Ending hunger: The case for going small in a big way

by 26th May 2015
Maka Ali, a widow in Niger, holding sorghum. During her life, four of her children have died at an early age. "I was alone taking care of them, so I cannot say their deaths weren't related to lack of food," she says. Maka Ali, a widow in Niger, holding sorghum. During her life, four of her children have died at an early age. "I was alone taking care of them, so I cannot say their deaths weren't related to lack of food," she says.

The global food system has failed. Almost two billion people are malnourished. In 2014, 161 million children were stunted because they did not get proper nutrition. At the same time, enormous amounts of food are lost post-harvest, or go to waste in the richer world.

It is clear, then, that the system cannot be fixed simply by producing more food. Global trade, as it works today, and increased productivity will not by itself make chronic hunger a thing of the past. Nor can we ignore the fact that climate change is making agriculture and access to food more difficult for those very people who are already struggling the most to stay healthy and alive.

In order to ensure that enough food is available to everyone – in a way that is sustainable and does not deprive people of dignity – we need to look at how food is produced and utilised.

Put communities in charge

CARE believes that a significant part of the solution is to put poor and vulnerable communities in charge of their own development. It is ironic that the majority of hungry people around the world are smallholder farmers. They need the means to adapt to a changing climate. They need effective tools, better information and more say in political decisions. They seldom lack the ideas or the will to contribute to change, but they do lack opportunities to plan and influence.

We are working with these communities in a variety of ways to make this possible. Some methods are new and innovative. Others build upon the ways people traditionally have coped in difficult environments. We want to find and develop the best ideas for how to eradicate hunger, and we are delighted that this was the topic of the World Expo 2015 in Milan last week (19 May).

Opportunities for women

Whatever method will work best, we do know that knowledge and organisation will be key. That is how the potential of people unfolds. Much of CARE’s work to promote food and nutrition security is based on this basic truth: people can achieve more working together than separately. Equal opportunities for women and men is another key factor. Most smallholder farmers are women, but they frequently lack the right to own property, making investments impossible.

In 1991, CARE got together with women in poor villages in Niger and pioneered what have come to be known as Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs). Today, these groups have millions of members around the world where people have no other access to basic financial services such as safely putting away money, taking out small loans to make investments and buying insurance. It is the members who run the groups. It is they who provide each other with opportunities. Importantly, the vast majority of members are women. Through group activities women are able to demonstrate the difference they can make, thereby changing gender norms and dynamics for the better.

Savings groups connect communities

The VSLAs are the most effective channels through which CARE works with local communities. They are conduits for information, platforms for training opportunities and exchange of ideas. In Bangladesh, Niger, Ghana, Kenya and Mozambique, CARE has helped establish early warning systems and ensure access to weather information, enabling communities and local governments to reduce the risk of food insecurity. We train local volunteers to measure how well different adaptive practices work and to share the information, thus ensuring that community members are at the heart of monitoring and decision-making. CARE aggregates data at district, national and global levels to analyse how groups progress over time.

The Farmer Field and Business School (FFBS) is another information-sharing initiative that has succeeded in increasing smallholder women farmers’ productivity and profitability. Groups of 25-30 farmers meet regularly to experiment and learn about new methods of production and marketing. In Mozambique, groups have seen up to 400% increase in yields from farms. 50,000 women have managed to increase their income by a total of $3.9 million.

The business case for putting communities first

CARE’s Adapatation and Learning Programme shows that for every dollar invested in putting local communities at the centre of planning for resilience to climate change, communities and governments see four dollars in return. And according to the World Bank, removing gender-related constraints on women farmers would increase agricultural production in developing countries by up to 4%.

Improved and cheaper technologies are continuously creating opportunities to explore new ideas and scale up initiatives that work well. We have the means to make chronic hunger history within the next 15 years, but this will require development organisations, governments and the private sector to work together to put vulnerable communities at the heart of their efforts.