NIAS Africa Monitor

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NIAS Africa Monitor
15 of the 23 global hunger hotspots are in Africa. Three reasons why

  Apoorva Sudhakar

Hunger in Africa affects different groups and individuals on different scales. However, the underlying causes and international indifference cut across the geographical boundaries.

On 29 April, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) warned that Madagascar was witnessing acute malnutrition rates and was inching towards a famine. The WFP Senior Director of Operations said: "The scale of the catastrophe is beyond belief. If we don't reverse this crisis, if we don't get food to the people in the south of Madagascar, families will starve and lives will be lost." In some districts, at least one in four children face acute malnutrition, says a news report in Aljazeera. 

The above situation is, however, not unique to Madagascar. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) information bulletin, over 100 million Africans face "catastrophic levels of food insecurity." Further, in the "FAO-WFP early warnings on acute food insecurity: March to July 2021 outlook," as many as 15 of the 23 hunger hotspots are in Africa. 

The gravity of the problem begs the question: What led Africa into this dire situation?  

1. The complexities of hunger 

First, hunger is not characterized by a lack of access to or intake of food alone. It has various aspects to it, including malnutrition and undernourishment. The Global Hunger Index (GHI), for example, is calculated on four parameters: undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality. Why? 

Measures like child mortality, child stunting depend on the intake of nutrients, not just of the child but also the mother. Therefore, maternal healthcare plays a role in deciding the child's health, and by including these parameters, the GHI highlights "uneven distribution of food within the household." 

Similarly, hunger also goes hand-in-hand with food insecurity, wherein the individual does not have certainty or surety about their next meal. The FAO defines food insecurity as "a situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life." 

The above factors, in the African context, stand true owing to several drivers like conflict, climate change, economic deterioration; some factors like access to food reflect gender biases wherein the male is entitled to consume more than the female member, thereby making hunger multidimensional.

2. Problems of governance

Second, several of the African countries listed in the hunger hotspots are entangled in decades-long conflict, tribal, ethnic or political. In some cases, rebel groups control access to resources like food and water, depriving others of the same. For example, after the December 2020 presidential elections, rebels had reportedly seized a highway, a key supply route to the capital city, thereby pushing the country towards a severe food shortage. In other areas, non-state actors charge civilians with heavy taxes, forcing the latter to flee their homes, and sometimes countries. 

All the above scenarios reflect the failure of the state to ensure basic necessities to its people. This could be driven by two reasons. One, the role of the government in prolonging the conflict for personal gains. Two, it could be a lack of capability in tackling the rebels, terrorist organizations and any other threats.

Apart from the usual narrative of conflicts pushing the population towards hunger and food insecurity, other factors like unemployment, soaring prices of food, depreciation of currency also contribute to the problem. On 16 April, the WFP warned of the same in West Africa wherein the regional director said: "The relentless rise in prices acts as a misery multiplier, driving millions deeper into hunger and desperation...soaring prices are pushing a basic meal beyond the reach of millions of poor families who were already struggling to get by." 

3. International apathy

Third, organizations like the FAO and the WFP have been highlighting the situation in Africa for a long time. Media houses have complemented the coverage of these problems by publishing images of stunted and wasted children, undernourished mothers, or the Pulitzer winning picture of a vulture awaiting the death of a child. While these images instil a momentary sense of urgency and grief, the international community has not mobilized enough funds or aid to put an end to the problem. 

Further, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the funding towards aid programmes has reduced despite the pandemic worsening the hunger situation in Africa. As early as July 2020, the UNHCR and the WFP were "struggling to meet the rising needs" and in parts of East Africa, refugees were "already receiving reduced rations due to underfunding." 

In perspective

Hunger in Africa affects different groups and individuals on different scales. However, the underlying causes and international indifference cut across the geographical boundaries. On the other side, the bitter reality outlines that the international community has only limited influence in resolving the internal crises of different countries in Africa. No amount of external pressure will convince the respective governments and other actors responsible for the situation to find a solution to the problem. 

Further, while food aid programmes are doing a commendable job in reaching out to the ones in need, the solution to the problem of hunger lies somewhere else. External food aid will not provide a solution to ethnic divisions, political polarisations, and the greed to control resources in the countries affected. Therefore, this brings in the need for a holistic approach which, however, does not seem possible in the near future. 

Lastly, newer factors like climate change and COVID-19 pandemic have increased the challenges in addressing the problem. Therefore, there is a need to frame and adapt solutions accordingly. 

About the author

Apoorva Sudhakar is a Research Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her areas of interest include peace and conflict in Africa and South Asia. As part of the Pakistan Reader Initiative, she also regularly studies Pakistan's domestic politics, radicalization and group identities.


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