CWS has a 'very large role to play' in the fight against hunger

As a humanitarian agency founded six decades ago to help feed a Europe recovering from World War II, Church World Service has long been a leader in the battle against hunger. Now CWS is re-emphasizing hunger and nutrition in its programmatic work -- a commitment to fight malnutrition around the world.

Maurice BloemMaurice Bloem
Photo: R. Hughes/CWS

By Chris Herlinger/CWS
NEW YORK – As a humanitarian agency founded six decades ago to help feed a Europe recovering from World War II, Church World Service has long been a leader in the battle against hunger.

Now CWS is re-emphasizing hunger and nutrition in its programmatic work – a commitment to fight malnutrition around the world.

As one example, CWS recently announced it is strengthening its allegiance to child-centered programs, with a particular emphasis on helping fight malnutrition. It is a  needed role in a world where 200 million children under age 5 are undernourished. Six million of these children die every year from causes related to malnutrition, according to the United Nations.
Service recently asked Maurice A. Bloem, CWS's deputy director and head of programs, and Julia Suryantan, CWS's nutrition expert and a monitoring and evaluation coordinator,  to discuss the issue of hunger and CWS's renewed commitment to fighting it.

CH: With a new year upon us, perhaps you can explain why CWS has chosen to re-emphasize the fight against hunger. CWS has a long tradition of this, but why this re-focus now? And does it mean we are now emphasizing hunger at the exclusion of other priorities?

MB: CWS was born out of the need to rebuild Europe by addressing the highest need -- responding to the immediate problem of hunger. Eventually, while our activities grew around the globe, we began to address the broader issue of food security, so it is something that has always been at the core of CWS activities.

Now with climate change, the global economic crisis and the increase in food prices over the last few years, malnutrition is on the rise globally. So there is a need for us, as an agency, to look at hunger by considering both food and nutrition security.

CH: Does this mean de-emphasizing other humanitarian programs?

MB: No. We need to be clear that focusing on hunger doesn't mean we exclude other priorities – though we also have to be clear that most of our activities are linked to hunger directly or indirectly.  We have to make people aware that there is a link and show, for example, how providing water can support achieving food and nutrition security through food production, and improved hygiene and sanitation. Some of our responses address immediate causes, others intermediate causes and others mainly deal with root causes.

CH: What are some things we all need to know about hunger? For example, you've argued about the need for emphasizing micronutrients. Perhaps you can give us a short primer on these different anti-hunger tools.
MB: Since the food price crisis began in 2008, Church World Service has been calling for a three-pronged approach toward the problem of global hunger. First, ensure that the most vulnerable, like the urban poor and refugees and other displaced persons, are properly supported.

This is done by addressing acute and chronic malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies through ready to use foods and or micronutrient supplements. Second, we want to ensure that sufficient investments are made in agriculture, particularly in supporting small farmers. This needs to be coupled with initiatives to promote dietary diversity and sustainable production in farming.

Finally, we've advocated for additional funds to address the ongoing food crisis, carry out critical research on global food systems -- of which climate change issues are also a part -- and continue to highlight the work on trade justice and trade policy. These are important for food sovereignty and security of small farms.

CH: What needs to be done immediately?

JS: For addressing immediate needs, we need to be able to make foods available so that malnourished children can quickly recover and get the proper macro- and micronutrients needed to grow in full. Hidden hunger, due to micronutrient deficiencies is very prevalent in the world now – more so than hunger that causes wasting.

Micronutrient deficiency not only affects children's physical growth but also cognitive growth, leading to lower school performance, for example. Micronutrient deficiencies are highly prevalent in many countries – the problem is even increasing in the U.S., according to recent studies – and in most contexts research shows that even if the poor would have sufficient resources to buy the proper foods, the foods are not available. So, we need to have a wide scale of different interventions, some important for long-term sustainability and others for immediate results, like ready to use foods and ready to use therapeutic foods.

CH: Early age is a crucial time for interventions, isn't it?

JS: It is. The period of conception until a child is roughly 2 years old is very crucial in a life, so priority should be given to interventions that target women of reproductive age, pregnant and nursing mothers and children under 2. All efforts to prevent and treat malnutrition, including micronutrient deficiencies, and provide better care for women and children, need to be top priorities. Ensuring household food security and access to water need to under-gird these efforts.

CH: Acute malnutrition – in, say, immediate emergencies – gets a lot of attention, much more than chronic malnutrition but chronic malnutrition is no less a problem, and is harder to respond to, as it's often under the radar. What role does CWS and other NGOs play in dealing with this problem?

JS: I think we have a very large role to play; chronic malnutrition does require our attention. In the past, our interventions might have had a focus on immediate protein improvements but I think we need to ensure in our future work that we make hidden hunger a priority and that if we provide food, it ensures a balanced diet. We can make a lot of progress by ensuring that children under three years old get a well balanced diet.

MB: We have to be clear, too, that while immediate interventions are important, root causes need to addressed -- you need things like political will, good governance and increased voice and choice for the most vulnerable. CWS has a proven track record in contributing significantly to raising these concerns. However, it is obvious that we can't do it all alone. Strategic partnerships are crucial. We need to work with the people themselves, with the faith based organizations, governments, UN agencies but also with the private sector. There is a need to find synergies, as we are all in this together.
CH: Finally, help us understand how the issues of hunger and climate change are linked. I know some have a hard time seeing how the two are connected.
MB: The base issue is that changes in climate affect food production: rain fall or prolonged drought affects food security because it changes farming patterns. Drought, for example, can decimate fully-grown crops that feed a village or a region. Severe climate events, like hurricanes or floods, can do the same thing.

But that's not all it can do. An increase in temperatures can extend the geographic distribution of communicable diseases. When you combine that with malnutrition, that leads to death among the most vulnerable people. Climate change also poses a major challenge to the right to water, with its consequences on human health, through depleting freshwater resources.

Finally, rising sea levels, which result from increased temperatures and the melting of glaciers and the polar caps, result in salt water contamination of groundwater. These are huge challenges for the international community, and as I said, we need to work together in concert with other agencies to help the most vulnerable, who are forced to cope with these problems in their daily lives.

Facts on hunger:

  • One in nearly six people on the planet -- some 1.02 billion people in the world today -- are undernourished.
  • Hunger and malnutrition remain the number one health risk in the world today -- greater than the combined threats of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
  • The first two years of life are the best window of opportunity for fighting malnutrition and preventing childhood under-nutrition.
  • Malnutrition at an early age leads to reduced physical and mental development during childhood. Stunting, for example, affects more than 147 million young children in developing countries.
  • Among the causes leading to hunger are war and conflicts, natural disasters like floods, poverty, poor agricultural infrastructure and the over-use and over-exploitation of the environment. Exacerbating these problems are financial and economic crises.
  • "Hidden hunger" -- the lack of micronutrient deficiencies – is a less visible form of hunger, but it affects many more people, and it does terrible damage. It makes people susceptible to infectious diseases, impairs their physical and mental development, reduces their productivity at works and increases their risk of premature death. Such daily undernourishment is a less visible form of hunger -- but it affects many more people.
  • Even if people get enough to eat, they will become malnourished if their food does not provide the proper amounts of micronutrients -- vitamins and minerals -- to meet daily nutritional requirements.

Source: The UN's World Food Program


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