The impossible choices facing hungry families

by Thabani Maphosa, World Vision | World Vision - International.
Friday, 27 November 2015 10:13 GMT

Zimbabwean children pick loose cereal dropped during a monthly food distribution, in rural Mupinga area in Chiredzi, Zimbabwe, October 6, 2015. Tens of millions of people across sub-Saharan Africa are going hungry due to erratic weather, aid agencies say. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Global food assistance system is at breaking point just as one of worst El Niños ever is set to push millions more into hunger

By Thabani Maphosa, World Vision's Vice President of Food Assistance Programmes

Imagine you have three children but only enough food for one. Or having to make the choice between providing a meal for your family or paying for medicine to treat your son or daughter. 

These are real choices that the very poorest parents around the globe face each day because the international food assistance system is stretched to breaking point due to increasing numbers of people in need and inadequate funding. 

Many more parents are about to face the same kinds of impossible choices because one of the worst El Ninos ever recorded is predicted to push millions more men, women and children into extreme hunger and malnutrition.

The role of international food assistance is to serve as an international safety net for the very poorest. It ensures vulnerable children and families have enough to eat during a tough time in their lives. Food assistance is provided as food  - things like flour, beans, oil, sugar, pulses and fortified biscuits or specialised nutrition products for mothers and young children - or as cash and vouchers which allow people to buy what they need.

In a report my agency World Vision has released ahead of the UN’s international Climate Change conference in Paris we found millions of the world’s most vulnerable people are now failing to receive this promised food assistance.  Parents and guardians told us of trekking to distribution points only to find no food, or of children too hungry to play or study because school meals programmes had run dry.

The findings of the “When There is No Food Assistance” report are deeply worrying because it reveals a food assistance system collapsing under the weight of need at a time when El Niño is going to leave millions more people hungry.

Scientists are warning that climate change is interacting with El Niño as well as creating new and more severe weather patterns. The full humanitarian implications of this scenario are now looming.  In Ethiopia, 15 million people will shortly be in need of food assistance. Across Southern and Eastern Africa a mix of extensive drought and localised flooding is going to decimate crops and livestock, worsening pre-existing high levels of stunting and wasting in children, and pushing millions into hunger. UN and aid agencies are also reporting drought in Central America and the Pacific Islands.

Evidence of the failure of the international community to meet its promises of food assistance for those most in need is symptomatic of a humanitarian system at breaking point. The gap between need and funding is at its greatest in a decade.

With El Niño putting the lives, food security, and livelihoods of millions at risk, the challenge is how to respond. Without new funds hard-pressed aid agency staff will increasingly be forced to ask themselves, Who eats and who goes hungry? Do we concentrate on helping only those at the very edge of extreme hunger, leaving those who are just a little less vulnerable with nothing?

The stark truth is that more and new money must be found to help those in crisis.  Even if we take the tough decision to sharpen our targeting and focus on the toughest cases -- which really means deciding to feed a few well rather than feed many poorly -- we are just kicking the problem down the road. Those less vulnerable today will likely become the most vulnerable before long.

A hunger-free world depends on building the resilience of communities to El Nino and other climate related events to overcome the root causes of hunger and poor nutrition. Food assistance interventions must be designed to empower poor people to build productive assets such as water harvesting tanks, dams and irrigation projects or to plant trees that help them become self-sufficient in the long term. In this way, food assistance funding can leave a lasting impact.

The lessons of the 2011-12 Horn of Africa famine – in which some 250,000 people died, half of whom were children under 5 years of age – are a grim reminder of what happens when early action doesn’t follow early warning. The costs are just too large both in financial terms but most importantly in lives lost.

There are solutions available to end this tragedy: break down the funding silos that exist and tap into climate change and other funds designed to build resilience; strengthen small-holder farming and climate smart agriculture; help governments in vulnerable countries build social safety nets and become disaster ready; and commit new funding for reliable food assistance to meet immediate needs and help poor families recover their livelihoods.

No parent should ever have to face the kinds of questions that so many are forced to ask today… and that so many more will have to ask tomorrow if nothing changes.