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The Real Hunger Games – 16 Apr 2012

It seems like every conversation I have lately, I get asked if I’ve read The Hunger Games. At work, at church, at dinner – eventually I realised I should probably find out what’s getting people so animated.

The dystopian fiction of The Hunger Games is set in a country named Panem, in what is left of North America after an unexplained apocalypse generations ago. Districts around its Capitol are starving and dying, children skipping school to find food and become head of families when their parents cannot care for them. Already this is striking a familiar chord; we know all too well that this isn’t a potential future scenario, but a daily reality for communities Tearfund works with from Bangladesh to Bolivia, right now.

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The plot thickens. To punish the districts for their rebellion 74 years ago, the Capitol holds an annual televised event where they choose a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 at random from each district, and force them to fight to the death for prizes of food as the whole country watches. Immediately I’m getting flashbacks to the starving babies we saw fight for survival in East Africa on our TV screens not even a year ago. And we are in danger of seeing it again this year as 13 million are at risk in the Sahel, West Africa. Almost a third of people in Chad are in trouble. Some children are already dying from malnutrition and others are cutting their meals down to one a day and selling their precious livestock. The UN is calling for over $1bn to head off the food crisis in the Sahel.

I wish that was fictional.

The situation in the Sahel is depicted very well in this new illustration, inspired by the arena from the Hunger Games, which reminds us why hunger persists in the developing world in our day and age, despite there being enough food for everyone. Hunger rules this landscape – 1 billion people trying to make a living, whilst battling against climate change, high food and energy prices, conflict, inequality, trade barriers, land grabbing, and historically a minuscule investment in agriculture.

Hunger is no game for Agnes Anyabo, 37, from Omulala village, in Eastern Uganda. She is my heroine in the real world of hunger. Orphaned at 6 and later thrown out by her husband for not bearing a child, her tiny plot of land was washed away by floods. She started over again and planted more vegetables, but then a drought forced her to eat wild leaves. She had two more mouths to feed as guardian of her sister’s daughters Caro and Margaret. But she joined a women’s farming cooperative, set up by the local church, and started growing cassava and received cattle and goats. Now she is more resilient to face droughts and floods.

So how can we end the real hunger games, for good, so we can help more people like Agnes?

The international community and governments need to stop treating food crises as a series of unexpected disasters. They can no longer play with people’s lives or wait to act until we see starving African children on our TV screens, as if it were the televised Hunger Games. We need long term strategies to end chronic hunger, build resilience and prevent predictable food crises, like the one looming in the Sahel, right now.

We need to invest more in smallholder farmers and put female farmers at the very heart of strategies and increase their access to land, markets, extension services, loans and decision making. Shifting the focus to the demands faced by women in ensuring that her family eats enough nutritious food, today and tomorrow and benefits from economic gains, better captures the nature of day-to-day food security.

Governments must develop national food security strategies, including empowering women to ensure equal access to food. Food security needs to climb higher up the food chain in terms of political agenda and investment. We need visionary leadership to ensure that all countries, especially those prone to food crises, have sufficient resources to ensure food security effectively and to end the hunger games once and for all.

Read more on Tearfund’s response to the West Africa crisis
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Matthew Frost is Chief Executive of international aid and development agency Tearfund UK

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