A Critical Gaze into Why There is Still Hunger in Asia

Written by Zixi Li

The multi- UN agency flagship publication - 2018 Asia and the Pacific Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition brought the alerting news that progress in reducing undernourishment has slowed down tremendously in Asia and the FAO estimates that the number of hungry people in the region, 486 million, has barely changed in the past two years, making it even less optimistic to realize the 2nd SDG on Zero Hunger, at odds with the region’s leadership position in unfolding poverty and its fast growing economy. 

In the spring of 2018 in Bangkok, I was sat down with the posterchildren of food and agriculture in Asia and the intellectual drivers of this report, for a series of brainstorms on why there is still hunger in Asia. Many key and concrete issues were quickly pointed out, including the increasing frequency of climate-related disasters, poor access to WASH, rural migration to urbanization and its unhealthy trends of nutrition transition, leading to the triple burden of malnutrition- undernutrition micronutrient deficiency and overweight/obesity. The debate escalated quickly with technical explanations and economic analysis on how these causes came to be and what are the potential interventions for the region. I was amazed yet lost by how obsessively detailed and disconnected the conversations have gone into, and when I was given the floor to speak about my opinion on why hunger still exists, as the youngest girl and the only one with a humanities background in the room, I mumbled that perhaps we could realise the historical consequences of the current global power structure and acknowledge the failure of policies to meaningfully address the disadvantages in the food systems. The meeting ended right after anyway.  

Indeed, the dominant economic analysis of hunger calls for an informationally-centered approach that tend to overlook the distinct interdependences involved, sometimes attempting too hard to understand the very complex problem in excessively narrow and aggregative terms. What is needed to have a clear idea of the nature of the problem, is to adequately respect the intertwined and indifferentiated causes through a political and historical consideration within the current social structure. There is no ‘the’hunger problem in some summed up figures, but pluralism in distinct failures at different levels even when there are common predicaments in them. In dealing with this nature, causation and remedying of hunger in the contemporary Asia, we cannot escape this basic recognition. 

 I shall dive into two areas of causations and solutions related to hunger in Asia, that tend to be neglected but dear to myself as a citizen of the region. The first fold is the need to broadening and diversifying the approaches to hunger. One should consider the processes of acquiring food and achieving nutrition, but also the processes and consequences of nutritional deprivation of the people in the economy and society. These include the local considerations as inequalities in the sharing of food, nutrition, health and education within the household as well such global matters as national and international distribution, trade and exchange. Hunger in Asia is in no way an issue of the South itself, that food is bought and sold in a world market given the traditions and power relations remaining from the colonial days. It is a question of rationally balancing the pros and cons of the current food imports and exports. FAO, perhaps the most influential public organization dealing with world hunger was set up in the early days of the UN to see hunger as resulting mainly from the inadequacy of food production, impacting even today’s organizational structure and daily dynamics of the FAO. The organization comes to the term that agricultural production deficit is the wrong diagnosis of hunger and starts slowly seeking persistent attempt to see hunger through the glasses of diversified agroecological systems. In other words, it is in need of an integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts to the design and management of food and agriculture, to optimize the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration of the cultural and social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system. Social protection and gender are challenging areas yet to be concretely addressed and a methodological shift to qualitative understanding and analysis into local and traditional food systems is needed.

 The second point to be raised for hunger is on the connection between political incentives and public engagement of food rights. Considering the political landscape in the region, for instance, even the health care can be substantially influenced by the nature of the political process and disrupted by sectarian governance. There is a strong correlation between early undernourishment and long-term human capital development of health and cognitive skills. This calls for more attention to women health care and integration of nutrition and health welfare. The famous statement is that famines do not occur in democracies with a relatively free press and active opposition parties. It is no secret that people in Asia tend to be gentle and hierarchical. However, to shift the paradigm of fighting hunger and regarding food as a human right, this demands an adequate role be given to the poor, the smallholders, and the common people, not only to the protection of basic living and social security, but also to promoting the democratic rights of freedom of speech, freedom of election and unfettered public criticism, which should be in principle participatory. The use of food and political rights can make some drastic differences to the problem at hand in this region to its multifaceted consequences. 

 What is particularly crucial is to make the people who are working on combating hunger and producing policies and programmes stay holistic and critical while drawing on the lessons that have emerged from historical, political and social arrangements as well as investigative researches from different perspectives and places. These different inputs and influences, which operate together, demand that we do not isolate just one of those factors, and simply concentrate on that. We have to do many different things together. 

Gender in a Globalized World