Hunger: the real economic crisis

Executive Director, Oxfam International

©Reuters

Hunger affects about 1 billion people around the world, and as the economic crisis continues, the push for growth can actually make matters worse.

The world financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession have dominated the thoughts and minds of the OECD economic leaders for these past four years. But a more permanent and visceral crisis, one that marks the failure of the global economy for a large number of the 7 billion people living on the planet, points to the need for a new way to talk about the economy if we are to successfully meet the challenges of the 21st century. The real crisis lies not in the rise and fall of stocks and shares but in the bellies of a billion people, an everyday ache which stunts opportunity, arrests development and leaves a large segment of humanity without that most basic of needs: food.

Efforts, of course, are being made to tackle global hunger. Following food riots in dozens of countries in 2008, global leaders did promise action. The G8 leaders’ meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, agreed that agriculture and food security should be placed “at the core of the international agenda”. Importantly, later that year the Committee on Food Security (CFS) was reformed to strengthen the governance of the world food system.

These efforts have either yet to bear fruit (the reformed CFS is still in its infancy) or have simply been unfilled. Following the 2008 food crisis, the G8 promise at L’Aquila to provide €20 billion in support for agriculture over three years has turned out to be largely recycled from past promises or double-counted against other commitments.

Many of the policies which contributed to the food crisis continue as before. Biofuel production, for example, is still being encouraged by the EU and the US; this is despite evidence that it was a major cause of food price increases in 2008 and a significant driver of food price volatility, while perversely contributing to, rather than diminishing, carbon emissions.

In the meantime, the pressure on people living in poverty has continued to grow as the resources, land and water they depend upon to provide food are increasingly targeted by powerful interests, eager to access these valuable assets.

In developing countries, as many as 227 million hectares of land—an area the size of western Europe—has been sold or leased since 2001, mostly to international investors, often seeking not just the land but the access to vital water resources it comes with. Oxfam has already seen how many so-called investments in land have in fact been resourcegrabs— with the poorest often left without land, without compensation and without food security.

The failure to address seriously the challenge of global warming is another carve-out of scarce resources by developed countries. So far, they have refused a fair climate deal which would allow poor countries to develop without resorting to massive use of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, agriculture in developing countries suffers as the seasons go haywire and the number of extreme weather events hit global food supplies.

With the world seemingly unwilling to take the urgent action necessary to tackle climate change and with the world population set to increase by another 2 billion people by 2050, the pressure is set to increase on global resources and on the world’s poor—those least able to cope. Research commissioned by Oxfam in 2010 predicts international price rises of key staples by 120-180% by 2030, with 50% of that increase attributable to climate change.

The solutions to this crisis are at hand. There is sufficient food in the world to ensure that everyone has enough to eat today and in the decades to come; at issue are questions of distribution and political will. The realisation that we are in a resource-constrained world forces us to place equity at the heart of global economic thinking. Finite resources also force us to take the issue of sustainability seriously—not as a piece of rhetoric to be deployed periodically but as an integral element of economic thinking. Instead of equality, we see booming inequality. As the world’s hungry grew to 925 million in 2010, the number of dollar millionaires grew by 8%, even in countries with hundreds of millions of people living on less than US$1.25 a day.

Instead of addressing resource constraints, many governments have simply sought to restore growth with barely a nod to its impact on the world’s carrying capacity. Green investments were just 7% of the UK’s initial spending stimulus following the 2008-09 crisis, just 6% in Spain and 3% in Japan. Instead of delivering a climate change deal, talks drag on as the world continues to grow warmer.

It’s clear that the current way of discussing and managing the world economy is not fit for purpose; it’s failing hundreds of millions now and is set to fail billions in the coming decades. Governments have defaulted to their old tools and solutions: short-termism and competitive negotiations, rather than a collaborative long-term approach.

A new, ethical economy for the 21st century is needed, one which judges its success by the fulfilment of rights, by maintaining rather than diminishing the world’s envelope of resources and by keeping equity at its heart. A simple touchstone for this new ethical economy is hunger and how we make sure it is ended.

Oxfam International 

See also: 

G8 Summit 2009 in L’Aquila

Committee on Food Security

©OECD Yearbook 2012




Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q2 2018 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.9% Sept 2018 annual
Trade: +2.7% exp, +3.0% imp, Q4 2017
Unemployment: 5.3% Aug 2018
Last update: 06 Nov 2018

E-Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive paper editions delivered to you directly


Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • Globalisation will continue and get stronger, and how to harness it is the great challenge, says OECD Secretary-General Gurría on Bloomberg TV. Watch the interview here.
  • OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría with UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, in New York City.
  • The new OECD Observer Crossword, with Myles Mellor. Try it online!
  • Watch the webcast of the final press conference of the OECD annual ministerial meeting 2018.
  • Listen to the "Robots are coming for our jobs" episode of The Guardian's "Chips with Everything podcast", in which The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, and Jeremy Wyatt, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham, and Jordan Erica Webber, freelance journalist, discuss the findings of the new OECD report "Automation, skills use and training". Listen here.
  • Do we really know the difference between right and wrong? Alison Taylor of BSR and Susan Hawley of Corruption Watch tell us why it matters to play by the rules. Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview here.
  • Has public decision-making been hijacked by a privileged few? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Stav Shaffir, MK (Zionist Union) Chair of the Knesset Committee on Transparency here.
  • Can a nudge help us make more ethical decisions? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Saugatto Datta, managing director at ideas42 here.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Rousseau
  • Do you trust your government? The OECD’s How's life 2017 report finds that only 38% of people in OECD countries trust their government. How can we improve our old "Social contract?" Read more.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2018