Time for a fundamental rethink

Short-term fixes alone for the financial crisis will not be enough, which is why we will also contin

No matter which direction you turn at the moment, the headlines are dominated by the financial crisis and price rises across the board. We’ll all have to tighten our belts and the 13 million people who live in poverty in the UK will be particularly hard hit. Oxfam is working with other organisations to help them cope.

From a global perspective, the picture is even bleaker. According to the latest figures, the food crisis has resulted in an extra 119 million malnourished people, bringing the total to almost one billion - nearly one in seven people now goes hungry. This is hunger on so vast a scale that it is difficult to understand how the world arrived at this point.

For some people, the price of absolute basics like bread and cereal has tripled this year. When you’re already spending three-quarters of what you earn on food and then the price triples, what can you do to survive?

That’s why we’re launching a report report and appeal today for an extra £15m to help our critical humanitarian work on food and agriculture. At a time when the US government will – almost overnight – grant enough money to its financial institutions to end world poverty for two years, it is only through people helping others through this time of crisis that we will be able to save the lives of thousands of people around the world on the brink of starvation.

In the past month, I’ve visited several countries hit by the crisis. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rise in food prices is exacerbating an already-dire situation. Reduced food rations are contributing to a rise in sexual violence – a problem already very severe within DRC (as an aside, our upcoming exhibition on the South Bank by photographer Rankin captures the resilience and courage of people in DRC beautifully).

My visit to Malawi was happier as I saw that the government has done the right thing by investing in small farmers and indeed some areas have enjoyed food surpluses in the past few years as a result. There are still pockets of severe food insecurity, with some people still only eating one meal per day, but the country as a whole is less vulnerable as a result of good governance.

The story doesn’t stop there, though. Short-term shocks inevitably come with long-term consequences. Some children who aren’t eating properly now will feel the effects for a lifetime; others will be taken out of school so their parents can spend the money on food or crop fertilisers, perhaps never returning to the classroom; enterprising women and men who are forced to sell their businesses may jeopardise their source of income for years to come.

Short-term fixes alone for this crisis will not be enough, which is why we will also continue to campaign for changes to the flawed trade and agricultural policies that have left poor farmers vulnerable. Increased investment in agriculture in the long term is vital to address the underlying problems.

The international community’s response to the crisis has been inadequate, both in terms of the amount of aid promised and its coordination. At an emergency meeting in Rome earlier this year, $12.3bn was pledged for the food crisis, but little more than $1bn has so far seen the light of day.

The UN’s proposal to tackle the problem (dubbed the Comprehensive Framework for Action) is good in principle, but there is still not clear leadership in terms of actually making it happen. Instead, poor countries are bombarded with proposals and asked to produce multiple plans for different donors. What is required is immediate emergency relief and a single international response, coordinated by the UN, to what we see as the most severe threat to the greatest number of people in recent history.

With clear international leadership from the UN and a groundswell of support from ordinary people around the world, we can help almost a billion people begin the journey from the point of crisis to a brighter future.

Barbara Stocking is director of Oxfam