Food & Hunger

  • In a world full of food one in eight people goes to bed hungry every night. Small farms around the world put food on the plates of one in three people on this planet. Yet extreme weather and unpredictable seasons are affecting what farmers can grow. Food prices are going up. Food quality is going down. Nearly a billion of the world’s poorest people are finding it even harder to feed their families. We demand a fairer and sustainable global food system so everyone has enough to eat. That means investing in small-scale food producers, helping farmers adapt to climate change, and securing and protecting their access to land.

On World Food Day, millions of people are still experiencing extreme hunger

In Yemen, Mona cannot afford food and water for her four young children. Her children no longer go to school and her baby suffers from malnutrition along with other illnesses. Photo: Sami M. Jassar/Oxfam

Today, 16 October, marks World Food Day, which is celebrated every year on 16 October to mark the founding of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). This World Food Day, and with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, the FAO is calling for global solidarity to help everyone – especially vulnerable communities – recover from the crisis, make food systems more climate resilient, provide decent livelihoods for farmers and food producers, and deliver sustainable, healthy diets for all.

However, the absence of global solidarity cannot be ignored in Oxfam’s latest report, Later Will Be Too Late, which examines how – despite repeated warnings – millions of people around the world are still experiencing extreme hunger.

Hunger was the defining humanitarian crisis of 2017, with northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen on the brink of famine. With 30 million people in dire need of food for survival, the international community responded – halting full famine in all four countries. But while disaster was averted, the $4.6 billion provided made up just 71 percent of the funding needed.

Three years on and the COVID-19 pandemic is the defining global crisis, with the virus contributing to even greater hunger. Worldwide, economies are collapsing and millions of people are struggling to put food on the table. More people are experiencing extreme hunger today than in 2017 – but this time, help does not appear to be coming.

On World Food Day 2020, the countries which were suffering in 2017 continue to experience hunger, but they have been joined by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Burkina Faso – all of which face serious food insecurity. In all, 55.5 million people are living through a hunger crisis or emergency, with localised famine conditions affecting 40,000 people in South Sudan and 11,300 people in Burkina Faso.

In July of this year, Oxfam’s report The Hunger Virus warned policymakers and the public that “between 6,000 and 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to the social and economic impacts of the pandemic before the end of the year”. But the response of the international community has been grossly inadequate.

By the end of September 2020, donors had provided just 28 percent ($2.85 billion) of the $10.19 billion asked for in the UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19. Just $254.4 million was provided out of $2.4 billion requested for food security and a paltry 3.2 percent of the funding asked for was made available for nutrition.

Even in the short term, periods of extreme hunger and famine can destroy a country, affecting its economic progress for generations. Chronic hunger and malnutrition lead to frequent illness, poor school performance, low productivity at work and lower earnings. These people are statistically more likely to experience a lifetime of poverty.

A severe drought in Somalia almost pushed the country into famine in 2017. Nimo lost most of her livestock and had to walk for miles to find water and food for her baby. Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

What world leaders must do

  1. Provide adequate levels of funding for food assistance (in the form of cash or commodities as is most appropriate to the context) and life-saving support now, before more people face severe food insecurity or famine.
  2. Break the links between war and hunger and allow humanitarian agencies to reach vulnerable communities with aid, even in conflict situations.
  3. Invest in gender just, resilient food systems: Fairer, gender just, resilient and sustainable food systems must be at the heart of the post-pandemic recovery.
  4. Invest in small-scale and agro-ecological food production, ensure producers earn a living income by establishing minimum producer prices and other mechanisms, and ensure workers earn a living wage.
  5. Commit to respond earlier to warning signs of future crises before they escalate.
  6. Build people’s ability to cope better with future crises. Even without conflict, these countries will remain vulnerable to future food crises – including those from climate change – so investing in livelihoods recovery, resilience building, and disaster risk reduction activities is essential.
  7. Support robust and inclusive social protection systems as a key requirement to ensure food security.
  8. Address discrimination faced by women food producers on issues such as access to land, information, credit and technology.
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A Kenyan mother’s solitary battle with hunger and COVID- 19

Blog post by Blandina Ijecha Bobson Oxfam Great Britain

Life before COVID-19 was good, according to 38-year-old mother Beatrice Achungo Mbendo.

Beatrice is a single mother with four children aged between two and 13 years old, and she is five months pregnant with her fifth child. She lives in Kangemi, one of the informal settlements in Nairobi. She arrived in 2007- the same year she started engaging in paid domestic work to earn a living. Beatrice is what’s known as a “stone lady”- a name used to describes women - mostly from the informal settlements - who sit on stones in leafy suburbs of Nairobi and wait for middle-class citizens to offer them casual domestic jobs- a trade Beatrice has used to provide education, shelter, food and healthcare for her family since 2007.

