Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Scenes of Hunger, Scenes of Plenty! - What Solution?

Extreme Hunger in Turkana
What a contrast? While some parts of Kenya, particularly Turkana and Northern Eastern province, people are dying of hunger, in some areas in the country farmers do not know what to do with bumper harvest that is rotting in the farms and fed to livestock. Why should a Kenyan die of hunger while food is in plenty in other parts of the country? Well, the weather cannot be blamed this time round. Distribution logistics seems to be the culprit. The current hunger problem could easily be solved with the movement of food from areas with plenty to those that are in need. However, the big question is how to achieve that? In a normal situation, the market should be able to facilitate the movement of food to areas with high demand. However, from two perspectives - the Market and Humanitarian perspectives - this is not happening seen.

Rotting Cabbages and Potatoes in Central Kenya
The market operates on demand and supply principles. In the areas with high supply, the demand is low. That is why the food is left to rot or is given to overfed livestock. On the other hand, in the areas with high demand, the supply is lacking. That is why people are dying every day. From an economic and market perspective this is not a problem because the food should be able to flow from the areas of high supply to the areas of high demand. So what is the missing link?

In my opinion, the missing link is what I call lack of "distribution stimuli". A stimulus is something that rouses or accelerates action, feeling, or thought. It’s also something that provokes response. For the market to respond, hunger and death is not enough. The market is roused by the opportunity for monetary and economic gains. This is absent in a situation where the people dying of hunger lack purchasing power. Hence, from an economic and market perspective the problem of distribution is basically the lack of purchasing power. Of course, other factors such as insecurity and lack of infrastructure may play a role in hindering distribution but these are secondary and not primary. The purchasing power of the people living in the regions afflicted by hunger should be boosted in order to stimulate distribution. If there was money to make, merchants would quickly find a way to take food into these areas.

Lack of purchasing power condemns the people of Turkana and North Eastern of Kenya to the vagaries of humanitarian aid. It is a character of humanitarian aid not to move into an area before a catastrophe has happened. Before pictures of malnutrition and dying children and women flash around in the media, humanitarian aid will not mobilize. At the same time, the government will deny any presence of a crisis and the scale of humanitarian organizations’ response remains low. When humanitarian aid moves in, at last, the situation is usually out of hand. This is what is happening in country today. Humanitarian mobilization is in high gear but for many it comes too late.

When a crisis occurs, immediate humanitarian action is necessary to avert a serious catastrophe in the short-term. However, a long-term solution should be economic empowering for those affected so as to increase their purchasing power and stimulate distribution.

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