Silently starving

2013-03-08 00:00

WE all have experiences of food wastage. It happens at the source of production, during distribution and in our homes. The hospitality industry around the world is the main culprit. Millions of tons of food are dumped every year by both the developed and developing nations, unfortunately while many families go hungry on our door step.

Next time you lose your appetite after placing an order at a restaurant, think about this: our neighbours, Angola, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Lesotho, have declared chronic hunger for the past two years. Millions of children struggle to get enough food to survive the next day. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) has made an international plea to help countries in the SADC region that are facing chronic hunger. It is a humble plea that every one of us can respond to.

It has been reported that chronic hunger in southern Africa is overwhelming the coping mechanisms of hundreds of thousands of households. It is pushing thousands of people into negative strategies such as disposing of what few assets their households have. In the process, women and children are affected the most. Children are taken out of school and forced to work for food. Exploitation is taking its toll. In some cases, sex is being traded for food. There is evidence that many inhumane and exploitative things are happening in the name of securing a meal for the day.

Many of the causes can be traced back to decisions that have been taken in the past. I am talking about governance, political and economic decisions. All these countries have something in common. They have had their political freedom for quite some time and they have had some economic and political stability in the past. Many things can be said about them but blaming the system or the past will help no one. It is a real but silent disaster. It is made worse by recurrent drought-flood cycles, falling agricultural production and rising food prices. We cannot blame harsh weather events either. We simply have a bad situation.

Hundreds of thousands of children are malnourished, some acutely. Malnutrition has long-term effects for countries because the physical and cognitive development of children are affected, which has negative consequences for the education system. Skills required by the economy cannot be produced. The country eventually suffers a brain drain. It will not be competitive, and its political and social stability will be negatively affected. Survival and political wars may become the norm. There could be an exodus of millions to neighbouring countries, South Africa being one destination for refugees and for foreigners looking for a better life. In simple terms, chronic hunger reproduces poverty, social, political and economic instability in the region.

What can we do about it? Will foreign aid help? Africa as a continent has had unfortunate experiences with foreign aid. Foreign investments made in the past are unable to show an impact. I am very aware that such challenges attract political arguments about the nature of governance and leadership cultures in these nations, but this has gone beyond this point. The world has to come up with solutions for the consequences of those political and leadership decisions because there will be global collateral damage.

What can you do? This is the question posed by the IFRC. It has suggested emergency interventions based on the foreign aid tradition. In the short term like now, food distribution would provide immediate relief. The short-term solutions include supply of agricultural inputs, water and sanitation provision, and many other interventions associated with relief operations and sustainable livelihood development.

Why is this important to us? This reality in the SADC community is a reflection of what happens in some communities in our country. Many people are unaware of the effect of poverty that leads to malnutrition and all other social ills that come with it. It happens in different contexts in South Africa and is hardly picked up by the media.

This is also a warning to South Africa. It is a warning about destructive behaviour when it comes to resource wastage. Beyond food wastage, we have seen very bad behaviours associated with free basic services in many communities. Water taps are left running. Some people have other ways of consuming free electricity in perpetuity. Public institutions leave lights on over weekends and holidays. Chronic food shortage should bring a fresh perspective to how citizens should take responsibility when it comes to the use of services and broader development expectations. Let one teach the other to become responsible citizens. Avoiding wastage could have far reaching spin-offs like reducing the cost of living while preserving the environment for future generations. It is educational to our youth. It could also allow us to start giving to the needy, even beyond our borders.

• Nqe Dlamini is a rural development consultant.

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