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Silent violence of malnutrition

By the start of 2003 a little under 15 million people will face starvation in Southern Africa. Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe are among the most severely affected.

But because rates of acute malnutrition have remained stable in most Southern African countries, a state of famine has not yet been declared in every country.

Mike Davis, who has written on famine, points us away from this sort of threshold thinking: ‘Famine is part of a continuum with the silent violence of malnutrition that precedes and conditions it, and with the mortality of the shadow of debilitation and disease that follows it.’ Famine is not caused by lack of food but by poverty. It is the outcome of a system that places greater importance upon the market than upon those going hungry.

It’s no wonder the people of Southern Africa are starving – they have been starving for over a decade. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated in 2000 that 35 per cent of the people in the famine region were undernourished, with 54 per cent of Mozambique’s population undernourished. In 2002 rampant Southern African hunger was tipped over the official ‘famine’ threshold by two years of bad harvests. That’s one reason we’re now hearing news of it. That sense of emergency masks the bigger question we must seek answers to: why, even before the current food crisis, have so many people suffered for so long from chronic malnutrition?

Raj Patel (with Alexa Delwiche)

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