In the past few years, Nigeria has witnessed a surge of beggars on the streets.
These people: men, women and children, both the physically challenged and the seemingly abled body ones among them, can be seen loitering about streets corners waiting the traffic light to turn red so that they can resume banging on the windows of our cars. Some are genuine, with stories that could make your eyes fill with tears, while others, usually the older veterans in the begging business, have perfected tall tales that have been repeated multiple times so much so that it has become stale.
And it is not only the ones on the streets that are begging. Indeed, every day, many receive multiple phone calls from people who were previously doing well but have now slipped below the poverty margin. People asking for money for rent, school fees, hospital bills and even more disheartening, money for food.
People who were previously able to afford to eat three times a day, have been reduced to two or even once a day. The reasons for this are many: Inflation, economic instability, insecurity, unemployment and many more.
According to the 2023 Global Hunger Index, Nigeria ranks 109th out of the 125 countries with sufficient data to calculate 2023 GHI scores. So much for our popular slang- Naija no dey carry last. With a score of 28.3 in the 2023 Global Hunger Index, Nigeria has a level of hunger that is serious.
And yet, while people are starving, they are many more lavishing in extravagance. At a recent wedding event, I observed the amount of food being scraped off plates to be thrown into the bin. I lost count of the number of dishes served as the waiters just kept coming and coming and coming. A popular restaurant in VI Lagos, is known to charge millions for reservations and yet every weekend, it is packed to the brim.
Why? Why are we starving in the midst of plenty?
The Nigerian Hunger situation can be likened to the common disease- Diabetes.
Diabetes is also known as “starvation in the midst of plenty”. Why? This is because despite feeling hungry and having high levels of circulating fuels, insulin deficiency prevents effective use of fuels by many tissues, hence “starving” them of nutrition. Hence, your body has all the glucose you could ever use, but it can’t get into the cells to go to work. The cells don’t like that very much, and the body goes into a process called “ketosis” to keep the body’s basal metabolism rate going, often sacrificing muscle tissue-breaking it down into required nutrient components. Quite simply- your body is telling you to eat more, but it already has an abundance of sugar, but you are consciously unaware.
Can you see the similarities?
On December 10, 2020, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s premier humanitarian organization combating global hunger and food insecurity. David Beasley, the WFP’s executive director, accepting the prize at its headquarters in Rome, said that he saw the Nobel Committee’s decision to grant the prize to the WFP as entailing “a call to action”—action to ensure that hunger is finally vanquished from the face of the earth. However, he warned, we are currently heading in the wrong direction. A combination of factors—multiple wars, climate change, the use of hunger as a political and military weapon, and the coronavirus pandemic—is pushing 270 million people ever closer to starvation. Thirty million of these, he said, are completely dependent on the WFP for their food.
He pointed out that the present may be “the most ironic moment in modern history,” a time when we find a grim chasm between the potential promise of the world’s wealth and the appalling fate that weighs upon a sizable portion of humanity. The world economy today has a value of $400 trillion, yet 200 million people hover on the brink of starvation, facing horrific illness and death. It would take only $5 billion to save the 30 million lives that utterly depend on the WFP, yet the agency struggles to raise even this much, which is a tiny fraction of the world’s military spending.
Again,starvation in the midst of plenty.
In a recent report, featuring Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, he raised the question: Why it is, when the planet is producing more than enough food to feed everyone, so many millions face chronic hunger and starvation. The answer, he states, partly lies in the structure of the global food system. If so many people go hungry year after year, this is not because we are short on food but because too many lack access to food. The global food system, as presently structured, allows those in positions of power and privilege to make major decisions that deprive others, less powerful, of the resources they need to eat and thrive.
The modern food system is constructed like a business model. As such, this model is not intended to guarantee that everyone gets to eat, but to ensure that those who invest in the system receive the financial returns they expect on their investments. And it is not only wealthy investors who benefit from the system but even middle-class folk in economically affluent countries. In the U.S. and other developed countries, almost any middle-class family can obtain from their local supermarket virtually any food item grown anywhere on the planet. But in other enclaves far from our range of sight, hundreds of millions suffer the consequences of the consumption we take for granted. When we consume even simple everyday products like coffee, tea, and chocolate, we seldom realize that we enjoy these things through the labour of people who lack the basic resources critical to a satisfactory standard of living. What is out of sight may be out of mind—for us—but it is the hard reality that ordinary people face all around the world.
One of the most abhorrent features of the global food system, especially in Africa, is land grabs. In a traditional economy, farmers own small plots of land on which they grow crops for their own use and to sell at the local market. This allows them to subsist, not in luxury but with a sufficient degree of life satisfaction to preserve their self-esteem. However, in countries in Africa and Asia, oppressive poverty and official government policy often compel subsistence farmers to sell their small plots of land to state enterprises or large multinational corporations. These consolidate the plots into large estates which they use to grow specialised cash crops for the markets of the global North. As a result, local populations lack the land to grow the essential crops they need for direct consumption and for sale at local markets. Rendered landless, they must toil as wage labourers earning just enough to get by from one day to the next, usually under degrading conditions. And those who don’t get to work lose all access to food.
We can’t complain that we lack the funding to meet this demand. Certainly not Nigeria. A country where one can pay as much as N2.5m to reserve a table at a fancy restaurant. If we had the moral will, funds would not be an obstacle. After all, nations around the world—especially the major military powers—invest hundreds of billions in their military forces and weapons of war. It would take only a tiny fraction of this to guarantee that everyone eats, that no one starves, that no child lives in misery, reduced to a heap of skin and bones.
However, acts of charity are not enough. People should be able to obtain the food they need in a way that affirms their inherent dignity. This means that they obtain their food through their own resources, not through the generosity of others. They would either grow their own food on land that they themselves possess or earn enough to live on a nutritious diet. To achieve this goal, the current dominant model of industrial agriculture, often cruel and destructive and blindly driven by the profit motive, needs to be substantially supplemented, if not replaced, by the alternative model of agroecology.