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DEVELOPMENT: Effective Development Is All About People

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By Ernest Corea* in Washington D.C.

On March 3 and 4, a group of teenagers and pre-teens in Springfield, a nearby suburb, underwent what was called a "30-hour famine". They fasted for 30 consecutive hours, breaking only occasionally for sips of water as nourishment.

They also participated in activities that required physical effort, just as the poor in food insecure countries would, even when enduring the pangs of hunger. To sharpen their awareness of how some of the very poor are forced to live, they created a small pool of polluted water, by placing mud in a sock, pouring water into the sock, and then squeezing the water out into a mini-pool; presumably the imagined "village centre" for washing and drinking.

A participant in the fast, describing his emotions at seeing the kind of polluted water available to young people of his age in some other parts of the world, said: "We are spoiled. We are spoiled brats."

PRACTICAL PURPOSE

The "30-hour famine" which is an annual feature is not going to end global poverty and hunger, but it serves many useful purposes.

First, it was an event in which each participant was "sponsored" by well-wishers, family members or friends, and the funds raised will be used on projects in developing countries.

Second, every year, the exercise opens vistas of knowledge and understanding to a group of young Americans about some of the realities of life in the "developing world". The long-term result could be to build up a critical mass of people committed to grappling with some of the world’s inequities. (One of the participants in an earlier "30-hour famine" is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Asia.)

Third, it helps all those concerned with the event each year -- participants, parents, organizers, well-wishers, and members of the organizations that will carry out the projects for which funds were raised -- to understand that poverty, hunger, and its ultimate antidote, development, are about people.

They are not just about well-meant declarations by international organisations, learned discourses on development, and passionate debate over development assistance. They are quintessentially about people; about the disconnectedness of the poor, and the obligation of the societies in which they live to reconnect them.

For, as the Declaration on the Right to Development states: "The human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development."

The Declaration, whose 25th anniversary was recently commemorated, also says that "development is a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom."

KEY FACTOR

The currently escalating prices of food remind us that among the many aspects of life that coalesce in the processes and policies of development, few directly affect the poor as much as food insecurity. Many poor families spend as much as 80 percent of their meagre income on food. The corresponding figure for the well endowed is some 20 percent.

Even the slightest increase in food therefore becomes a crucial factor in the lives of the poor. Inadequate food and inadequate access to food causes malnutrition and undernutrition, in adults and children alike. This leads to disease, debilitation, stunting (in children) and, so often, premature, preventable death.

The publication "Hunger Notes" points out that "poor nutrition plays a role in at least half of the 10.9 million child deaths each year -- five million deaths. ….The estimated proportion of deaths in which undernutrition is an underlying cause is roughly the same for diarrhoea (61 percent), malaria (57 percent), and measles (45 percent).

These linkages show why food price increases are watched so carefully in developing countries, by aid agencies, and by international civil society organizations engaged in a whole range of development activities. They know that the assumptions on which documents such as the Declaration of the Right to Development are based, and the hopes they raise, can be stood on their heads by an unexpected spike in staples.

The fact that food prices rose 2.2 per cent in February, on top of increases reported in preceding months, as recorded by FAO (the UN’s) Food and Agriculture Organisation) is therefore a warning of what might lie ahead.

The only reason why these price surges have not already caused a "global food crisis on the scale of what happened three years ago" is that the "increase in the prices of rice, a staple for half the world, has lagged behind a jump for other grains," says the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development).

This relativity-based assessment cannot bring much consolation to those -- 44 million of them, says the World Bank -- who have already been thrust into poverty and, thereby, hunger.

HUMAN RIGHT

The right of all members of the human family to have access to food has been proclaimed and confirmed by the world’s nations functioning together as the "international community."

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the foundation of human rights as they are now universally recognized, holds, for instance, that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food."

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and cultural Rights (1966) affirmed the "right of everyone to adequate food" and acknowledged that "freedom from hunger is a universal and fundamental right."

The World Food Conference of 1974 agreed that "every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition. In keeping with that principle, conference participants adopted the time limit of a decade (1984) in which to eradicate hunger.

More recently, the first of the Millennium Development Goals set 2015 as the year by which to "halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger."

Noble sentiments. They embody the aspirations of those who wish to break loose from the demeaning calamity of hunger, and the commitment of men and women of goodwill to help end that condition. Unfortunately, however, human ingenuity has yet to devise a "fail safe" method by which to turn international declarations, proclamations, and other exhortations into living reality.

Poverty continues to be a dominant fact of life in many societies, and so does its debilitating consequence, hunger.

CONSIDER THIS

So, consider this. In the twentieth century, great progress was made across the world in so many aspects of life, including food security. Despite the progress, 925 million of us were counted as hungry last year, down from the peak of 1 billion in 2009 -- the result of the global food price crisis in 2008 and the economic recession of 2009 -- and up from 878 million in 1969-1971.

By way of comparison, 925 million is more than the combined population of Canada, the European Union and the U.S. Of the world's hungry, 578 million live in Asia and the Pacific, 239 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, 37 million in the Near East and Africa, 53 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 19 million in industrialised countries.

Experts at a number of international organizations estimate that:
-- Almost all (98 percent) of the world's hungry live in developing countries, most of them in rural areas; -- Some two-thirds of the world’s hungry live in the Asia-Pacific region which is home to over half the world’s population; -- Over 60 percent of the world’s hungry are women; -- Malnutrition and hunger-related diseases cause 60 percent of the deaths of children under age five every year in developing countries; a million due to lack of Vitamin A; -- One out of four children - roughly 146 million - in developing countries are underweight; -- Every year the World Food Programme (WFP) feeds more than 20 million children in school feeding programmes in some 70 countries.

ENOUGH FOOD

The extent of hunger in the world flies in the face of the fact that farmers produce sufficient food to feed the global population. "Hunger Notes," the publication to which reference was made earlier, points out that "world agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2720 kilocalories per person per day (as assessed by FAO)."

In other words, barring unforeseen crises, including natural disasters, political turbulence or war (cross-border or internal) nobody should go hungry. Yet, they do.

As V. Rajagopalan, a former Vice President of the World Bank has pointed out: The major problem of the world’s poor and hungry "is not that of inadequate food supplies. Their problem is that they are poor. Some 90 percent of world hunger is caused by poverty."

The fact that poverty induces hunger does not suggest that anti-poverty programs alone will end hunger. Poverty is a complex condition and has to be "attacked" on many fronts including income generation, education, gender equality, housing, social integration, and welfare support.

Sustainable agriculture, which helps in poverty eradication, needs to be nurtured as well so that productivity, production, and natural resource management, are all embodied in pro-poor programs.

Bringing together these elements that sometimes seem disparate requires knowledge, foresight, and commitment to the cause of fighting poverty and hunger, and political will. The starting point of such an effort has to be the realization of the young participants in the "30-hour famine" that this is all about people….because people matter, whatever their circumstances might be.

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

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