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Ndaloswa Bekinala sifts maize flour outside her home in Thyolo, one of the poorest districts of Malawi. The continuing high price of food has made it difficult for her to afford three meals a day for her family. (Erin Conway-Smith)
Ndaloswa Bekinala sifts maize flour outside her home in Thyolo, one of the poorest districts of Malawi. The continuing high price of food has made it difficult for her to afford three meals a day for her family. (Erin Conway-Smith)

Global hunger on the rise again Add to ...

On the days when she can't afford three meals, Ndaloswa Bekinala cuts back to two meals and gives tea to her family instead of a proper meal.

Sometimes she has to mix corn husks into the food to make it last longer. She knows that her children and grandchildren are hungry, but they don't complain.

"I've been telling them how life is changing," says the 57-year-old woman who lives in one of Malawi's poorest districts.

"When there is no food, they have to understand. We're not happy to see them suffer, but they understand by now. We just teach them that there's no food."

Ms. Bekinala and her family are among the millions of people around the world who have been pushed into hunger by a painful double whammy: soaring food prices and global recession.

Ministers of international co-operation from the G8 nations, including Bev Oda of Canada, were holding an unprecedented meeting in Rome Thursday and Friday to discuss how to help the poorer nations survive the global crisis.

After decades of progress, the scourge of global hunger is suddenly on the rise again. The number of hungry people in the world, defined as those getting fewer than 1,800 calories per day, is projected to rise by 104 million people this year, pushing the world total to a record number of more than a billion, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Another UN agency, the World Food Program, warned Thursday that millions of families in dozens of developing countries are coping with the economic crisis by going hungry, withdrawing their children from school, and cutting back on meals and health care.

"For those living on less than $2 a day, the financial crisis is accelerating hunger, and the worst is yet to come," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the WFP.

The economic slump has been devastating for unskilled workers, families that rely on remittances from abroad, workers laid off from the export sectors, and those working in mining and tourism, the agency said.

"The worst-hit are not necessarily the poorest of the poor, but a new group of people who face a downward slide into poverty," a WFP report said Thursday.

"Communities are still reeling from food and fuel price rises which peaked in 2008," it added. "Prices remain stubbornly high, and with the economic downturn, many workers abroad can no longer send home money to feed their families."

The agency has devised an Economic Shock and Hunger Index to calculate the impact of the crisis. Based on this index, it took a closer look at five of the most vulnerable countries: Armenia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Nicaragua and Zambia - although it said the trends in those countries were just an illustration of the broader problems in dozens of other countries.

In Zambia, for example, the once-booming copper mining industry has lost 25 per cent of its work force because of the global recession, and the Zambian currency has lost a third of its value against the U.S. dollar, causing a sharp rise in the price of food, fuel and fertilizer.

In Bangladesh, declining exports of jute and garments have caused 300,000 job losses, while remittances from workers abroad are dramatically declining. Remittances dropped by 9 per cent in February alone, and large numbers of Bangladeshi migrant workers have been deported from the Gulf states and other countries.

In Nicaragua, exports have declined by 20 per cent, and 20,000 workers have been laid off. In Ghana, remittances have plunged by 16 per cent in the past year, and the currency has dropped by about 25 per cent against the dollar. In Armenia, exports have fallen by half, while 15,000 newly unemployed workers have been registered in the past six months.

Malawi, one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, has managed to boost its food production in recent years by subsidizing the cost of fertilizer. But higher oil prices have triggered a drastic rise in fertilizer costs, which in turn has forced food prices up, hurting many of Malawi's poorest people.

Mrs. Bekinala, a carpenter's wife who supports two children and three grandchildren in her two-room house, grows enough maize in her small garden to feed her family for a few weeks of the year. But this year she could not afford to buy enough fertilizer to produce as much maize as before.

"Our income is very low, and the prices are skyrocketing," she said. "I know my husband is struggling. There's nothing you can do. Prices will keep rising, and you can't even beg. It's everyone for himself."

Victor Mhoni, national co-ordinator of the Civil Society Agricultural Network in Malawi, says the price of maize, the main staple food in the country, has risen steeply in the past two years because the cost of fertilizer has doubled.

While there is enough maize for most people at the moment because of the recent harvest, the crunch will come in the next few months, he said. "The real effect will be felt in September or October, when the supply is narrower. The poor will feel the pinch very much by October. It's going to be bad, maybe worse than last year. And the food crisis will continue for the next two years."

A recent UN report estimated that 73 to 103 million more people will fall into poverty because of the global economic crisis. The World Bank has estimated that the crisis has set back the battle against poverty by seven years, with an additional 44 million children suffering permanent physical or mental impairment because of rising malnutrition last year.

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