Beatrice’s’ husband was employed when they met in 2007 but lost his job after two years. He then struggled to maintain a steady stream of informal jobs in the construction industry until the couple eventually separated.

“My husband left me five months ago after we found out I was two weeks pregnant. He wasn’t happy about it. I have tried to look for him, but nobody knows where he is, including his family”.

“Stone Ladies” left out in the cold

“Even if we couldn’t afford a good diet, we had three meals a day.” She had four regular clients from whom she earned at least KES 3500 (or about 33 USD) weekly. She would spend the money to meet her family’s basic needs and save some of the money for rent.

“Now things are really bad, we even miss breakfast in the morning. My children would eat something small during lunch and wait for me with the hope that I will come back with something in the evening. If I don’t come back with anything, we sleep hungry. Things are really bad. I am single parent, in my condition with nothing and no one to turn to.”

One time her family of five went for two days without food. She was so distraught that she left her house in tears to look for something to eat. “God heard my cries. One employer brought us 2 kgs of maize flour, sugar and cooking oil which got me through for a few days.”

As governments worldwide are fighting tooth and nail against COVID-19, domestic workers like Beatrice are spending sleepless nights worrying about where their family’s next meal will come from. The pandemic has dealt a huge blow to domestic workers as their employers have taken all necessary measures to keep their families safe, including letting go domestic workers that managed their homes before COVID-19 struck.

Beatrice says that her life changed the minute the government announced the first confirmed COVID-19 case.

“All my employers called me and cancelled on me. They told me to wait until COVID-19 has been contained then they will call me for work. It’s been two months since I last went to anyone’s house to do laundry and clean.”

Her landlord hasn’t spared her either. He has been calling her to ask for the two months’ rent she already owes.

“I explained to him that I don’t have any work. Every morning I go to the waiting place hoping to get something but nothing. There are so many of us waiting and hoping to get work.”

She openly admits that she prioritises any money she gets for feeding her children. Rent is currently not a priority over their survival. If the worst comes to the worst, she is ready to sleep in a ditch with her children as long as they have food.

Unemployed caregivers ‘collateral damage’ in GoK fight against Covid-19

Beatrice explained that because of COVID-19, the local administration and the police have been chasing them and asking them to go and stay at home until the disease is contained.

“But we can’t, we have widows here, you have single parents like me and even those who have spouses, their spouses have lost their jobs. There’s no way we can stay at home. The only thing that makes us come here every day even when the police chase us is the kids. When they chase us, we just go into hiding and come back. We just hope to get even a kilogram of maize flour per day.”

Beatrice says she diligently practices all the measures endorsed by the government to protect her family. Every morning when she leaves her house, she reminds her children to play in the house or just outside the door. When she gets to the waiting place, she doesn’t shake anyone’s hands, tries to maintain social distance and has a mask to cover her mouth and nose.

“When I buy the piece of soap for washing clothes, whatever remains I tell my children to use it to wash their hands. I have taught my children the importance of washing hands and they have put that into practice. When they started talking about COVID-19, I was working for a Doctor. His wife gave me a mask. It’s a disposable mask, but I wash it when I get home and hang it to dry - I can’t afford to buy a mask every day.”

Even as she and the other “stone ladies” undertake the preventive measures, Beatrice says none of them knows anyone who has been taken ill. They are just surprised how a disease that neither of them has suffered from has changed everything. The face of COVID-19 for them is joblessness and hunger.

The government stimulus package has not benefited her even though she was among the people who were registered to benefit. She highlighted that she has heard from her neighbours that some people had received food aid (2kgs of beans, 3 packets of maize flour, 2kgs of sugar and 1 litre of cooking oil), and some had received KES 2000 on their mobile phones. She feels the targeting and distribution wasn’t done in a transparent and accountable manner. She also hasn’t felt the benefit of the reduction in taxes.

“Even if they reduced taxes on food, if you are not working how does that benefit you? You have to work to get money to go and buy food to benefit from the tax reductions.”

An uncertain future for six

Given a chance, Beatrice would like to tell the government that:

“We have COVID-19 in the country and everyone wants it contained. The president can lock the county for two months but before that, he should ensure that they conduct an exercise similar to census and list all the households with vulnerable women like me, then give us food aid enough to last us two months. We will lock ourselves and stay with our children at home for two months until the disease is contained. But if they can’t do this, they should just let us work.”

For now, Beatrice has no plans for the future on how to cope with the impact of COVID-19.

“I just sit by myself and tell God, I have nothing. I have no plans. If I don’t get anything from well-wishers, I won’t hide; my kids and I will sleep hungry. If this continues like this, the only thing left is death. I feel like my life has hit rock bottom.”

