What will future generations condemn us for?
That was the intriguing question by Ghanaian philosopher, novelist and Princeton University professor Kwame Anthony Appiah in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post in October 2010.
Whereas we cannot give a definitive answer to the question, one sure candidate is the needless human carnage wrought by hunger.
According to the United Nations’ annual food security report, over 850 million people (one-eighth of the world’s population) go to bed hungry every night.
Many of them are children, for whom early hunger leaves a lifelong cognitive and physical impairment. The human and economic waste is horrifying.
In the past few days, several people have reportedly died of hunger-related complications in Turkana County, while thousands of others face starvation as the ongoing drought takes its toll.
Statistics by the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) show that most areas in Turkana are experiencing a severe drought that has affected most of the residents, who are now in need of food aid.
The number of hungry and malnourished people in the region has been rising over the past decade and the residents have called on both levels of government to save the situation.
Unfortunately, politicians react only in case of a famine, when people are dying of starvation, not when there is hunger and long-term food insecurity.
This is because famine makes the headlines whereas hunger and chronic undernutrition are below the media’s radar. However, that distinction is artificial and unhelpful.
The causes of famine and food insecurity are multiple. In the past, they have been seen principally as the result of perennial droughts that reduce food production.
But recently, it has become increasingly clear that the failure of institutions, especially political and economic ones, and the lack of favourable policy support, were also highly to blame.
While famine and food insecurity are complex and their solution is definitely hard to get, a little effort by policymakers would go a long way towards addressing the issue.
What the country needs is a strong food security and anti-famine strategy that would consider investing in science to provide early warnings, exploiting the full potential of strategic agricultural regions, adopting non-rain-dependent farming practices, investing in agricultural education, and making agriculture attractive to youth.
Making food security a ‘Big Four Agenda’ pillar has elicited debate on policy options to guarantee reliable supply to everyone.
But Kenya’s food insecurity is largely a factor of inefficient redistribution systems and selfish policies that punish real farmers and reward “briefcase” ones.
How shall we feed the nation if maize farmers, who do the hard work, are demoralised when, rather than buy their maize, the National Cereals and Produce Board instead uses taxpayers’ funds to buy maize imported by a few individuals from Uganda?
Ugandan maize is cheaper than ours because the cost of production is lower, having not been artificially escalated by practices such as supplying fertiliser that is corruptly imported at inflated prices and many levies farmers pay.
We poured Sh15 billion into a failed maize irrigation project, Galana Kulalu, in Tana River County, that could only produce a paltry 40,000 50-kilogramme bags.
Suppose we had used it to make inputs cheaper for small-scale farmers or facilitate agricultural extension services?
Farmers keep shifting from heavily regulated crops to free enterprise, and the government follows them. It should be the other way round.
The government’s policy and investment should create a conducive environment for farmers to invest in, feed the nation and earn foreign currency.
Countries such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia have hauled themselves out of the mire of food insecurity by investing in agriculture, markets, roads and communications.
Others, for instance Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, are taking up the policy of social protection. Here, regular and predictable support — such as weather-indexed insurance, public works programmes, emergency food aid and buffer stock management — is provided to vulnerable people before famine shocks such as civil conflict, bad harvest, transport disruption or drought occur.
Acute food insecurity and chronic undernutrition will last as long as ultra-poverty persists, especially among marginalised groups in marginal environments.
Mr Nzuki is strategy and policy adviser, Altima Africa Consulting. [email protected]