Analysis

Horrific scale of hunger cries out for action

Sasha Stevenson, Hannah Dawson

Poor nutrition not only costs individuals dearly by stunting their potential, but the country too.

The state's ­piecemeal approach to hunger is inadequate and should be consolidated. (Felix Karlsson, M&G)

More than half of our population is hungry or at risk of hunger. That’s more than 20-million people facing the daily terror of a clawing stomach with little hope of filling it.

In the face of these numbers, national hunger may appear to be an intractable problem, so large and desperate that the task of finding solutions is overwhelming, and any solutions devised will inevitably be inadequate and too expensive to implement.

But in assessing the potential costs of any solution to hunger, we often forget the huge cost of our inaction: the cost of hunger itself. Taking action to ensure the realisation of the right to food is both a constitutional obligation and an economic imperative. This is because, as well as being a frightening human condition, hunger and malnutrition are a limit on human and economic potential.

Severe malnutrition early in life (including in utero and in the first two years of life) leads to stunting – the physical and mental underdevelopment of children. Mentally, this means changes to brain cell development and a reduction in the “connectivity” or “branching” between brain cells. Brain underdevelopment has an obvious and serious impact on mental ability.

Children subjected to severe malnutrition in the first two years of their lives may be at a permanent intellectual disadvantage. Even with interventions later in life, they are unable to “catch up” on the missed brain development stage. They have difficulties learning and, later, participating in the economy.

Malnutrition also leads to increased morbidity and mortality: people who are malnourished (or were malnourished in early life) tend to get sick more often and are more likely to die when they get ill.

These effects of hunger and malnutrition perpetuate poverty and retard both personal and national economic development. Our inaction over hunger and malnutrition, in terms of educational, health and economic outcomes, costs the individuals involved and the country dearly. This situation cannot be allowed to continue.

The state is obliged to take “reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources”, to ensure the progressive realisation of the right to sufficient food. In spite of food security being prioritised in government rhetoric, the required development of legislation, appropriate policy and implementable programmes has fallen short.

Existing policies and interventions that aim to alleviate food insecurity have been fragmented and generally narrowly linked to the work of specific departments. These include agricultural credit and production programmes by the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, the national school nutrition programme by the department of basic education, the integrated nutrition programme by the health department, and the department of social development’s “food for all” programme and “zero hunger” campaign.

A few examples can illustrate some of the shortcomings or limitations of the state’s response to hunger.

The school nutrition programme has been significantly expanded to include all learners, instead of targeting only the poorest in quintile one to three schools, and now includes secondary schools. But the programme only provides meals for 190 days a year, which does not address nutrition comprehensively.

The integrated nutrition programme is made up of several initiatives, including food fortification and vitamin A supplementation. Similarly, this programme makes an important contribution but is inadequate and lacks a systematic, co-ordinated effort and proper monitoring.

The integrated food security strategy in 2002 was the first attempt by the government to formulate a national plan to address the components of food security and the need to co-ordinate the role of government departments.

But the strategy, under the department of agriculture, was criticised for being driven primarily by a focus on production and rural development. Despite this, the National Development Plan places food security under the chapter on rural development and does not go far enough to frame food security beyond production, health and rural development.

The challenge of addressing food insecurity and hunger in South Africa is widely recognised as inherently complex and the department of agriculture is ill equipped, both administratively and conceptually, to deal with the interlinked priorities of poverty and hunger.

The 2013 draft national policy on food and nutrition security is the current reference point for co-ordinated government work on food security, serving as a successor to the integrated food security strategy, but remains largely void of content.

In spite of these developments and initiatives, the South African National Health and Nutrition Survey, published last year, found that more than half of all South Africans remain food insecure, and nearly one in four children under the age of three have their growth stunted by malnutrition.

The reasons for this are many but, in part, it is because food insecurity is not a technical issue that can be addressed by programmes run by existing departments. It requires a more co-ordinated approach that has both political will and resourcing, including elements of immediate and direct relief, and structural and institutional change that addresses distribution problems in the food system.

In spite of the recognised gaps in our response to hunger, civil society has traditionally been surprisingly quiet about the matter and there has not been an organised and balanced civil society voice on the right to food. South Africa has not witnessed the bread riots seen in Tunisia and elsewhere. Civil society has not been drawn into policy-making or interventions to stop hunger.

Fortunately, civil society’s silence on the right to food is beginning to change. Organisations and individuals are beginning to talk about hunger.

There is now a high degree of consensus about the key problems in government understanding and programme design, and civil society partners are beginning to come together to ensure that the constitutional provision for sufficient food is translated into appropriate policy and implementable interventions.

Strong public action on the right to food, as witnessed in India and Brazil, is necessary to empower people to claim their right to food and engage with the government meaningfully to develop a co-ordinated and comprehensive response to hunger and food insecurity.

The millions of hungry people in South Africa cannot wait much longer.

Sasha Stevenson is an attorney at Section27 and Hannah Dawson is a senior researcher at the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute

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