result of hunger and malnutrition. By undermining the health and productivity of individuals, hunger also obstructs social and economic development at large.
People affected by food emergencies only represent a fraction of those suffering from hunger. But, that amount is increasing as global climate change and armed conflict have doubled the number of food crises since the 1980s. Every year, the UN's World Food Programme provides emergency relief to over fifty million people.
Governments have an obligation to ensure that all people have access to adequate food. The human right to food is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC). And at the UN Millennium Summits in 2000 and 2005 and at the World Food Summit in 1996, governments made pledges to reduce world hunger by half.
Food aid—given either as actual food items or as cash to buy food—can play a critical role in reducing hunger. By providing emergency food aid, governments, UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations can save millions of lives when natural disasters or wars threaten people's access to food. And by giving nonemergency food aid, such as school lunches, they can improve health and encourage children to go to school, which has proven essential to a country's long-term development.
Yet, the current global food aid system is crippled with problems. Donor countries often fail to pledge enough food aid and they deliver aid late and unevenly. Food aid can also undermine local agricultural production in recipient countries and threaten long-term food security. In fact, some donor countries have designed food aid programs that primarily promote their own domestic interests, rather than helping the hungry. For example, legislators set up the U.S. food aid program to expand markets for U.S. exports and dispose of agricultural surpluses generated by domestic farm subsidies. It is true that even the best-designed food aid programs, based on the best of intentions might result in shortcomings. But, donor countries could overcome most food aid challenges if they prioritized the needs of the poor and hungry, rather than letting national strategic and commercial interests or media coverage decide how and where to provide food aid.
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