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“Hunger season” neglected

Women with their children in Chad's western Kanem region, where aid officials are working to provide urgent nutritional assistance while helping prevent malnutrition in future Celeste Hicks/IRIN
Most of the world’s 600 million hungry and under-nourished people suffer seasonal hunger rather than effects of conflict or natural disasters, but donors and governments often treat recurring nutritional problems as one-off emergencies and this weakens their response actions.

“If you look at Ethiopia, every year [since the 1990s] it has had a humanitarian food aid appeal, and more than four million people have received emergency assistance at roughly the same time each year,” Institute of Development Studies research fellow Stephen Devereux told IRIN. “Obviously the crisis is perceived as being seasonal, but it is categorized as an emergency each year.”

The dilemma is the subject of a new book, Seasonal Hunger – Fighting Cycles of Quiet Starvation Among the World’s Rural Poor, by Devereux, Bapu Vaitla of Tufts University and Samuel Hauenstein Swan of NGO Action Against Hunger.

Millions of rural households in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are currently in the agricultural lean season.

With the international focus on chronic poverty-related hunger or acute hunger, cyclical hunger often falls through the gap, Devereux said. “Anti-poverty programmes deal with chronic hunger and poverty and emergency programmes deal with short-term crises but no one is focusing on routine hunger. We need to draw attention to this.”

The current aid approach does not allow proven solutions to be implemented on a large-enough scale to make a difference, he said.

Such proven methods include community-based interventions with ready-to-use foods, cash transfers and other measures to boost social safety nets, and nutritional health promotion programmes for pre-school-age children.

''A minimum essential package against seasonal hunger would cost just 0.1 percent of global domestic product - or roughly 10 US cents per US citizen per year''
Scaling up such efforts to create a “minimum essential” package against seasonal hunger would cost just 0.1 percent of global domestic product – or roughly 10 US cents per US citizen per year, the authors say.

When communities provide ready-to-use foods to the 80 percent of malnourished children who are not suffering additional illnesses, it helps families avoid costly hospitalization and is just as effective, schemes in Malawi, Ethiopia and Sudan have shown.

Another approach that has been successful is focusing on health and nutrition in the first years of a child’s life and during pregnancy by promoting breastfeeding and giving supplementary food to pregnant women, lactating mothers and pre-school children.

With 70 percent of the world’s hungry being the families of landless rural labourers or smallholder farmers, social safety nets such as employment schemes and cash transfers also play a vital role in reducing cyclical hunger, the authors say.

Some governments are tackling cyclical under-nutrition, Devereux said. The Ethiopian government runs a countrywide cash-transfer programmed aimed at phasing beneficiaries out within a few years, while the Indian government guarantees every vulnerable rural household 100 days paid employment per year. “They are taking it seriously as a long-term issue.”

Donors such as the UK Department for International Development are taking social protection more seriously, including addressing cyclical hunger, though they do not frame this as seasonal assistance, according to Devereux.

But scaling up community-based nutrition programmes is difficult, given the level of monitoring and training they require, Devereux told IRIN. Rather than rolling out national schemes, he recommends that governments, NGOs and UN agencies replicate existing programmes district by district, to create what he calls “patchwork coverage”.

Part of the reason cyclical hunger was neglected in the 1980s and 1990s came down to the Washington consensus that stressed less government intervention in agriculture and food safety nets, according to Devereux. With food prices still high, an international financial crisis and a renewed focus on agricultural growth, now is the right time to refocus international policy toward cyclical hunger, he said.

Seasonal hunger support is the focus of an 8 July conference at the Institute of Development Studies – the first time global experts convene to discuss this theme in 30 years.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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