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Another Famine In Africa -- Can We Ever Break the Cycle?

Twelve million people in need of food, water and basic shelter, three million in Somalia alone. 

People streaming in the thousands across borders towards refugee camps. 

The images coming out of the Horn of Africa are horrific, and unfortunately, familiar. It seems like we saw it all years ago. And as in every crisis like this one, women are especially impacted: they are more likely to be hungry and poor, they are often subjected to assaults in refugee camps, and have to care for children and the elderly under inhuman conditions.

How did we get to a place where people are starving again in a part of the world that has always been at risk of food shortages?  

The Eastern Horn has experienced two consecutive seasons of below-average rainfall, resulting in one of the driest years since the mid nineties. Decades of conflict and poor governance have made things worse and also prevented many aid groups from operating. Meanwhile world food prices are already at all-time highs, making a bad situation worse.

The crisis in the Horn of Africa is an extreme example of a food crisis that is now being felt around the world. The global population will reach 7 billion in the next two years, and already 2.5 billion people are estimated to live on less than $2 a day. The cost of food is prohibitive: some of the world’s poorest citizens are estimated to spend upto 70 percent of their income on food. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, there are now close to a billion hungry people worldwide.

The enormous challenge of feeding the world falls upon small-scale farmers in developing countries. Unlike the United States, where the word ‘farmer’ conjures up an image of a man on a tractor, the majority of farmers worldwide are women, most often farming plots of land the size of an average American garage. Women farmers truly feed the world: growing up to sixty percent of the food in Africa, they are also responsible for feeding their families. But they’re also likely to eat last and least: women are over six in ten of the world’s hungry. Changing this dynamic is the focus of our Help Women Feed the World campaign.

Making long-term investments to support women would make societies less vulnerable the next time the rains fail. We have realized that better roads in rural areas, better irrigation and food storage systems, environmentally sustainable small scale agriculture, and helping farmers access markets for what they grow helps all farmers: and it can especially help women.

But women farmers also face many additional barriers to their work. They have less access to credit and training, spend many hours caring for children and hauling water for their families from the nearest well, and have a harder time transporting their produce to the nearest market to earn an income. It’s estimated by the FAO that if women’s farms could be as productive as men’s, there would be 100-150 million fewer hungry people worldwide.

A crisis of the magnitude we now face in the Horn of Africa will rightly need a big focus on emergency assistance. However, what often gets forgotten is that we should also be helping prevent such crises in the first place. The U.S. government, and other global institutions have under-invested in long-term agriculture and food security programs for the past three decades. This had only recently begun to shift.

In our Congressional budget debates, however, it’s troubling to again see exactly these kinds of cuts. A draft bill for the 2012 budget coming out of Congress this month, for example, proposed an almost 20 percent cut to global food security and anti-hunger programs. This is counterproductive. 

If we don't make long-term investments, we will keep continually responding to disasters, which is ultimately more costly both in terms of money and human life. It’s far better to invest in teaching a woman to fish, so everyone can eat.

Ritu Sharma is co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide, which advocates in Washington, D.C. for the poorest women and girls worldwide. Visit www.womenthrive.org for details about the ‘Help Women Feed the World’ campaign on global hunger.