When tackling malnutrition involves photo-opportunities with icons such as Mo Farah and David Beckham, it’s hard not to be sceptical
It requires an Olympian suspension of disbelief to take at face value David Cameron’s Downing Street hunger summit just hours before the Games’ closing ceremony. When tackling malnutrition involves photo-opportunities with icons such as Mo Farah and David Beckham, it’s hard not to be sceptical. But Mr Cameron, determined to hang on to the 0.7% of GDP aid target, has an incomparably better record on development than any recent Tory predecessor.
There is no question that there are more hungry people than ever before, nor that chronic malnutrition is devastating. It is a contributory factor to infant mortality, stunted growth, and intellectual underdevelopment, part of the cruel cycle of deprivation. It reflects an intransigent mix of economic, social and cultural factors – family size and access to contraception, climate change, poor farming techniques, bad food as well as not enough of it, and limited access to productive land; and – as the return of hunger after the apparent triumph of the 1970s green revolution shows – it is also to do with the limitations and unintended consequences of science. Underlying it all is an unfair distribution system that pays dividends for speculators – the grain trader Cargill announced revenues of $134bn this week – while the system remains unable to deliver food to those who need it.
Mr Cameron, and his co-host, the Brazilian vice-president Michel Temer, say they want the world to focus on malnutrition, not create more targets like the unmet millennium development goals to halve the number of hungry children. The development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, talks of “galvanising people”. But while hunger is a cause of many of the south’s problems, it also a symptom. Engaging industry and governments, as Mr Mitchell proposes, is misplaced when organisations from War on Want to Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel talk of the need to put smallholders centre stage, to focus on inequality and to end the escalating land grabs that reduce the rural poor to labourers. In Africa alone, an area larger than Germany and France together has been sold for agribusiness while untold thousands of farmers have been evicted with scant compensation.
The real goal is not, or not only, the food security that Mr Mitchell talks about, but sustainability. That is about small-scale, cooperative development that does not violate the land or require oil-based fertilisers. It needs thriving local markets, water management, the preservation of diversity, and support for country-based agricultural research. Brazil knows this first hand. It is not quite how Mr Cameron is selling it, but passing the challenge to a country that is making real progress on hunger and rural poverty might be just what’s needed.