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.

Together, we can save lives.

COVID-19: Why we need your support now more than ever

We just launched an appeal to support Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar survive monsoon season – the day after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in that region of Bangladesh.

As appeal letters dropped through the letterboxes of our loyal supporters, some 900,000 people living in the biggest refugee settlement in the world began to panic about how they could practice social distancing and life-saving hygiene practises in a makeshift home without adequate sanitation and health infrastructure.

This is the news we dreaded – and it’s why we made the decision to still launch our appeal at a time of unprecedented challenge at home and abroad as COVID-19 threatens us all. For people living in cramped, flimsy shelters in over-crowded camps, the impact of an outbreak doesn’t bear thinking about.

It’s our job to let our supporters know how they can help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, those facing poverty and disaster beyond our imagination.

We usually tell these stories and how you can be part of them face-to-face, through our fundraising activities and our network of shops in communities across the country. To protect us all, we can’t do that right now and we’re are urgently appealing for your help. 

We need your generous support now more than ever.

In addition to helping Rohingya refugees prepare for monsoon season, we’ll be helping them and communities all over the world to stay safe and healthy as COVID-19 threatens the poorest and most vulnerable.

Please donate what you can today:

Bangladesh: A treacherous journey for Rohingya people

From clean water and sanitation to advocacy, Oxfam is assisting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who fled the brutal attacks of 2017.

It's has been almost three years since over 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar became refugees. Targeted by the military with mass violence that the United Nations describes as ethnic cleansing, they left behind everything they owned. They carried with them a heavy burden: the memories of atrocities carried out against their loved ones, and of the harsh abuse that they themselves endured. The emotional wounds are still fresh; ask a refugee a question about the present day, and you will likely hear a haunting personal story of what happened in August 2017.

Khalida lives in a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Like hundreds of thousands of others, she was driven from her country by Myanmar's military. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

"We saw with our own eyes people tied up and thrown into police trucks," says a woman who lives in a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar. "Blood flowed from the trucks like water."

"They killed my brothers and raped my sisters and mother and killed them," says Abu Musa, another refugee. "We get up every morning and wonder how we can go on."

Yet, somehow the life of the community does go on. The camps bustle with activity, with roadside market vendors selling everything from vegetables to pots and pans to brightly coloured clothing. Trucks arrive with goods and make their way slowly along brick roads, crafted by hand to survive the monsoon rains. Children surround new visitors, eager to interact and play. Someone tells a joke, and someone laughs.

Protecting lives, rights and dignity

When refugees began their exodus in 2017, protecting lives was Oxfam's priority. The camps that formed to accommodate the refugees quickly became overcrowded, creating perfect conditions for the outreak and spread of deadly diseases. With your support, we helped prevent a public health emergency by constructing latrines, providing access to clean water and distributing hygiene materials, such as soap and sanitary pads. Over time, we constructed the largest sewage treatment plant in a refugee camp anywhere in the world.

"Before learning about hygiene from Oxfam, I didn't know how to use soap properly," says a young woman named Saitara. "I didn't know about washing hands before eating and cooking. Now, I'm cooking food safely."

"After Oxfam's work," says a mother of three named Hamida, "our children didn't get diarrhea so often.

Safety - particularly for vulnerable groups like women and girls - was also a key priority, so Oxfam installed solar-powered lights around the camp and provided families with solar torches and lanterns to help residents move around safely at night.

"We use the solar torches to get to the latrine at night or to find a lost child," says Saitara, "or to help people who are elderly or disabled."

To ensure people had access to food, clothing and other essentials, we distributed vouchers that families could use in local markets.

Thanks to your support, we're also helping to create safe spaces for women to gather and make their voices heard, and through women's groups and musical performances, we're working with local organisations and communities to raise awareness about wider issues, such as early marriage, gender-based violence and harmful traditional gender roles.

The influx of refugees has been hard on the host communities. Among other things, already-low wages have dropped, while the cost of living has risen. To help address local poverty and ease tensions between hosts and refugees, Oxfam has employed more than 1,800 Bangladeshis in construction projects, such as building roads, schools and water points.

Saitara signs her name. She had never touched a pen before Oxfam showed her how to sign her name. "I used to feel small, but after learning to sign my name, I felt bigger," she says. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

We also worked with partners to improve livelihoods of particularly vulnerable families in the host communities. For example, when pirates attacked the vessel of fisherman Nurul Hoque, they blinded him, and he was reduced to begging on the street. Oxfam partner Mukti stepped in, providing funds and business training that enabled his familiy to start up a roadside food stall.

"Now, we eat three times a day," says his wife, Mumtaz Begum, "and we have bought four goats."

