The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: hunger

Hunger vs Famine: The Vital Distinction

It’s one of the great ironies of our age – learning that millions are being lifted out of desperate poverty at the same time as millions more are falling into famine. Thanks to system change many of what are termed the “bottom billion” are finding their lives slightly improved. Yet it is also because of the lack of human intervention – the worst possible kind – that hunger has huge populations on the brink of starvation. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are offering some hope through a vast collaborative global effort. At the same time, regional conflict, corruption, mismanagement and apathy are thrusting millions in the vortex of extinction.

When the United Nations recently announced that some 20 million people in four countries face famine it supported that reality with a staggering claim: this summer is witnessing “the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War Two.” China lost 30 million people to starvation following that great conflict, while much of Europe faced its own struggles with famine. How can it be that just four famine stricken nations – South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia – can face even worse disaster than a half-century ago?

According to the study, Tufts Famine Trends, modern famine emerges because those amenities that have reduced hunger in recent decades – improvements in farming, transportation and communications infrastructure – are severely missing in the four nations mentioned above.

This is the great tragedy in what these millions now face: it isn’t because of a lack of food only, but because human design has determined that it will leave hunger untreated until it reaches epidemic proportions, better known as famine. Who are we talking about here? Undoubtedly the governments of those regions haven’t been able to get their acts together, sometimes through corruption, tribalism or willful neglect. But another key component is us – prosperous and developed nations. When resources have been lacking to build the roads, buy the seeds, transport the yields and get them to markets, the UN has put out special appeals over the past few years, warning that if donor countries failed to respond that the inevitable results would be famine in these regions. The response has been so dismal by governments and their citizens that the food crisis prophesied has now come to pass.

Chris Hillbruner of the Famine Early Warning Systems Networks recently said plainly, “When the political will is there, everyone suddenly has access.” We know this to be true – it always has been – but the opposite has direct consequences: low political initiative leads to disaster. As UTNE Reader put it: “The Rich Get Richer; the Poor Go Hungry.”

The distinction between hunger and famine is vital for us to consider and understand. Almost one billion people in this world live in chronic hunger yet have enough to survive. They will experience poor health, disease, and high child mortality, but they can likely endure. Famine is different. People in such a condition don’t have enough food to survive and will soon enough perish, starting with the most vulnerable. Hunger is about surviving; famine is about death. That’s the distinction. The key is to keep people migrating from the former to the latter.

The cause of famine carries with it much more human design than we might care to admit. Yes, there are the civil wars, corruption and other domestic failures that keep people from getting the nourishment they require to live. But then there are those individuals, groups and nations that refuse to provide the required resources to keep families falling from hunger into famine. These two dimensions, regional and global, when combined, lead to the crisis that the UN is now alerting us to.

One of the great tragedies of famine, as Oxfam continues to remind us, is that if we wait until famine is declared to respond, it is too late. That’s the reason the UN provides advance warnings. But what happens if the response isn’t sufficient? We are now about to find out.

Our family has worked in South Sudan for 18 years and at no time has it been easy. Yet our women’s initiatives and education programs have progressed even during times of great civil war. But this past January, with no fighting occurring in the Aweil East region where we work, the threat of famine entered the area and everyone knew what it meant. What war, tribal divisions, hunger, lack of medical services, the recruiting of child soldiers (including girls), too many deaths in childbirth, and lack of rain couldn’t accomplish, famine can now succeed through the perishing of these remarkable survivors themselves. It is enough to induce heartbreak, as it has done many times.

This is what constitutes the ultimate tragedy wrought by famine – it destroys hope by obliterating the people themselves. Eventually deaths of such magnitude will dislocate much of world unless the nations and peoples of the world respond. This isn’t a question of merit but of life and death. The call for assistance went out two years ago. We can now only pray for two things: enough time to respond and enough of the world to intervene and keep not just hope alive, but the very people themselves.

Read this post in its original National Newswatch format here.

Three Decades Away

My last blog post referred to a model undertaken by a research organization concluding that if nothing is done to alter the present situation that the world will be in a full-blown food crisis within 30 years. Considering that by mid-century global population will be close to 10 billion, it’s not too difficult to envision what a food crisis will do to the poorest around the world.

