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4. What is food security?

Unfortunately, the lexicon of international development sometimes manages to do precisely the opposite of what it is designed to do: it obscures rather than illuminates.  Another deficiency of development jargon is that it uses cool blue technocratic language to describe blood-red human realities.  When I write about “food security,” what I am really talking about is hunger.

Food insecurity — or hunger — can come about when the answer to any one of these three questions is “no”:

  • Is there enough food for people to eat?
    We call this “availability” in development jargon.  It refers not just to the quantity but also the quality (diversity, nutrient quality) of food available.  I think it is what most people think of when they hear the term “hunger” — desperately vulnerable people in long queues jostling for free food from a relief agency.  While this persists in many parts of the coffeelands — my sources tell me that 12 million people in Ethiopia are on direct food relief out of a population of 80 million — it is not the only source of hunger.
  • Can people get the food?
    Development translation: “access.”  It may be that there is plenty of food available — in local markets, in warehouses, etc. — but that people aren’t able to get access to it.  The most common obstacle to access is poverty: people simply can’t afford to buy enough diverse, nutritious food to develop as they should (to say nothing of their ability to produce coffees that score in the upper 80s).  There are other common barriers, however, including poor roads, inefficient distribution, political instability, etc.
  • Do people make use of the food?
    Also known as “utilization.”  Say there is enough food available.  And people have access to that food.  They may not use it in the ways that contribute most to their own development.  This can be due to behavioral factors — they just don’t eat a diverse and/or nutritious diet — or illness — the body doesn’t have the biological ability to take advantage of food because they are sick.

In the end, this language may seem like it comes from a parallel universe.  And it might not do that much to dignify the struggles of human beings.  The advantage of its precision, however, is that it avoids the undifferentiated concept of “hunger” and helps folks trying to address these problems target their efforts in ways most likely to have a positive impact.

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