This is what a world without famine looks like

May 5, 2017

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  • Thanks to a Mercy Corps program in his village, Laminu, 33, is more resilient and better prepared for Niger’s hunger season. Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.

The ravages of famine can be seen on every horizon in South Sudan: in burned-out villages, abandoned fields, and in the fragile bodies of children without enough to eat.

A solution is harder to see, though you can find the beginnings of one more than 1,000 miles away, in a dusty yard in southern Niger, where a quiet farmer named Laminu gathers water.

Laminu is one of the most vulnerable people on earth—a sub-Saharan pastoralist—and his country, Niger, is one of the world’s poorest. Yet today his focus is on housework: sweeping his yard, cleaning dishes, watering his animals—simple tasks that keep his household running and which, unbeknownst to him, could have an impact on one of the world’s gravest food emergencies.

When Laminu wakes up in the morning, 18-year-old Dominga is going to bed on the other side of the world. Dominga’s small town in Guatemala is bleeding talent: young people, fed up with the lack of opportunity, are leaving to find work in bigger cities or the United States.

Dominga’s family, like many others, is a farming family, and also like many others is extremely poor. So Dominga is learning to save money. She is in a savings group with other young people and is learning new farming techniques at a Mercy Corps demonstration plot. She is determined—unlike many of her peers—not to migrate, but instead wants to stay in her village and build a stable future as a doctor.

Guatemala and Niger are not at risk of famine, but areas near Dominga and Laminu are experiencing crisis levels of hunger. Poverty and need are widespread, as they are in every place where hunger hides beyond the boundaries of famine. That’s why their small actions, when taken together, are so important.

Because the way to beat hunger doesn’t have anything to do with food.

A better path to food security

The actions 18-year-old Dominga is taking at home in the Guatemalan highlands could help fight hunger around the world. Corinna Robbins for Mercy Corps

Famine is threatening the lives of more than 20 million people in South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia. But there are 775 million people going hungry in every other country in the world, which means for most people, the question of how to get enough to eat is different than how to solve a famine. Yet the answer to both is similar.

There is enough food on earth to feed everyone, even with multiple hunger emergencies. If we want to build a world without famine, we have to think more broadly about hunger and more holistically about how to beat it. People don’t go hungry for lack of food, but because of the spread of conflict, the failures of governance and the grip of poverty.

“Hunger is like going to the doctor: You have to manage an immediate crisis, like a fever, which is a symptom of something more ingrained,” says Sanjay Gurung, director of governance and partnership at Mercy Corps. “But you can’t just not bother about the fever and treat something else—the fever can kill you. So what you have to do is manage the fever, but at the same time look at what the root cause is.”

By nature, famine response is mostly reactive. But long-term food security is proactive—it tries to get ahead of the problem by strengthening sectors like governance, peacebuilding and market development. It doesn’t look like traditional food aid, but like resilience: a young Guatemalan girl in a savings group, or a Nigerien farmer at a well.

In other words, it fights hunger by building the systems that help people withstand it.

“Virtually every humanitarian crisis represents some kind of failure,” says Brad Sagara, research and learning manager at Mercy Corps, “and building household and community resilience that reduces future humanitarian need can only be accomplished through activities that often go beyond the life of a single project.”

That means even little things like saving money, keeping a clean house, having access to markets and being part of a strong social community could transform someone's ability to cope with a food crisis.

Healthy market development, like this scene in Myanmar, is one of the most crucial ways to help families withstand a hunger crisis. Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps

On the surface, small actions like Laminu and Dominga’s don’t seem like much. But thanks to a Mercy Corps program in his village, Laminu’s wife is now exclusively breastfeeding their baby. They use a latrine, wash their hands regularly, and go to a local health center for treatment. As a result, his family is healthier, more resilient and more prepared for the hunger season than they were a year ago.

Dominga’s drive to save has made her family more prepared for a crisis, and her work at home is easing the burden on her mother and seven siblings. With that money, her family can invest back in their farm; with her new knowledge, they can grow more food. If Dominga stays home and opens a business, she might transform her entire city.

Played out around the globe, these small actions build larger systems that can lower hunger rates and make people less dependent on assistance. They will build a world without famine by building a world that can withstand it.

