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Hunger clings to South Asia

11147156_940897265962239_5433857062519144417_oThe huge, warm Dhaka University Hall is packed and vibrant with over a thousand guests from across South Asia on May 30. Bangladesh Prime Minister Hon’ble Sheikh Hasina MP herself just opened the regional conference.  A prominent government leader, her commitment to the right to food is a welcome shot in the arm, energizing us after a long wait in sweltering heat.

The Food and Agriculture Organization told the world last week global hunger is still decreasing, now to 795 million persons despite population growth. It is very good news. Economic growth, political stability and improved government policies are helping in most places. And yet 795 million is an unimaginably, horribly large number of women, men and children. Figures are useful proxies but should not distract us from the reality of misery. As the Indian Nobel Prize Laureate Kailash Satyarthi told us today that “every hungry person on our planet has a name and a face and is a spot on our consciousness.” Southern Asian countries still have a high prevalence of underweight children and make only slow progress towards halving hunger, all of them failing MDG 1. Much needs to be done.

Many factors cause hunger. Let me pluck some themes from our multitude of sessions: food security & climate vulnerability, social safety nets, investment in agriculture, land governance, economic justice for women, legal frameworks, a regional food bank. But this complexity is not the core problem. Mind you, enough food is produced on our planet to feed us all, also in South Asia. In fact a third of produced food is lost or wasted. The real problem is simple: hunger is not enough of a priority. It is significant, for example that the very people who are most food insecure benefit least from government policies and investments.  If nothing changes, this will get a lot worse as climate change – and other disasters increasingly ravage South Asia in the form of floods, drought and extreme weather.

Why are hungry people not higher on our public agenda?

That is because governments, consumers, companies can get away with this neglect. Hungry people do not have the power to step up and force us to prioritize them.

That’s why Oxfam has a rights-based approach.  Rights are tools for people to force power to be accountable to them. The classic right to food can be turned into such a tool. This is our strategy with our amazing partners in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nepal. In fact, the international law already obliges States to anchor the right to food in their constitutions, and 25 countries do so globally. States also have the duty to operationalize the right to food into practical entitlements. Sadly, this rarely happens.

websiteimage3Oxfam research shows States in South Asia have a rather haphazard mosaic of laws on food with a screaming lack of coherence and an embarrassing lack of interest in real impacts. This is why Oxfam in Bangladesh team for example drafted a framework law with champions in government. The law will define rights and targets concretely, guide government action at all levels and provide remedy.

Legal and political action will take place if social contracts in all South Asian nations are renewed between governments and the poor, mandating and driving action co-designed and monitored by those most at risk and in need. This requires both quiet advocacy and loud social mobilization at scale as without public care, accountability will remain a paper truth.

Although the South Asia Right to Food Conference has ended, the destination is a long way to go. It was great to see the fruits of years of dogged advocacy by Oxfam Bangladesh and her formidable partners. The energy here in Dhaka boded well for the needed social moblization across South Asia. Among of mobilization channels is the online petition for South Asians to help support Bangladesh’s Right to Food Bill. The support, which you can easily be part of by signing your name here, will not only change the lives of Bangladesh people but also pave a bigger road of inspiration for the whole region; the goal of seeing every poor people going to bed with full stomach.


By Derk Byvanck. Food and Climate Justice Advisor for GROW

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