Almost two years ago a powerful gathering of politicians, NGOs, business leaders, university professors, and scientists got together and developed some long-term plans for dealing with the issue. Most notable were the efforts of Cargill, a multinational agriculture business, and the World Wildlife Fund partnered together to move the issue forward. Key to it all, they concluded, will be the closing if three significant gaps:

  • The Knowledge Gap: The public- and private-sector should develop a real-time global food security dashboard that allows decision-makers to detect and address disruptions to the global food system before they occur.
  • The Productivity Gap: Public, private and multilateral actors must invest to increase agricultural productivity in low-income countries, while minimizing its impact on the environment.
  • The Collaboration Gap: Global leaders must create specialized forums to improve decision-making in times of crisis, introduce coordinated long-term measures, and engage decision-makers from all sectors on global food security issues.

These are important concepts and ideas, but the problem, as ever, swirls around two key problems: who will pay for it all and will all these solutions actually be implemented after two decades of talking about them. Make no mistake: progress has been made. But we can’t inch our way forward on this – 2050 is roughly three decades away. Climate change will alter everything we know but its effect on food production could well be the most catastrophic. Everything from the spread of global disease through bad food to massive deaths through starvation, to nutritional adequacy will have to be faced.

The real issue for us now is not really how we can find solutions but will we? Not all of it is up to the big players. Greg McClinchey, and old friend from Ottawa days, responded to the previous post by noting:

“While population growth is something we all need to prepare for, we also need to remember that we already waste at least 27% of all the food we produce. Put another way, for every 100-acre field we grow, we waste 27 acres of production. My point is that we can help solve many of these problems with some action around our own table.”

That’s a good place for average citizens to start. Another friend, Leeanna Dawne Newton, put change easily within our reach: “If we all tried to take some initiative of sustaining our own selves in some capacity this could provide a solution in part to the impeding food shortage issue.”

These aren’t mere theories postulated by world leaders after meeting for a few days (important as that is), but practical ways of living and returning to the land as our own contribution to this massive global problem. As Phil Harding put it: “Everybody talks about population growth and its disastrous effect on climate change, food security and resource depletion, but nobody does anything about it.”

The time to move on this at all levels of humanity is now – 2050 is just around the corner.

A Crying Shame

“The waste of plenty is the resource of scarcity,” noted Thomas Love Peacock, and in Canada, right now, there is no better example of this than what we do with our food. If it’s true that we are what we eat, then it’s also true that we become what we toss out.

So, it’s only logical, then, that we grow a little troubled and philosophical upon discovering that each year Canadians throw out 200,000 tonnes of food into our landfills – $31 billion dollars worth. That’s $31 billions dollars of lost revenue – all at the same time that roughly 850,000 people turn to food banks for help each month. And it’s troubling to learn that 13% of Canadians lived in a constant state of food insecurity.

Or think of all this in another way: according to Cantech we lose 2% of our GDP each year to food waste. Adding fuel to the fire is Tommy Tobin’s observation, that $31 billion is greater than the combined GDP of the 29 poorest countries in the world.

It seems immoral and becomes increasingly so as we think of the amount of people in Canada who are food insecure. Why can’t we get our act together on this, say through solid food diversion programs practiced by numerous European countries? What does it say about how we value food, those in low-income, or ethical responsibility when 40% of all food in Canada is thrown into the garbage? Clearly we have some work to do – lots of work, in fact.

Fortunately, the National Zero Waste Council announced a National Food Waste Reduction Strategy a short while ago. It’s a great initiative but it requires support – from citizens, food companies, government, media, and producers, including farmers. The strategy suggests a national target of 50% food waste reduction by 2030. It also puts out another intriguing idea: use federal tax incentives to encourage businesses to donate their excess good food to charities instead of dumping it off at the landfill.

It’s important to realize that 50% of food waste is generated by consumers directly, so a lot of the needed change can start with us. Companies can enhance their infrastructure to begin diverting their food earlier in the process. Governments can help with legislation and resourcing. It can be a win-win-win.

