Palestinian child searches for food scraps in Gaza. Image Bloomberg via National News

OPINION PIECE: This article was first published on April 4, 2024, in The National News.

My childhood was haunted by images of stick-like children of my own age eating broken pieces of rice washed down our kitchen drain. That was during the 1960s Indian famine. My young mind understood the cruel logic of poverty but my heart was confused by a mix of humiliation, disgust and anger. Instinct suggested that it was not right for people to scrounge like animals but why was this allowed?

Decades later, outrage and shame are even stronger on hearing accounts of Ethiopia’s famished Tigrayans fighting birds to glean bits of grain from parched fields. Or reports of Gazans subsisting on animal fodder and weeds.

More than 800 million people – a tenth of global humanity – are chronically hungry. That is an increase of 250 million over the past six years. The Sustainable Development Goals’ target of zero hunger by 2030 is largely unattainable.

Meanwhile, never has the world produced so much food. The global production of primary crops has increased by 50 per cent since the Millennium. That is remarkable despite mounting losses from drought and disaster amid the changing climate.

Hunger in a world of plenty is explained to a large extent by its weaponisation in increasingly vicious conflicts where sieges and blockades are normalised. The benefit of starving the enemy is intuitively understood by military strategists. Especially in today’s whole-of-society conflicts that blur the distinctions between combatants and non-combatants and thrust civilians into the frontline of suffering.

What cheaper way is there to torment your opponents than to deprive their loved ones and communities of the means of living?

Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach and it is worthy to remark that the media coverage of today’s wars never shows emaciated fighters. They are well-nourished thanks to ample support from their sponsors or through predation on civilians, including by looting humanitarian food aid.

Conflict-related atrocities are not novel, despite all international legal prohibitions. But not all cruelties have equal impact. Some are strategically significant because they violate more than the body. They strike at an enemy’s identity, corrode their dignity and degrade their humanity. Hence rape in war qualifies as most heinous across several international crime categories including genocide. So also does the deliberate spawning of starvation.

This powerful war tactic does not just deplete opponents physically but saps their spirit. That derives from the sacred symbolism of food in all cultures. It is reflected in Muslims fasting over Ramadan accompanied by spiritual reflection and practising kindness and charity. Christians do the same over Lent and Jews have their set fast days. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak fasts every week. Hindus like him and Buddhists have elaborate rituals around food linked to ahimsa or the philosophy of non-violence towards all beings.

Proponents speak of fasting’s benefits to strengthen will power, correct overindulgence and detoxify the body. They testify to Increased energy, improved concentration and greater well-being. Medical science has caught on with evidence of benefits from fasting and other types of calorie-restricted diets. Especially for chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular, neurogenerative, bowel and other inflammatory conditions, and perhaps cancer.

The irony of the voluntary option to eat less to refine spiritual well-being, sharpen mental acuity, become healthier and live longer is lost on those with no such choice to make. They number more than 159 million in 43 countries at existentialist risk from starvation. The hunger league is topped by DR Congo (24 million), Sudan and Nigeria (18 million each), Afghanistan (16 million) and Pakistan (12 million).

Nearly all of Gaza’s 2.2 million people have had to join this deadly club. The Gazan children perishing from malnourishment and disease add to the grim statistic of more than three million under-fives dying annually from hunger worldwide.

Even when they are rescued, the harmful legacy of in-utero or infant starvation is lifelong. This comes from compromised brain development affecting the ability to think, organise and regulate emotion. As whole generations are impaired in this way, continuing social dysfunction and retarded human development are the toxic legacy of prolonged hunger.

There is a further heart-breaking dimension to conflict-induced hunger. When humanitarians are inadequately resourced, they prioritise who gets to eat according to a classification based on malnutrition levels and coping capacities of targeted communities.

In phase one, there is minimal food insecurity and most people consume adequate quality and quantity of food to give them 2,100 calories every day while malnutrition prevalence stays below 5 per cent.

In phase two or stressed acute food insecurity, malnourishment increases towards 10 per cent. About 274 million people worldwide fall in this category. In crisis phase three, significant food gaps appear and malnourishment climbs to 15 per cent. This is the fate of 134 million people. Malnourishment levels of 15 to 30 per cent indicate a food emergency (phase 4), currently afflicting 24 million people.

More catastrophic levels of malnourishment accompanied by starvation deaths of two or more per 10,000 people signify famine (phase five). Currently, more than one million people are reported to be in famine. But this is a gross under-estimate as governments are reluctant to allow international agencies to declare famine because this is politically embarrassing for them. Denial costs yet more lives.

For the starving, it is little consolation to know their phase of food insecurity. When starvation is established, its agonising trajectory is inexorable as the mind degrades, the body consumes itself and essential organs such as the heart and gut shut down. This is a painful process akin to torture. We know this from studies going back to Nazi times when the inmates of concentration camps were deliberately starved to death.

Past great hungers have heralded momentous change such as the 18th-century French Revolution, mass migration from mid-19th-century Ireland and Joseph Stalin’s “Holodomor” in 1930s Ukraine that exterminated five million.

Extreme hunger has, therefore, been a form of messaging – a witness to oppression and inequity, a cry for help, a demand for change. Hunger’s precursor – voluntary fasting – has also been a tool for moral defiance against society’s wrongs by inspiring the weak or confronting the powerful. Mahatma Gandhi was the master of this form of communication in his quest for Indian independence as also the suffragettes who won votes for women.

What is the message for our times from today’s record levels of hunger, a significant driver of which are increasingly limitless conflicts? If history and current affairs are any guide, retaliatory strategies bring more brutality and suffering – and push peace farther away. Could moral resistance be more effective?

We don’t know but will never know without trying much harder. Feeding the hungry is not just the right thing to do for its own sake. Opposing suffering and death in this way is a substantive rejection of the status quo and those who author or sustain it.

Therein lies our best hope of a different, better world whenever we are ready for it.

Mukesh Kapila has extensive experience in global and public health, international development, humanitarian affairs, conflict and security issues, human rights and diplomacy, and social entrepreneurship, with substantive leadership roles in government, United Nations system and multilateral agencies, International Red Cross and Red Crescent, civil society, and academia. He is also an author and public and media speaker.

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