Barry Coates: We should strive for food-aid gold

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Millions go hungry while we celebrate Olympic success, writes Barry Coates.

The Olympics were a fantastic experience - a celebration of human achievement and a reminder of our common humanity across the world. In the afterglow, we have the opportunity to reflect.

While we stayed up into the wee hours to watch the rowing, people in some other countries have no TV and often no home. Millions are going hungry. It seems remote, but there are connections in our global world.

Price spikes, compounded by climate change, biofuels subsidies, land grabs and profiteering speculators, have driven the cost of staple foods out of reach of ordinary people.

In New Zealand, we feel the pinch at the supermarket checkout. In the Sahel region of Africa, these factors, combined with successive poor rains and harvests, have meant 18 million people cannot afford to buy enough food.

Last year, in Kenya during the peak of the Horn of Africa food crisis, I saw what the generosity of Kiwis could achieve: access to life-saving clean water and sanitation; malnourished children fed; people paid for helping their communities, injecting cash back into economies; and people assisted in surviving not only the immediate crisis, but in building resilience to future ones.

Our newspapers and television brought news of the burgeoning crisis. Kiwis cared and responded.

This year, the media is much quieter, but the silence belies the depth of the crisis unfolding across the Sahel region in countries like Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania. They face the double threat of poor harvests and out-of-control food prices.

It is a familiar story. Drought is inevitable, but hunger is man-made, and so are the solutions. With investment in the long-term resilience of these communities we can break this cycle of extreme hunger, and save lives. The good news is, we know how to do this. We need to act quicker on the warning signs. A report by Oxfam and Save the Children on last year's Horn of Africa food crisis showed thousands of lives were lost because of the slow response.

A swift response is necessary but not enough. Better leadership and co-ordination is a start, but there are deeper issues. 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.

In the long term we need to break the hunger cycle. 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.

It essentially means building strong communities and better understanding of how to cope with crises, along with improvements in infrastructure, like water harvesting, and emergency help when needed.

For the Sahel region this also means dealing with volatile food prices. In many markets food is available but people can't afford it. 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.

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.

In 2003 all African governments agreed to investing 10 per cent of their budgets on agriculture - very few have achieved this.

Oxfam is scaling up Cash For Work projects in Niger that take into account the dual needs of short-term assistance with long-term resilience.

Son Allah Maitchangal, 45, is one of the recipients. He is being paid to help reclaim 200ha of land degraded by flash floods. Son Allah makes half-moon shaped irrigation channels so when the next rainy season arrives, rain water will be trapped and forced to permeate the soil rather than run off. In doing so, it helps replenish the water table and facilitates regeneration of vegetation and agricultural land. It's a two-fold solution; 83 vulnerable households have income, and it helps protect the environment, creating resilience for the future.

Politics is a fundamental part of the solution. Politicians may be battered by events but essentially they choose whether or not to tackle the scourge of global hunger.

It's right to question whether or not governments, including our own, are doing all they can.

Whether the Sahel remains in a cycle of under-investment, chronic vulnerability and late response to crises, or whether that cycle can be broken with more progressive and rational investments, is the challenge we share.

* Barry Coates is executive director of Oxfam New Zealand.

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