Africana Plus

No53 January 2003.1


The Spectre of Famine


Hunger in Canada

You might think that hunger is only a danger for people in poor countries; but you would be wrong. There is hunger here in Canada too. Naturally those most affected are children. The number of Canadian children suffering from hunger is increasing and shows no signs of diminishing, according to a report from the Canadian Council for Social Development. The statistics report that in 1996 about 75,000 families with children under twelve complained of hunger. This was an increase of one-third compared to 1994.

This tendency was confirmed by a report published last month by the Canadian Association of Food Banks showing an increase of 12.5% in the number of people applying for help since 1996. In March 2002 more than 300,000 children, more than half of the recipients, were receiving free food.

Malnutrition in North America is one of the signs of the times. The problem is that part of the population has great difficulty in gaining entrance into the work market. In industrial countries furthermore, food security has decreased as more and more poor people no longer have a balanced diet, and as fears grow about the dangers of unhealthy manufactured foods.

There is therefore malnutrition and food insecurity in Canada. It affects however only a portion of the population. It is only when one looks further afield that one realizes the real dimensions of the tragedy of hunger.

Hunger in the World

Some time ago it used to be said that mankind now possesses everything it needs to banish the spectre of poverty from the world. This has turned out to be an error. At the World Food Summit in 1996, the promise was made that the number of persons suffering from hunger would be reduced by one half by 2015. That promise has not been fulfilled, and there are still about 800 million hungry people in the world. At the same time, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has stated that there is more than enough food for the six thousand million human beings who live on earth. The problem is solely one of distribution.

The failure to achieve the targets set in 1996 can also be attributed to the lack of solidarity in international relations, deriving in part from a pragmatism which rejects all moral and ethical considerations in the formulation of policy. Thus it is the case that aid to poor countries has diminished rather than increased in recent years.

The persistence of malnutrition is however connected today more with wars and unstable political situations than with strictly technical or climatic factors. Food insecurity and armed conflicts are natural bedfellows. The depletion of natural resources, demographic pressures and water problems only exacerbate the situation. As we see so commonly in Africa, armed conflicts also prevent the cultivators from producing food and obstruct access to markets by disrupting transport, exchange and markets. As a result of these different factors, it is estimated that in developing countries as a whole the loss of agricultural production has risen to an annual figure of 4.3 thousand million dollars, enough to give better food to 330 million people.

Since 1990 FAO has reported food crises in Za´re, Liberia, Ha´ti, Butan, Sudan, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. All these countries are victims of violence and instability. East Timor witnessed the greatest number of deaths from hunger in the 1980's in the decade following the invasion of the island by the Indonesians. Hunger may be used as a weapon in the pursuit of political power, but important secondary factors today are the difficulty of access to both land and water, poor profits and often the impossibility of obtaining credit.

Hunger in Africa

Africa is still the hungriest part of the world, especially in the south-east of the continent, where more than fourteen million people in six countries are facing famine caused through drought, floods, government mismanagement, and economic instability. The six countries are Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

James Morris is the executive director of the World Food Program and he described as catastrophic the situation of human devastation which he has observed. "The needs are immense and urgent, and every delay only makes the crisis worse," he observed. He added that while the World Food Program had asked for 507 million dollars to help distressed populations, only 36% of that sum had been forthcoming.

The reasons for famine evidently vary from one country to another, but in all these six countries many of the people, often as many as two-thirds of the population, are living below the poverty threshold and are completely destabilized when there is the slightest variation in cereal production or in market prices. This year the price of maize has rocketed even in South Africa. The abolition of price-controls and the trade liberalization program imposed by international financial institutions have meant that the poorest people are helpless victims of the law of supply and demand and receive no protection from the state.

Another common factor is the dependence on maize. Boiled maize-flour is the staple food throughout the region, often amounting to 80% of the diet. If there is no "pap", as they call it in Zimbabwe, or "nzima" in Malawi, the peasants feel that they have not eaten at all. Other products, such as avocados, sweet potatoes or yams, are not regarded as real food. It is also to be observed that since the introduction of maize the peasants have forgotten their traditional food lore and may poison themselves by eating leaves and berries which are in fact dangerous. Cultivators who have lived through two consecutive years of bad harvests are in a particularly precarious situation. They have neither stocks nor seeds, and they have often sold their few possessions in the form of goats, poultry, clothes and kitchen utensils. The children have to leave school, and often are left without any medical care.

To add to the miseries of Africa, Ethiopia is faced with an enormous famine over the coming months, according to President Meles Zenawi, unless the international community comes immediately to its assistance. After persistent drought, six million Ethiopians are already in need of food aid, and in January 2003 the figure will have risen to 15 million, according to the President. "We cannot solve this problem by ourselves," he declared, adding that the number of people in danger was two or three times greater than during the great famine of 1984. The Red Cross has launched an appeal and asked for eighteen million Canadian dollars to deal with the catastrophe.

What can be done to help all these thousands of people?

Today more than ever, there has to be solidarity in international relations and in all forms of co-operation. It is also true that much is to be looked for from technical experts who survey and plan agricultural resources, organize their distribution, set up different programs of food security, and invent new technologies for improving harvests and cattle-rearing.

At the last FAO Summit in June, Pope John-Paul II said: "For myself, I am happy that this World Food Summit is once more bringing together governments and inter-governmental institutions and urging them to collaborate in ensuring the right to food of people living in states which cannot guarantee it by themselves because of their under-development and poverty. A commitment to putting an end to hunger is both legitimate and necessary, for poverty and hunger endanger the whole social fabric between peoples and nations and constitute a menace for international peace and security."

St John Chrysostom said in the fifth century: "Christ is dying of hunger at your door. Free Christ from hunger, from need, from prisons, from nakedness." There are 800 million hungry people on earth. "Let us suppress misery," said Ghandi," but let us cultivate poverty," Jesus told us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," and he knew what he was talking about, for had he not fed 5,000 men in the wilderness, not counting the women and children? (John 6, 1-15)

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are under an obligation to give priority to the poor if we wish to preserve a truly evangelical spirit. "No philosophy of philanthropy," said Pope Paul VI, "can match the urgency of the evangelical precept which tells us to love those who are the most insignificant, the most abandoned, the most suffering." This priority given to the poorest is a sign that the Christian has made his own the divine pity for the needy. It is a charity which refuses all proselytism. I do not give you this bread on condition that you accept Baptism; I give it to you because I love you.

God wishes to help the poor and the hungry, but he can only help them through us. The fourteenth-century Doctor of the Church Saint Catherine of Siena heard Jesus saying to her: "I created you without any collaboration on your part, but I will not save you without your collaboration." It is the meaning too of the Russian proverb: "God gives us the nuts, but we have to shell them ourselves."

God has placed within the spirit of every human person a sensitive heart which is vulnerable to the suffering of the other. The tragedy is that too often men have stifled this heart in order that they may sleep in peace and leave others to worry about human misery. They tend to crush all the compassion they naturally feel for suffering people by inventing alibis like: "After all, if they are wretched, it is their own fault." Human beings are the hands of God who wishes to comfort humanity. All we have to do is to work with them.


Michel Fortin, M. Afr.

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