Hunger problem on the rise, says UN

Posted: 22 June 2007

Author: Kanaga Raja

Our world produces food that could feed twice the entire global population, yet the millions suffering from malnutrition and hunger are on the rise, says a UN report.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, expressed outrage that global hunger is still on the rise despite commitments made by governments to reduce hunger in 1996 at the first World Food Summit and again at the Millennium Summit in 2000. In his report to the fifth session of the Human Rights Council last week, the human rights expert said that there has been virtually no progress made on reducing hunger. While in 1996, the number of people suffering from under-nourishment was estimated to be about 800 million people, latest estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggest that there are now 854 million people who do not get enough to eat everyday. [In the same period world population has grown by 700 million - ed.] Some 5.6 million children die from hunger-related illness every year before their fifth birthday.

Right to food

"This is unacceptable. All human beings have the right to live in dignity, free from hunger," said Ziegler. "Our world is richer than ever, yet more people than ever are suffering from malnutrition, hunger and starvation. The world produces more food than ever, it could feed twice the entire global population, yet millions go to bed hungry at night." "In a world overflowing with riches, hunger is not inevitable. It is a violation of human rights. The right to food is a human right that protects the right of all human beings to live in dignity, free from hunger," he said. At a media briefing, Ziegler said that the overall situation this year was worse than last year. There were 854 million people in the world - one in every six human beings - who were gravely undernourished. This represents an increase of 12 million, from 842 million people last year. Ziegler said that this is happening on a planet where 12 billion people could be nourished normally every day. In his report, the Special Rapporteur commended a number of positive developments by governments in combating hunger.

Redistributing land For instance, in September 2006, the Bolivian Parliament adopted a groundbreaking land reform bill, proposed by President Evo Morales to redistribute underused land to rural communities, especially indigenous communities. This new law states that only land that is unused or has been corruptly obtained will be used for redistribution. If properly and efficiently implemented, this law could lead to redistributing up to 20 million hectares of land, mostly to indigenous people, and to improving their livelihoods and access to food. About 41 per cent of Bolivia's population, the majority indigenous people in rural areas, suffer from poverty and do not have access to adequate food each day, said Ziegler. Venezuela has distributed more than 3 million hectares of land to farmers, and provided credit to more than 3 million farmers, as part of its land reform programme. In 2005, 11.36 million Venezuelans benefited from Mercal food programmes on a regular basis. Mission Mercal, which was launched in 2003, is aimed at creating subsidized grocery stores through a State-run company called Mercal, to help communities to become self-sufficient by replacing food imports with products from local farmers, small businesses and cooperatives.

South Africa According to the Special Rapporteur, South Africa continues to be one of the best examples in the world of the justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to food and the right to water, with positive impacts on the life of millions of people. The South African Bill of Rights, which is incorporated into the 1996 Constitution, explicitly provides that every person in South Africa has the right to access to sufficient food and water, and that the State shall respect, protect and fulfil the realization of these rights. The Special Rapporteur also called the Council's attention to several situations of serious concern related to the right to food, especially in the Darfur region of Sudan, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in countries in the Horn of Africa region and in North Korea. Ziegler said that in Darfur, violence is causing terrible human casualties and violations of the right to food, including the pillaging of crops, food and livestock, destruction of water points, the forced displacement of people from their lands and the disruption of food assistance. His report also focuses on the silent tragedy of children suffering and dying from hunger and malnutrition. About one in every four children around the world is underweight for their age and more than 96 per cent of low birth weight babies are born to underweight mothers in the developing world, reflecting a generational cycle of under-nutrition, the consequences of which are passed along to children by mothers who are themselves in poor health and undernourished.

Nutrition problem

Although there has been some recent progress in reducing global levels of malnutrition, the Special Rapporteur raised concerns that the Millennium Development Goal to halve the number of underweight children by 2015 will not be met. Under-nutrition causes more than half of all deaths of children under five years old. About 100 million children are still lacking sufficient vitamin A, essential for immune system functions and their survival, growth and development. Millions suffer from iodine deficiency disorders, which prevent normal growth in the brain and nervous system, yet it is easily preventable through the simple iodization of salt. The report also said that unsafe water and a lack of basic sanitation and hygiene every year kill more than 1.5 million children. Around the world, approximately 125 million children under five years of age have no access to an improved drinking water source, and around 280 million children under five have no access to improved sanitation facilities. Ziegler said that the obligation to fulfil the right to food requires governments to take steps to address hunger and poverty of children. School meal programmes are one example of measures to fulfil the right to food. To this end, the Special Rapporteur welcomed the examples of India, South Africa, Cuba and Brazil, which have been at the forefront of efforts to make school meals an entitlement.

Environmental refugees The report also noted that in many regions of the world, particularly in Africa, famine, destitution and chronic hunger are forcing people to leave their homes, land and even their countries. According to Ziegler, hunger and famine are due not only to drought, but also to economic problems as well as political problems of corruption and mismanagement. "It is also due to the hypocritical policies of developed countries on agriculture and climate change, which are further contributing to hunger, poverty and inequality in developing countries." Yet hunger and violations of the human right to food are still not seen by the international community as good enough reasons or sufficient legal grounds for people to flee their countries. Ziegler said that tens of thousands of people fleeing from hunger and famine and crossing borders, especially if they try to flee to developed countries, are treated as 'illegal migrants', arrested and held in often appalling conditions in detention and processing centres. The situation is particularly dramatic for people fleeing from sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that about 2 million people try to enter the European Union illegally every year, and about 2,000 of them drown in the Mediterranean Sea. In a world where the richer countries are getting richer and the poorer are getting poorer, migration is an obvious response, said Ziegler. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region of the world where levels of hunger have been constantly increasing since 1990. Between 1990 and 2001, the number of chronically undernourished people is estimated to have increased from 169 million to 206 million people. Environmental degradation, desertification and global climate change are also exacerbating destitution and desperation, especially in the highly arid countries of Sahelian Africa, said the report. In 1995, the UN estimated that there were already 25 million people forced to leave their homes for environmental reasons, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that, by 2050, there may be as many as 150 million 'environmental refugees' At the briefing, Ziegler accused the European Union of massively creating hunger in Africa through its agrarian dumping policies that are damaging African agriculture. Of the 52 countries in Africa, 37 are purely agricultural states.

Legal framework The report made a number of recommendations including that governments should follow the recent examples of Brazil, Guatemala, India, South Africa, Venezuela and Bolivia in the implementation of the right to food at the national level. He encouraged governments to adopt an adequate legal framework to ensure the right to food for all, including and in particular for the most vulnerable. All governments should also take immediate steps to eliminate child hunger. This should include programmes to address food security and adequate livelihoods, as well as nutritional security, especially in vitamin A, iron and iodine deficiencies and the promotion of breastfeeding. School meal programmes should be made universal, and should ensure adequate nutrition for all children. All governments and international agencies were urged to address the root causes of migration and armed conflict. This included the right to food where children are forced to enlist in armed groups in order to procure food for themselves and their families. And, it said, Governments should not expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he/she would be in danger of suffering from hunger, chronic under-nutrition or violations of the right to food. Governments should also recognize that refugees from hunger have the right to seek asylum and the right to temporary refuge during famine, said the report.

Kanaga Raja is a researcher with the Third World Network.

This is a shortened version of an article which first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS), of 15 June 2007. The full text was made available by Third Network Features