Food Security and Social Justice (by Imran Sarwar)

UN Photo/Forte

An image of a grain of wheat will have, at times, symbolic, even spiritual connotations. Food grains often find their way into national emblems of countries – Pakistan’s state emblem contains images of wheat, tea, jute and cotton, while Indonesia’s coat of arms depicts rice and cotton as symbols of the principle of social justice for the people of the nation. In a world that is becoming richer every day, but where droughts and famines continue to hold their sway, an image of food and crops as social justice seems befitting. There must be something extremely unjust in a world where millions of people continue to die due to malnutrition-related causes and hunger, while actually obesity rates now outweigh hunger worldwide.

So the problem could not be the production of food, but rather the redistribution of food globally, as well as on national level, that contributes to persistent malnutrition. Indeed, FAO estimated in 1996 that the world produced enough food to feed every person at least 2,700 calories per day, well above the sustenance and productive requirements of an individual. Yet, we don’t even have to look more than a year back to remind ourselves of one of the worst famines to hit Eastern Africa, killing tens of thousands of people in Somalia and neighboring countries.

With such humanitarian calamities comes the usual hoopla of reporting and coverage, from experts to novices, from environmentalists to economists. Blame is doled around, to governments, to donor agencies, to terrorist groups, to global warming and ever-increasing aridity. There will be criticisms of the developed world and donor agencies stepping in too late and doing too little, despite early warnings of the famine. There will be calls for generosity, with pictures of malnourished children, as the boundaries of decency for media coverage are blurred. Terrorist groups will be blamed for the hazards they create for those who want to help. But with all the technological advancements and touted advantages of a globalized world, why indeed does the alarm siren sound once the calamity has hit? Why is there still reliance on corrective as opposed to preventive measures?

UN Photo/Stuart Price.
A woman holding her young malnourished baby queues for food at the Badbado camp for internally displaced persons in Mogadishu, Somalia, in July 2011.

True, the frequency of droughts is increasing, leaving little room for subsistence farmers and nomadic herders to stock up during years of good rain, but local activists argue that it was all too apparent that the drought was approaching. There was, however, little preparation on part of the global community as well as local government. The relation between drought and famine does not have to be causal, as described by John Githongo, a Kenyan anti-corruption activist, “Drought is an act of God. Famine is an act of man”. This view is shared by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen as well, who argues that no recent famine has occurred due to lack of food, but rather, due to bad governance: poor distribution of food, and even hoarding and storage as prices rise while there is starvation elsewhere.

With governments meeting at Rio+20 this summer to discuss environmental development in June, we can’t forget that disasters are not just nature-made. Here arises the nexus of responsibility that lies with the international community in response to a specific calamity, and how much independence and initiative local governments should exercise. There are cases of impactful intervention by governments, even going against the prescriptions of foreign aid community, like subsidies for smallholding farmers in Malawi in 2005. Geared towards a specific segment of farmers, these subsidies on fertilizers and seeds allowed these poor farmers to achieve a level of livable crop production. After positive results of this intervention, the donor community saw it fit to get on the bandwagon and even take credit for proposing the subsidy in the first place. It would be desirable to have governments that have a spine and can go ahead with policies they understand will benefit their people, while the donor community stands by its promises to provide the necessary help.

Returning to the question of social justice and provision of food, we find that the first Millennium Development Goal of ending extreme poverty and hunger has hardly been achieved. As for necessary help by the donor community, the promises made at the G8 summit in L’Aquila in 2009 are yet unfulfilled. Social justice, on a global scale, still seems a distant dream. At least it won’t be achieved with the current conception of donor help, which is taken as a gift from the developed world instead as a responsibility that arises due to the inherently unequal state of affairs. Food security should not be a privilege for those in adverse conditions, but a right that needs to be fulfilled to adhere to the tenants of social justice. If we can’t deliver this right in a world that actually produces more food than it consumes, it is anyone’s guess what might happen when the demand of food actually outstrips supply.

Imran Sarwar is currently pursuing a degree in Public Policy from Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is passionate about education policy and is actively working towards education reform in Pakistan. He also has experience working in a local microfinance organization in Pakistan and is interested in economic development and sustainable growth.

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One comment

  1. Zaeem · · Reply

    hmmm not bad .. but it’s kinda stating the obvious .. good piece, i.e. if somebody takes notice of it ..
    liked that L’Aquila bit .. :p
    more importantly it’s good to know you aint totally wasting time out there at Harvard .. :p
    btw i wonder if u’v read “The End of Poverty” by Jeffrey D Sachs ?

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