A New Perspective On The Problem Of Global Hunger

May 20th, 2013


flickr / chadskeers

The solutions to problems are often implicit in the way they are framed. If I tell you my car won’t start, you might tell me to consult a mechanic. If, on the other hand, I tell you I can’t find my keys, well, we have a completely different problem. In public policy, frames can often conflate symptoms with causes, other times, such as with the example I gave, they just obscure a possible solution.

But frames turn out to be fundamentally important to the problems’ solutions. As Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

As a report recently released by Christian Aid shows, this is the case with world hunger. One of every eight people in the world—that’s nearly 868 million people—are hungry. This number has come down a bit over the last few years, down from a high of 1.02 billion in 2009 and 925 million in 2010. Of course, we’re still a long way off from meeting the United Nation’s 2001 Millennium Development Goal of eradicating hunger. Specifically, the organization hoped—and still hopes—to halve, between 1990 and 2015, the number of people who suffer from hunger.

Depending on how you frame the question of world hunger you might get a different answer. For example, you might say flood and droughts ruin crops and lead to shortages of food in many parts of the world and that, with climate change, these problems will get worse. Well then, I might reply that we need to address carbon emissions (in the long-term) and improve barriers to trade in food commodities between regions in the short. Suppose, on the other hand, you told me that subsidies for biofuels have encouraged the proliferation of large-scale cash-crop plantations, pushing small-scale farmers off the land, and pushed up the prices of important dietary grains. Well then I might respond we need to rethink our subsidy schemes. We could also address investments in farmers, conflicts, corruption, and women’s cooperatives, and food aid. Each frame would have a different solution.

Indeed all of these issues are relevant in world hunger. But so–as the Christian Aid report I referred to earlier shows–is another one. Provided you frame the question correctly. Here it is. Another way to frame the problem is that developing countries do not have adequate resources to combat hunger. This frame begs for a different solution. It compels us to as, “So how could developing countries ensure they do have sufficient resources?” One answer, as Christian Aid points out, is tax revenue.

Christian Aid estimates that businesses that exploit opaque trade and financial systems “deprive poor countries where they trade of some $160 billion in tax revenue every year—far more than those countries receive in aid.” Compare this figure to $50.2 billion, the yearly (additional) total the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently as the cost of creating a “world free from hunger” by 2025.

In addition to examining this problem on a global scale, the report also looks at the impact of tax dodging on three countries in the developing world: India, Ghana and El Salvador. These countries are prime illustrations of the report’s message because they have “economies strong enough to put them in the middle income bracket, but where malnutrition remains rife.” In a survey of more than 1,500 multinationals, Christian Aid finds that “those with subsidiaries and/or shareholders in tax havens paid on average 28.9 percent less tax per unit of profit than those without such links. In India the figure rose to 30.3 percent.”

Of course, every country experiences malnutrition in a unique way and this solution is by no means “one size fits all.” A full 19 million of the world’s hungry live in developed countries; many others live in countries with corruption so rampant that an increase in tax revenue would not necessarily improve the experience of the poorest citizens. Like any other proposed solution to the problem of hunger, this one does not exist in a vacuum. The other frames are relevant as well.

Nonetheless, the Christian Aid report provides us with a new perspective on one of the world’s most endemic, and critical, problems. Which is exactly what we need, for without the right perspective, we will not find the right solution.

Attribution Some rights reserved by chadskeers

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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