March 4, 2016

Guest Commentary – Feeding Big Cities in Growing, Fragile, and Conflict-Ridden States

By Sam Worthington, Chief Executive Officer, InterAction

As Ethiopia faces its worst drought in 50 years, some of the ten million people in need of food, and the 400,000 children suffering from malnutrition, reside in the slums of Addis Ababa. Increasingly the face of hunger is in a slum or city. While it is important to fight hunger and malnutrition in rural areas, we must not forget to address food insecurity in growing cities.

Today half of humanity is concentrated in urban areas, as people migrate in search of opportunities or simply to survive. Even as governments build better social safety nets and as markets generate wealth, megacities in emerging markets contain slums full of people who cannot afford nutritious food.

Cities in fragile or conflict-ridden countries, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Syria, lack both the capital and the capacity needed to help people access adequate food. Crowded cities in emerging and less-developed countries alike can create a perfect storm of global food insecurity, sometimes causing governments to fall. To address urban hunger, governments, businesses, and civil society must partner to build resilient food systems by introducing adequate social safety nets and economic opportunities, diversifying food sources, and reforming food aid policies.  

Rural poor who move to cities buy food from markets instead of growing it on their own. Due to limited affordable land in urban areas, it is imperative that those living in cities have access to fresh produce from both local and regional rural villages. In Zambia, ACDI VOCA’s PROFIT+ program partners with private businesses to work with rural smallholder farmers in the areas of technical assistance, including drip irrigation and access to urban markets. This helps smallholder farmers grow their businesses while also providing those in cities with greater access to sweet potatoes, maize, and other crops. In South Africa, GlobalGiving works with unemployed women in densely populated, hunger-stricken townships to cultivate vegetable gardens in urban areas. Women gain critical skills needed to grow crops in urban environments, sell them in markets, and nourish their families.

Increasing the diversity of food sources is key to building resilient food systems, but many marginalized people may still be left behind. Even in a country as rich as the United States, around 48 million Americans live in households that do not have enough food. In emerging markets like Delhi and Rio de Janeiro, the ability to buy nutritious food is increasing, but it is largely concentrated within affluent and middle classes. With both growing wealth and inequality in a market system, governments must implement economic policies that increase jobs and provide enough income for families to buy nutritious food. Additionally, governments must bolster social safety net programs to ensure that the most vulnerable do not go hungry.

In cities with poor governance, such as Port-au-Prince, or those with protracted violence and conflict such as Aleppo, governments lack the capacity to focus on people suffering from hunger and malnutrition. In fragile and conflict-ridden states, the UN, bilateral donors, NGOs, and other civil society organizations must fill the gaps. To reverse malnutrition and defeat hunger in Port-au-Prince, Feed the Children provides food and nutrition-related education to parents and children. They also provide technical and financial assistance to farmers raising livestock such as goats—allowing farmers to increase their productivity and incomes. In Aleppo and other cities inside Syria, Islamic Relief USA provides lifesaving assistance, such as food parcels for families that have been forcibly displaced from their homes.

The response of the U.S. government and its partners to Ethiopia’s drought and the violence in Aleppo showcase increasing innovation in food assistance programs. In addition to delivering U.S. commodities during a food shortage, the United States is also providing cash transfers and food vouchers that allow people in need to buy food from local markets. This allows people more freedom to buy food of their choice while also infusing the local economy with cash and strengthening local markets. The nuances in programming allow for countries to recover from a crisis while rebuilding food systems and increasing resilience to droughts, floods, or conflict through programs like Feed the Future.     

Every day, 795 million people suffer from a lack of essential nutrients needed to lead healthy and active lives. Last year, 193 countries finalized the Sustainable Development Goals and committed to achieving zero hunger, tackling malnutrition, and building inclusive prosperity in the next 15 years. To do this, we must first acknowledge the challenges we face due to the growing number of hungry people in densely populated—sometimes fragile and often violent—cities. And governments, civil society organizations, and private businesses must join forces to increase people’s access to safe and nutritious food in some of the world’s most marginalized urban areas to eradicate hunger everywhere. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.