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We Need to Break Africa's Hunger Cycle

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Harne Waddaye, a 60-year-old grandmother, digs for food in the bare earth outside the small village of Louga in the African country of Chad. She is not digging for wild roots or for ones she has planted. She is raiding ant nests for the grain they have stored. The few grains she is able to gather will go along with the leaves from trees her daughter collects to feed her four children and six grandchildren. It is a meagre fare.

She is one of the 18 million people at risk of a severe hunger across a band of Africa that stretches thousands of miles from Senegal in the west to Chad in the very centre of the continent - a distance equivalent to the journey from San Francisco to New York.

This year has been a bad year with little rain. The year before last was also bad year and five years ago similarly bad. But even in good years women like Harne resort to raiding ant nests to feed their families during the 'hungry season' when food is short. This exceptional act is the norm for many in this part of Africa.

In a world where there is more than enough food to feed everyone we have to ask ourselves why we allow this to happen and more importantly what we need to do to end it.

The world knows what to do in the short term to save lives and what to do in the long term to secure people's livelihoods. The tragedy it that is fails to do it.

For the short term we need to act quicker on the warning signs. A report by Oxfam and Save the Children on last year's East African food crisis showed that thousands of lives were lost due to the slow response to that catastrophe. Acting early to save lives makes moral sense but it also makes economic sense. During the 2004-5 food crisis in Niger the UN's humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland, pointed out that when the warning signs began it cost $1 per day to save a child from malnutrition but when the crisis was in full swing it cost $80 a day. Given that there is rightly such political concern that we get the most from every aid dollar spent it is perverse that politicians are so reluctant to act sooner.

A swift response is necessary but not enough. We need better leadership and coordination but there are deeper issues to tackle as well. For too long emergency aid has been coloured by the interests of the donors. We need to base our aid on the level of need not television exposure or foreign policy interests. Aid has also been far too much driven by giving people things that we have at hand. This is very much the case in some of the supply driven food aid. As humanitarians we need to listen to people more and work with them to come up with aid that is geared to their needs.

In the long term we need to break the hunger cycle so that women like Harne no longer rely on raiding ants nests. We will not be able to make it rain but we can help people build their own ability to withstand crises and look after their families without needing help from outside. In the aid world we call this resilience, but essentially all it comes down to is building a strong society and economy.

For the Sahel region this means dealing with problem of volatile food prices. In many markets food is available but due to high prices it is out of reach of poor people. Developing food reserves in vulnerable regions will not only get food rapidly to where it is needed it will also help governments in those areas step in to bring down prices before a crisis develops.

Added to action on food prices we also need to help the most vulnerable through programmes which provide social safety nets. These guarantee a level of income to those in dire need. Giving people money instead of food or goods it a hand up not a hand out, it gives them the ability to choose what they need and puts them in the driving seat.

Finally there needs to be much more investment in producing food and moving away from a focus on the export of cash crops. Investing in small scale food producers not only increases the amount of food available it also builds the income of the producers themselves. Back in 2003 all African governments agreed to investing 10% of their budgets on agriculture, very few have ever achieved this.

The big challenge though is politics. Politicians may be battered by events but essentially they choose whether or not to tackle the scourge of global hunger. The choice is theirs. David Cameron's nutrition summit is a welcome sign that hunger may be moving up the political agenda. Next year's G8, chaired by the UK, is a real opportunity to act.