The arrival of this initiative is welcome, but it comes at a time when we are already behind American and European efforts. There’s a lot of catching up to do, but at least with a national strategy we can now move quickly – if we wish to. Since we say we care about hungry families, and since we maintain that we are an ethical, value-driven people, we must do something.

“Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry,” Pope Francis said recently. And yet it’s more than that. It also about tossing out the better angels of our nature. We are better than this in our values and in our abilities, but not in our choices. That time has now come.

 

 

 

 

Want to Defeat Poverty? Take Time.

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ASKED BACK IN 2012 WHY POVERTY WAS SO ENTRENCHED in affluent societies around the world, President Barack Obama provided an answer that, while infuriating some social activists, actually gave hope to others. He simply said that it was time to apply “two-generation solutions.” He meant developing initiatives that affected both parents and their children as opposed to isolated programs that helped one but not the other. And such policies would take time to develop to be effective, he believed.

We don’t really want to hear this because those enduring grinding poverty require quick alleviation of their distressing circumstances. We want to believe that through good-hearted actions that we create paths to escape from poverty’s hold. I wrote a blog post last week concerning how communities must bring their various anti-poverty initiatives together in order to begin this process, but we must come to terms with the reality that they will never be enough. They are vital efforts at galvanizing a community around the challenges of low-income, mental illness, the gender bias of poverty, hunger, and early development. Without them, every community would lose focus on those struggling to make ends meet.

But surely we can’t settle for the belief that donated food supplies are the ultimate answer for eradicating hunger, or that temporary shelters are the solution for the housing crisis, can we? Food banks, hostels, school breakfast programs, donated furniture or articles of clothing – examples like these are what keep citizens engaged, but they can never replace having a good job, a safe place to live, the income to purchase food for the family, or dedicated services to help someone through the difficult journey of mental illness. All the charity in the world will never be truly effective unless it leads to systems change. And for that, we require governments at all levels to up their game for poverty reduction – something that we’ll cover in the next post.

It remains vital to reform systems because those suffering in poverty or homelessness struggle far more against prevailing customs and system indifference than they do hunger, unemployment, or stigmatization. Virtually every person in poverty has had to learn to navigate economic, political, judicial, educational, and democratic system obstruction in order to survive and hopefully prevail. Hunger is real. The lack of shelter is real. Gender bias is real. But they became prevalent because systems couldn’t summon the courage to tackle them.

And if you want to reform systems, then be prepared to fight for a few decades – for perhaps two generations, as Obama notes. It will require healthy investments in early learning and childcare, post-secondary education, healthy communities, productive paths to employment, plenty of social capital, a democracy that includes all, roads to defeating endemic racism, secure housing, and all those facets of community life that lead to a productive future for all. There is just no way a single community, populated by remarkably generous citizens, can accomplish all this without proper policies, decisive decision-making, and resources that can only come from government levels.

Poverty didn’t suddenly arise because some people had money and others didn’t. Prevailing systems exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor. They refused to close the gap between women and men for equal pay for equal work. They legislated decisions that saw those suffering a mental illness being taken care of in hospital emergency rooms instead of in dedicated facilities that provided the kind of wrap-around supports that guided patients through a journey that leads to independence and success.

It is time that we added democratic conviction to community compassion, and if we refuse to bring that about, then poverty will prevail over our neighbourhoods and cities for decades to come. We have to stop maintaining that we are “affluent” societies when we tolerate child poverty at such high rates. There’s nothing affluent about living on a street where citizens can’t afford their own food, or where able-bodied women and men can’t find a career path. There’s nothing affluent about living in a neighbourhood where the colour of a person’s skin determines their prospects for opportunity.

We are either all in this together, or we will slowly come apart – as we have been doing for the last few decades. Canadians are a good people and can be counted on to share of their bounty. But goodwill can never eradicate poverty. Only equal opportunity for all can do that. And for that, we require legislation, more inclusive policies, dedicated politicians, and a democratic system that will fight just as vigilantly for every person to gain prosperity as it does for every citizen to secure the right to vote.