In all, Oxfam and our partners have reached more than 360,000 people with aid.

Refugees experience fear and longing

But nothing we do will make the camps feel like home, and despite the violent past, the refugees' longing for their homeland is palpable.

They're deeply grateful to the government and host communities of Bangladesh for providing them with shelter and safety, but they don't want to live out their lives as refugees.

"We used to be farmers. We grew rice and chilies, and our sons fished. My husband had a snack stall," says Hamida. "We want that life back." Many others say the same, but always with a caveat.

"We can't leave until we have a promise. We need security and citizenship in our country," says Faruk, who has a young daughter. "Our people have been killed before, and we don't want to face that again."

Oxfam is committed to doing more than simply provide aid in the camps. With advocacy staff positioned in capital cities around the world, we're urging governments to put pressure on Myanmar to provide the Rohingya people with the rights and citizenship they've been denied for decades, and with a chance to return to their home country when the refugees themselves deem it safe.

In the meantime, the Rohingya people are doing their best to recover, and to hang onto their hopes and dreams.

"We're asking for our country back," says a woman named Azara. "And for a chance to lie there in peace."

Your help is urgently needed this monsoon season. Please send essential preparation kits to refugees like Azara, Saitara and Khalida today.

Rohingya refugees: Finding hope amongst the hopelessness

In 2018, I completed three weeks working for Oxfam's Rohingya crisis response team in Cox’s Bazar and can remember one moment, standing in the pouring rain in the confined camp.

Everywhere I looked, ramshackle shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulins stretched into the distance.

People old and young were trying to find shelter from the downpour, and large puddles were quickly forming across the narrow brick road, with water running down sandy hillside paths.

As I was trying to take photos of a deep tube well Oxfam was drilling to provide clean water, numerous Rohingya refugees offered to take me into their shelters to stay dry, or brought me umbrellas.

Such was the kindness of people who had endured unspeakable horrors that forced them from Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh.

Before monsoon season, the camps endured what they call the pre-monsoon rains, where every couple of days a ferocious storm will hit for an hour or so.

This rain was nothing like I’m used to.

The falling water had an almost physical quality, beating down on you, so heavy that you would struggle to see the other side of a road.

Trees were often blown over in the wind, and almost immediately, huge puddles formed everywhere, slowing cars and trucks on the sandy, brick roads and draining into refugees' flimsy shelters.

Almost one million people live in the Rohingya refugee mega camp. When I was there, what was at the forefront of aid workers' minds was how the full monsoon would impact such a huge population living in such desperate conditions.

Yet despite this, I was struck by the way in which Rohingya refugees could find hope in what appeared to be a hopeless situation.

Denied citizenship in their country, they felt they didn't belong anywhere and had nowhere to call home. They had no idea what their future would hold.

In the meantime, they were awaiting monsoon rains likely to bring floods, landslides and potentially deadly water-borne diseases. At the time, the United Nations (UN) estimated that up to 200,000 people were living in at-risk areas of the camps.

As much as 2.5 metres of rain could fall on the camps during the monsoon season.

But the refugees I met certainly weren't hopeless or despairing.

Parents were working hard to strengthen their shelters or volunteering for charities like Oxfam as community health trainers, or with the UN as camp labourers helping prepare the camps for the coming heavy rain.

This included a young woman I met called Ayesha*, who was 18 years old. She fled to Bangladesh with her mother and three siblings after their father was killed in the violence in Myanmar.

Ayesha (pictured left). Photo: Dylan Quinnell/Oxfam

It took them nearly 5 days to get to Bangladesh by boat and foot; others weren’t so lucky and drowned when their boats sank.

Life is tough in the camps without a father or husband - women can get missed or sidelined at aid distributions, and culturally, young women are not supposed to go out alone.

None of this had dampened Ayesha’s spirit. She had put up her hand to volunteer, and was running community health trainings with her neighbours and other women. 

She told me, "Now I work as an Oxfam volunteer, I teach people how to maintain good hygiene and I tell people what to do to have a good life. I feel good about it".

As for the children, they played football wherever they could find space, and ran through the camps in happy bunches and practised English phrases such as "goodbye, how are you, I am fine" with aid workers.

Oxfam is in Bangladesh, providing food and life-saving clean water to those who have fled Myanmar and the host communities that have opened their doors to them. But we desperately need your support as the deadly monsoon season approaches.

You can send monsoon preparation kits today: https://www.oxfamireland.org/monsoon

Dylan Quinnell was the Media Manager for Oxfam’s Rohingya Crisis Response for three weeks. He is currently the Senior Media Coordinator at Oxfam Australia.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Kutapalong Rohingya refugee camp: preparations for monsoon season

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