WORLDWIDE HUNGER MORE A POLITICAL PROBLEM THAN A SUPPLY PROBLEM, STUDY FINDS
COLUMBUS, Ohio - The key to helping developing countries with hungry populations is not just providing more food - it is eliminating war and providing stable, democratic governments.
A new study of 53 developing countries with populations over 1 million found that high levels of child hunger in these countries was linked most to high levels of internal war and violence, political repression, high levels of arms trade, and population pressures. Food imports from governments and charities in the United States and elsewhere seem to do some good, but their effects are modest when compared to political factors affecting the countries.
"Hunger is largely a political issue."
Jenkins said the current situation in Afghanistan is a good example.
"Years of war and Taliban rule have all contributed to a major hunger problem in Afghanistan," Jenkins said. "Creating a stable government and institutions is as important as providing food in terms of eliminating hunger in Afghanistan."
Jenkins conducted the study with Stephen Scanlan, a former Ph.D. student at Ohio State who is now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Memphis. Their results were published in recent issues of the American Sociological Review and International Studies Quarterly.
The researchers used a variety of sources, most from the United Nations, to see which factors affected both food supply and the percentage of children under age 5 who are of healthy weight. They used data from 1988 to 1992, the most recent available.
Results showed that internal violence in the countries - such as civil wars - had the greatest effects on levels of child hunger, Jenkins said. Closely related were findings that political democratization helped reduce child hunger rates, as did lower levels of international arms trade.
Often, internal violence in the countries studied was the result of ethnic conflicts in which some minority groups faced high levels of inequality and discrimination, he said.
"Political discrimination and internal violence against minorities or other groups is one key to the persistence and increase in child hunger rates," he said.
In countries without stable democratic governments, food is often used as a method of control by political leaders or by warring factions, according to Jenkins. In these cases, food is often not distributed to people who need it the most.
Some researchers have argued that democratization can actually increase hunger in some cases because it can be politically destabilizing. However, Jenkins said this study does not support that view. "We found that political democratization encourages economic growth and improvements in basic needs," he said. "We need more democracy, not less."
The study also found that high levels of child hunger were linked to population pressures created by high fertility levels and rapid growth in populations. "This suggests that improving women's status through education and employment opportunities should be central to improving both food supply and child hunger rates," he said.
Many researchers have argued that international food imports from developed countries - no matter how well-intentioned - may actually harm less-developed countries by making them dependent on foreign food. Jenkins said results from this study suggest that international food imports do increase the food supply, but do not have a major effect on child hunger rates. However, he said the data does not separate food that is sold to countries from that is donated as aid.
"At the very least, food imports are not harmful, as some people have suggested," Jenkins said. "It may be that if we could separate the various forms of food imports we would find that food aid - food that is donated -- actually does help reduce hunger. However, the results suggest that international food imports must be better targeted to address underlying hunger problems."
Overall, the study shows that reducing hunger throughout the world is more than just a question of agricultural and economic development, according to Jenkins.
"Hunger is also a distributional problem, and the obstacles to improved distribution are primarily political," he said. "Conflict regulation, violence prevention, the reduction of international arms trade, and the protection of civil and political rights should be central to policies that address hunger."
The study was supported by the National Science Foundation, Ohio State's Mershon Center for International Security, and the Dean's Distinguished Fellowship from Ohio State's graduate school, given to Scanlan.