Gandhi once said that poverty is the worst form of violence, and he was right. Supporting systems that keep people in poverty is equally as dispiriting as relegating them to chains. This is not the Canada we want, and if we want to change we must begin by listening to those who have survived the systems of diminishment and yet still strive for a better life. Let’s take the time to do it right by listening to them and build an equitable society that refuses to compromise the most vulnerable among us.

Poverty’s Problem is Division, Not Addition

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IN ITS OWN WAY, THE LONDON FOOD BANK’S fall food drive turned out to be a remarkable initiative. With donations up significantly over last year’s effort, it was tempting to think that citizens were in a more generous mood than last year. It’s true, they were, but the real story was what it was that put them in such a mood.

While totals donated to food drives tend to decline over the years, yearly givings go up as citizens increasingly take advantage of dropping off their donations at grocery stores across the city. Food drives often have to compete with other interests when it comes to capturing media attention, but this Thanksgiving it was these other avenues that created the context for a terrific food drive.

Over the summer and into the fall, the Poverty Over London social media campaign has relentlessly reminded the community of poverty’s grip in our midst by putting out posts full of data and the personal stories of those fighting to make ends meet. It has been a remarkable campaign that has subtly entered into the community conversation because of its consistent presence online.

The opposite held true for the string of London Free Press stories by local reporter Jennifer O’Brien – articles that ran over the course of a couple of weeks and directly confronted Londoners. They didn’t settle comfortably into the background but brought the tragedy of poverty directly to the attention of readers. Written in a way that spoke directly to the situation, they were nevertheless drew the community into the personal stories that filled the columns.

And then there was the launch of the London Community Foundation’s Vital Signs report. These come out every two years and help to define the stark challenges confronting the city when it comes to helping those on the margins. For the next two years the foundation’s focus will be on the gaps that persistently plague mental health services in the community. A big part of the report talks about the link between mental illness and poverty. Statistics were released showing that in cities across the country, a range between 23% and 67% of those who were homeless report struggling with mental illness. And on any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems. For such struggling individuals, poverty is a constant companion.

All this was transpiring as the London Food Bank worked through its ten-day drive. In effect, these efforts provided a context, a broader awareness, of poverty’s hold on our city. It was the confluence of all these efforts, informing Londoners all at the same time, which made the London Food Bank’s effort so successful. In previous years, the food drive often happened in isolation, fighting, as it often did, against bad weather, poor coverage, or the occasional election. But this year it all came together. Despite the fact that all these efforts occurred at the same time, each enforced the other, providing depth and context, presenting the face of poverty in different hues, and layers, and shades. The sum total became far greater than all the parts and the community responded by upping its game.

Often, community agencies focus their efforts on singular efforts to raise their totals of funds and resources. Generous citizens, businesses, and organizations respond, but the overall effort is diversified to the degree that the many complexities of poverty rarely appear in the same events. Citizens respond to homelessness, hunger, mental illness, addictions, violence against women, and many other dimensions that make up the depth of poverty, but which rarely get presented as a complete picture.

All too often we believe poverty’s solutions require more: more money, more housing, more understanding, more empathy, more food, more financing. All of this is true, but the greatest obstacle to defeating poverty is the various divisions in every community that all too often fail to come together in a universal effort to redefine a city, a province, a country. That means combining everything from the non-profit to the start-up sector, the Chamber of Commerce to the social agencies, the media to the hospital and educational institutions. For that to happen, however, it will take citizens demanding better of their institutions and themselves.

The recent food drive showed just how motivated citizens can become when they are stimulated and educated on multiple levels. As long as sectors manage poverty instead of coming together and defeating it, the story will continue to be the same. When they are combined, however, even to a certain degree, as they did last week in London, Ontario, and we discover that within our own generation, poverty can be defeated.

Yet it will take more than collaboration or charitable actions from our communities. The problem ultimately lies in one of the most divided of all sectors: government. Next time we will take a look at how all three levels of government can shift the dynamic and add policy to the compassion of communities to make it work.

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