Opinion: Ending famines and chronic hunger requires good governance

Farmers evaluating traits of wheat varieties in Ethiopia. Photo by: J.van de Gevel / Bioversity International / CC BY-NC-ND

The United Nations’ urgent call in February for hunger relief for 20 million people in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria has drawn the world’s attention to the connection between conflict and hunger. While there is no doubt that armed conflicts are a main driver of these hunger crises, more mundane problems such as bad governance and poor public policies also leave many with insufficient access to food and demand attention. Food shortages in peaceful places such as Malawi and Zimbabwe illustrate that good governance, like peace, is a precondition for preventing famine.

The historical examples of Bangladesh and Ethiopia provide valuable insight into how to combat chronic hunger through principled governance and sound policies. Both countries previously experienced recurrent famines, but in more recent years have made tremendous progress in reducing the threat of hunger for their populations. While many in both countries still face serious hunger and malnutrition challenges, their success in reducing the worst hunger problems demonstrates that government investments in the right areas and programs — and policies that allow for growth — can increase food security and prevent famine.

In the early 1970s both Bangladesh and Ethiopia were internationally infamous for crippling famines and widespread malnutrition. Like today’s worst hunger crises, violence and civil unrest contributed, but so too did underinvestment in the economy in general — and in agriculture, roads, and public services in particular.

Beginning in the 1980s in Bangladesh and the early 2000s in Ethiopia, however, large-scale public and private investments in agricultural research and extension and the promotion of fertilizer use led to substantial gains in cereal production and the availability of food. Infrastructure investments such as expanding road networks helped effectively move crops from farms to markets. All together these investments helped smallholder farm households share in the gains from higher yields and production, raising their incomes and access to food. Rural nonfarm and urban incomes also rose due in part to multiplier effects of increased farm household spending, further extending the gains and reducing risks of hunger and malnutrition.

But not everyone in Bangladesh and Ethiopia could benefit from increased farm productivity. So to improve food security for their most vulnerable populations, each country has established successful social protection programs. In Bangladesh, the government utilized both domestic resources and food aid (from the United States, as well as other countries) to provide food to needy households through the well-targeted programs of Food For Work and Food For Education. And in recent years, programs on Maternal and Child Health Education have led to substantial improvements in nutrition for undernourished children. In Bangladesh, stunting for children under 5 years old fell from 72 percent in the early 1990s to 36 percent by 2015; in Ethiopia, stunting rates fell from 57 percent in the early 2000s to 40 percent by 2015.

Similar programs in Ethiopia have likewise reduced the worst risks of hunger. Since the early 2000s, the country’s Productive Safety Net Program has largely replaced annual appeals for emergency food aid with well-targeted system of transfers of food and/or cash to needy households, linked to a work requirement for able-bodied individuals. PNSP projects include terrace building to reduce erosion and maintenance of roads. More recently, the PSNP has also been expanded to address nutritional needs of mothers and children through maternal education and other nutrition programs.

Not all improvements to food security require large government investments, however. Changes to policies that impact foods can either exacerbate or relieve food shortages. Ethiopia’s 1984 famine was substantially worsened by government restrictions on transport of grain across regional boundaries by private sector traders. Similarly today, the government of Malawi’s attempt to stabilize maize prices by placing an export ban on the staple crop denied potential income for local farmers and raised costs of imported maize in neighboring countries.

Ethiopia in 2016 provides an instructive contrast. Following substantial market liberalization in the 1990s, private sector grain flows of maize from western Ethiopia helped stabilize prices in the drought-affected highlands of eastern Ethiopia. Government commercial imports of wheat combined with increased food aid (distributed through additional PSNP wheat transfers, as well as market sales) also contributed to increased availability of grain. Ultimately, as a result of these earlier medium-term investments and current short-run policy measures, Ethiopia to a large extent escaped the severe food shortages that have affected nearby Eastern African countries (although recent droughts in the far eastern portion of the country has devastated livestock populations there).

Of course, none of these policies and investments will be effective in substantially improving food security without an end to armed conflict. Food security is possible for the people of South Sudan, Somalia and other drought affected regions, but only once peace and security are restored.

In the short term, food aid and targeted relief programs are also badly needed. Food and other development aid provided by the United States, other western countries, the World Bank and other organizations played an important role in the achievements of both Bangladesh and Ethiopia — and they are now crucial to improve food security and economic growth in countries currently facing food security crises. But the historical examples also provide strong evidence that long-term commitments of national governments to rural development and food security are just as, or even more, important.

Enhancing food security in Eastern Africa and elsewhere in the world will require a multi-faceted set of public and private investments, sound policies and targeted interventions for especially vulnerable households. The examples of Bangladesh and Ethiopia show it can be done.

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About the author

  • Paul Dorosh

    Paul A. Dorosh has been the division director of the International Food Policy Research Institute's development strategy and governance division since April 2011. His previous positions include IFPRI senior research fellow and program leader of the Ethiopia Strategy Support Program in Addis Ababa, senior economist at the World Bank, senior research fellow with IFPRI in Dhaka, Bangladesh and associate professor at Cornell University.