“In a food secure world, a family can earn enough income to not only feed the whole family but also feed them nutritious food, drink clean water, use sanitary latrines, and get health care so everyone can stay healthy and productive,” says Sasha Muench, senior director of markets, economic recovery and growth at Mercy Corps.

“From an economic development perspective, that means a person in a city has access to a job that pays a decent, living wage with enough security that he can meet his family’s needs and save for future emergencies. In a rural area, a farmer can buy affordable seeds, tools, and other inputs in a convenient place and time.”

Strong social communities, like this girls group facilitated by Mercy Corps in Iraq, are an important part of fighting hunger. Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

Evidence for the relationship between resilience and food security is already clear. In a Mercy Corps study this year on how pastoralists in Ethiopia withstood a recent drought, researchers found that people who had higher levels of resilience—that is, they could transport livestock to pasture, access water, and use financial resources to buy food and medicine—were more food secure, even during the worst drought in a generation.

“Every crisis is an opportunity to reinforce existing systems,” Sagara says, “rather than undermine them by direct delivery of food assistance, which does little for long term, sustainable development.”

We can solve hunger, little by little, when the world’s most vulnerable people have the tools to grow stronger. But in famine, they often don’t get the chance. Food is a matter of life or death, and having enough of it takes solutions that come from a much higher level.

That’s why, for millions of people today, the face of hunger doesn’t look like Dominga or Laminu.

It looks like Mariam.

A crisis of conflict

Mariam lived a quiet life in Syria until war forced her family to flee to Lebanon. Now she has to feed six people on $19 a month. “I didn’t want to bring a child into this miserable life,” she says. Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

Five years ago, Mariam and her kids lived a peaceful life in Syria in a home they built with their own hands. But war became too violent and soon forced them to flee, leaving everything behind. Today they are refugees in Lebanon, trying to make it each month on a food budget of $19.

“When I remember, I cry,” Mariam says.

“In Syria, I used to have a refrigerator and a washing machine and oven. I made the house based on what I wanted. Now I don't have any of this ... We live on the basics. We went back to basics and we have nothing. And even when we have something, it's not enough.”

Conflict is no longer just one driver of suffering and poverty around the world: According to the World Bank, it is now the primary driver. War has displaced more people than at any point in human history, forcing them to scrape together lives in refugee camps and foreign countries far from home.

Every country facing famine has conflict in common, but especially Yemen and South Sudan, which are wrapped in deadly wars.

“Conflict directly and indirectly impacts hunger across East Africa,” says Michael Bowers, Mercy Corps’ vice president for humanitarian leadership and response. “Not only do we need to address conflict where it is happening, but we also need to mitigate potential spillover effects that could further stress resource-strapped neighboring countries.”

Small conflicts can exacerbate hunger in stressed communities around the world. In this program in Myanmar, Mercy Corps works with local communities to settle disputes and mitigate conflict among different groups. Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps

Conflict is driving massive waves of hunger across Africa and the Middle East. But it can also have devastating effects on a local community level. When neighboring communities are in dispute, farmers like Laminu can’t access fields or water. They can’t grow the food they need to feed their families, or travel to markets to sell it for profit.

Mercy Corps works with communities to peacefully settle disputes so farmers have safe, guaranteed access to the resources they need.

“Violence often destroys farmland, but when there's peace, smallholder farmers can grow crops to feed their families without worrying that their harvest will be decimated by conflict,” says Joseph Bubman, senior peace and conflict advisor for Mercy Corps. “Communities can move freely to grow their crops, feed their livestock, and access markets.”

Resilience, governance, peacebuilding and market development form a proven strategy that can fight global hunger. Famine requires something more—it doesn’t have to be the world’s new reality, but we won’t solve it until we settle the conflicts that cause it.

That takes political solutions at the highest levels, and a commitment to build a more peaceful world.

We believe that world is possible—a place where people have a voice in their community and the power to transform their own lives. Where governance is competent and fair. Where markets are healthy and functional. Where families are more resilient.

Where Mariam is back home, Dominga is at work, and Laminu is ready for the dry season.

We can build a world without famine—by building a better world for them.

How you can help

Great progress has been made to alleviate hunger around the world, but there is still so much work to be done. We need your help.

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us meet urgent food needs and help families around the world build a stronger, healthier future.
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