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Jonathan Crush

The urban poor are going hungry Add to ...

The global economic crisis has played havoc with food security in developing countries and dramatically increased the vulnerability of many. At the United Nations food summit in Rome this week, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the summit's sponsor, said the number of undernourished people in the world passed one billion for the first time. In Africa alone, 300 million people, many of them children, are now undernourished. In 2000, the first UN Millennium Development Goal aimed to reduce global poverty by 50 per cent by 2015. At the time, the goal seemed overly optimistic; now it's utopian.

The global community has responded with commendable vigour to the food crisis. The UN, international groups and the G8 and G20 have all identified food security as a central development challenge for the 21st century. Canada, too, has identified food security as a key area for development funding. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has convened a High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis to co-ordinate a global response. The G8 has pledged $20-billion for a new global food security initiative. And the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, headed by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and backed by the Gates Foundation, has been established.

But the new food security agenda has a major flaw, one that may prove fatal to the millions it ignores. Underlying this agenda, and the food summit itself, is the idea that food insecurity is exclusively a rural problem and that the solution is to get small farmers to grow more food. The obstacles to achieving this goal are many, but it will not be for want of trying as billions of dollars are thrown at international organizations and developing countries in an effort to get them to create mini-green revolutions around the world.

The agenda's rural bias, however, threatens to sideline a rapidly growing global constituency: the urban poor. The urban population of developing countries will exceed the rural population by 2020. In the next 30 years, virtually all of the three-billion increase in population is expected to occur in developing country cities. Latin America is already 70 per cent urbanized. Even in the "rural" continent of Africa, the urban population is 350 million, and expected to double by 2025. Soon thereafter, there will be more urban than rural dwellers in Africa.

Nothing will be gained by ignoring the urban poor, whose vulnerability to food insecurity is often as great or even greater than the rural poor. The reality is that rural populations in almost all developing countries are increasing at a decreasing rate, while the opposite is true of urban populations.

The problems and challenges of food insecurity are not the same in the city. A recent survey of 11 cities in Africa by the African Food Security Urban Network found that chronic food insecurity was all-pervasive, with 77 per cent of poor urban households reporting conditions of food insecurity. Most urban households rely on purchased foodstuffs, and the ability to buy food is critical to household food security.



More measures to increase economic growth, create jobs and reduce urban poverty will have an immediate impact on urban food insecurity.


The poor quality of urban diets is producing an epidemic of undernutrition and overnutrition (obesity) in many cities. Dietary quality and diversity was poor, and many households could not afford more than one meal a day. Food insecure households spend 40 per cent to 60 per cent of their income on food. Only 10 per cent of urban households produce any of their own food. The HIV-AIDS pandemic is increasing food insecurity by depriving households of income earners and diverting scarce resources into treatment.

The challenges of addressing urban food insecurity cannot be reduced to the "grow more" solutions of the new rural food security agenda. Urban agriculture is part of the solution, and much more needs to be done to support the greening of cities in developing countries. But rising food prices and stagnant or declining incomes are at the heart of the problem. High food prices and price hikes are passed on quickly to consumers, but these are consumers who do not have discretionary income and are unable to adjust their buying patterns except by making do with less, by cutting out meals and by reducing dietary diversity.

More measures to increase economic growth, create jobs and reduce urban poverty will have an immediate impact on urban food insecurity. Some countries, such as South Africa, have invested heavily in social protection (that country now makes child-support grants to 12 million children), which is staving off the worst forms of undernourishment and child malnutrition. School-feeding schemes have also been identified as important supplements for children from poor households, enabling many to study better and to stay in school longer.

But social protection schemes are costly, and few poor countries have the wherewithal to make them universal without outside aid. Improving dietary diversity and the nutritional value of urban food are also key issues. And the governance of cities needs to be examined. In cities of the developing world, it is the municipal level of governance that constrains food security for many. Most cities, for example, are hostile or indifferent to street trading, a key food source for the urban poor. The informal sector needs to be encouraged and supported by governments and the private sector. Many street traders operate small businesses but are unable to obtain microcredit or open bank accounts.

Canada's Minister of International Co-operation recently announced that food security will be a key programming issue for the Canadian International Development Agency going forward. Like everyone else, Ottawa is likely to focus its attention on agriculture and rural food security. But there's also an opportunity for Canada to take a lead role in making urban food security a priority and working with developing countries to develop new and innovative responses to the blight of urban food insecurity.

Jonathan Crush is co-director of the African Food Security Urban Network and a professor in the global development studies department at Queen's University.

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