A traditional market in Bangladesh. Photo by Terry Sunderland/CIFOR

Long-term development efforts key to breaking food emergency cycle

Successes in Bangladesh and Ethiopia offer insights for countries facing famine

(Landscape News) – As the international community searches for ways to address significant hunger crises putting 20 million people at risk in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, and northern Nigeria, a new report says potential solutions can be found by revisiting lessons learned from Bangladesh and Ethiopia.

Although 40 years ago Bangladesh faced hunger and deep socio-economic problems, the nation has since rallied, exemplifying how a country can make steady progress toward food self-sufficiency, according to a new International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) brief titled “From famine to food security: Lessons for Building Resilient Food Systems.”

In the 1970s, successive years of heavy monsoon rains led to lower rice yields in Bangladesh, resulting in high levels of hunger and malnutrition. Bangladesh had endured a brutal war with Pakistan to gain its independence and faced pressing infrastructure and social investment needs.

Ethiopia faced major famines in the early 1970s and in 1984. Government restrictions on transport of grain across regional boundaries by private sector traders worsened the 1984 famine.

The subsequent successes of Bangladesh and Ethiopia can provide useful lessons for other developing countries experiencing famine and cyclical food crises, the IFPRI brief states.

Long-term strategies

“Both countries invested heavily to increase food production that led to increases in the availability of food,” said Paul Dorosh, co-author of the brief and division director of development strategy and governance at IFPRI.

“These included investments in irrigation in Bangladesh and agricultural research, extension, and rural roads in both countries. Both countries also developed effective safety nets to increase access to food for poor households.”

Dorosh said the initiatives provided important foundations upon which to build as Bangladesh and Ethiopia worked toward achieving sustained availability of food. Such programs also provide a template for countries currently facing food emergencies. In Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, and northern Nigeria, for example, where landscape degradation from drought has contributed to instability, the response is complex.

The IFPRI brief anticipates $4.4 billion is needed in international aid at a time when resources and funding from donors are being cut. Chronic shortfalls of food and other natural resources are also intensifying due to a warming climate, related extremes in temperatures and erratic rainfall.


“Climate change, more than anything else, is about water,” said Alec Crawford, senior researcher at the International Institute for Sustainable Development. “Changing precipitation patterns will in turn impact where people can viably settle, and we’re likely to see populations —pastoralists, farmers — on the move as they seek out rainfall and water sources. This will in turn bring populations traditionally not in contact with each other into direct competition for water and land resources, and in a context of population growth, free-flowing small arms and light weapons, youth unemployment, radicalization, overwhelmed governments, etc. – It’s a recipe for violence.”

Dorosh cautioned that international aid and national and local-level resources are often diverted to immediate humanitarian crises causing countries to lose ground on long-term development. This then creates an ongoing cycle of crisis and recovery.

To change this pattern, national governments are encouraged to identify challenges such as drought or heavy flooding from monsoons and to develop short-and long-term strategies for responding to them.

Bangladesh as a model

In Bangladesh, for example, initial steps to ensure a reliable supply of food included building rural roads, improving seed quality, distributing fertilizer and improving irrigation systems. More long-term, the country introduced a school-based program to provide wheat and rice to children. In addition to nutrition, this program had the added benefit of improving school attendance and learning.

Bangladesh also invested in education programs for adults to teach agricultural innovations and public health. Using technology, the government has boosted rural economies through mobile phone cash transfer services to help farmers and traders buy and sell.

Even with these gains Bangladesh still has nutritional challenges. While poverty declined from 56.6 percent in 1991–1992 to 31.5 percent in 2010, a 2016 World Food Programme (WFP) analysis found that a large group of Bangladeshis — a quarter of the population — still remain hungry and underfed. In turn, malnourishment can also be seen in certain groups, such as children suffering from stunting or acute wasting.

The WFP analysis stressed the need for a diversified response, from a strengthened social safety net to a more varied diet, to reduced bureaucracy and improved coordination among programs.

“The battle against the challenges with food security and nutrition will have to be fought on many fronts at the same time,” the WFP said in its report, echoing the findings of the IFPRI brief which concluded that “saving lives through emergency assistance must come first …but the next steps must sow the seeds for a more durable development process.”

Further Reading

Building Resilience to Recurrent Crisis

Climate Change and State Fragility in the Sahel

UN, partners warn 108 million people face severe food insecurity worldwide

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World



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