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International Herald Tribune, May 14, 2008

Hunger adds to Afghanistan’s nightmare

"For millions of Afghans, the poorer segments of society, who spend up to 70 percent of their meager income on food, these food price rises put the basic necessities simply out of their reach," Banbury said at a news conference on his return to Kabul.

Carlotta Gall

Thieves raided the city flour market in broad daylight a few weeks ago, shooting and wounding two people before escaping with their loot.

Food insecurity in Afghanistan grows
A poor Hazara child in Bamyan province.

"We are not feeling safe," Haji Hayatullah, one of the flour merchants, said sitting on the floor of his shop with sacks of flour stacked around him. "We don't have security and we don't trust the government to provide it." The merchants got together and hired eight private security guards.

Yet their fears remain, not only about gunmen, but also because they sense a growing hunger and desperation in the general population.

Flour and bread prices doubled in the space of two weeks in Afghanistan last month after Pakistan stopped wheat and flour exports. The traders said they smuggled in flour through a mountain road instead. A government distribution of flour in Kandahar and its outlying districts eased cost fears slightly and the price of flour dropped back down a bit.

Yet with inflation at 22 percent just in the month of February for food staples, prices remain too high for most.

While there have been no riots in Afghanistan over food prices, the economic pain and hunger are hitting the poor and unemployed, officials warn. Teachers have threatened to strike and there have been some angry demonstrations.

"Prices are a big problem for our people," Haji Hayatullah said. "People do not grow enough and so we rely on imports from Pakistan and the prices are going up daily. It is very hard for the people. Unemployment is the biggest problem, people are very poor. I fear if this continues, people will loot the market."

Afghanistan is in a particularly unforgiving situation, Anthony Banbury, director for Asia at the United Nations World Food Program, said during a visit to Kandahar.

It is one of the poorest countries in the world and it is grappling with a prolonged conflict - and all the attendant problems of lawlessness, displacement, poorly developed markets and destroyed infrastructure, which leave the population especially vulnerable to price shocks, he said.

Poverty and food insecurity in Afghanistan grows
Up to 18 million people in Afghanistan live on less than US$2 a day and are considered food-insecure, FAO says

"For millions of Afghans, the poorer segments of society, who spend up to 70 percent of their meager income on food, these food price rises put the basic necessities simply out of their reach," Banbury said at a news conference on his return to Kabul.

About six million people in Afghanistan are already receiving food aid, and with the sharp price rises and signs that the harvest this year may not be good, the World Food Program is gearing up to try to help even more.

It has agreed with the government to reopen an assistance plan through bakeries for the urban poor, a program that it ran during the years of the Taliban government but closed down in the years since. The government is also asking for help in providing food aid to 172,000 teachers countrywide, some of whom are not coming to work because they cannot make ends meet. That alone is an indication that things are getting harder, Banbury said.

"Every school we went to, in every classroom, the teachers were saying we need more salary or food," he said.

A beggar, Sardar Muhammad, 80, squatting in one of the flour shops in Kandahar, said, "The people are dying of hunger." His two sons work as day laborers in the market but they do not earn enough to feed the family, he said.

The Afghans appealed for help in January. The World Food Program raised $75 million for six months of food assistance, Banbury said. The government is spending an additional $50 million on a general distribution of flour. Planning is now under way to increase WFP assistance for the next six months.

Yet agency officials warned that food aid was not a long-term answer to Afghanistan's hunger.

Despite the billions spent here over the last six years, international donors have failed to invest substantially in agriculture, the sector on which the majority of the population survives, Banbury said.

The government was turning to the World Food Program in an emergency but he warned that it should not be seen as the way to solve the problem.

"WFP is in the country and has the capacity to act," he said. "But it has to be part of a broader, long-term strategy."

He called for a countrywide program to distribute better seeds and tools to farmers to help increase food production. "Farmers are the most rational people in the world," Banbury said. "If you give them the seeds, they'll do it.

"They need seeds. Again and again, we heard that. But it has been coming in too little, too late. There is no coordinated strategy."

He said one agricultural assistance program in southern Afghanistan had received 30 percent of its seeds after the planting season was over.

"The solution has to be food production not food aid," Banbury went on. "It will never be solved if the government and the donors do not take the right steps, and that has not happened except in very small pockets."

Category: Poverty, Corruption - Views: 18790


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