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Seasonal Hunger: A Forgotten Reality

Shahid Khandker's picture

Harvesting crops. Bangladesh. Photo: Thomas Sennett / World BankThe seasonality of poverty and food deprivation is a common feature of rural livelihood in Bangladesh, but it is more marked in the northwest region of Rangpur.  The recently launched policy interventions in the region provide a test case of what works and what does not in combating seasonal hunger.

Key messages
The analysis of Bangladesh’s experience with seasonal hunger vis-à-vis year-round poverty shows a clear distinction between what is observed and what is excluded from placement and evaluation of poverty-mitigation policies, based on official poverty statistics. The key recommendations from this analysis are as follows: 

• Policies to improve food security should explicitly take into account the seasonal dimensions of poverty and food deprivation in rural areas.

Seasonal food deprivation remains an important feature of food insecurity in rural Bangladesh, particularly in economically depressed and ecologically vulnerable areas, including the greater Rangpur (northwest) region.  Unaddressed by official annualized poverty estimates, seasonal stresses are often ignored by policy makers, gaining attention only when exacerbated by natural disasters or climate irregularities.

• Gains from recent initiatives to combat seasonal hunger in the greater Rangpur region should be monitored and consolidated to ensure a sustainable impact.

The various interventions recently launched by both the Government of Bangladesh and nongovernmental organizations need to be coordinated to ensure an appropriate balance between short-term measures that prevent immediate hardship and longer-term programs to promote sustainable livelihoods.

• Policies should also focus on areas that, owing to environmental degradation and climate change, have become emerging poverty pockets.

In addition to the greater Rangpur region, areas along the southern coastal belt have emerged as new poverty pockets due to such agro-climatic factors as salinity intrusion and increased frequency, severity, and unpredictability of natural disasters.

Policy motivation
Agricultural diversification, made possible by recent technological breakthroughs, has lessened the severity of seasonal hunger in many parts of the developing world.  Yet in agricultural pockets scattered throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, seasonal hunger persists among the rural poor, owing primarily to seasonality of agriculture.  A crop failure or poor harvest of such major seasonal food crops as wheat, rice, and maize intensifies seasonal stress, particularly in more economically depressed or ecologically vulnerable areas.  In addition, natural disasters and climate irregularities, such as floods and droughts, can magnify seasonal adversity, which may have irreversible effects on livelihood sustainability.  Furthermore, extreme weather conditions associated with climate change exacerbate the frequency, severity, and unpredictability of seasonal income and consumption shocks. 

Who is at risk?
The poor are the most vulnerable to seasonal hunger, a fact often overlooked in discourses on food insecurity.  Because standard poverty statistics do not consider seasonal hunger in official data collection and analysis, there is no direct way to determine how many of the “bottom billion,” as economist Paul Collier refers to the world’s poorest people, suffer from seasonal hunger.  What is known is that more than four-fifths of the world’s poor live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.  Those who suffer from year-round poverty are likely to be even poorer during a particular agricultural season, while those who are not poor year-round may be so during that season.  Thus, a large percentage of the poor who are vulnerable to food insecurity are “invisible” to poverty statistics, meaning that policies aimed at reducing poverty, based on measurements of annual consumption data, may disregard the seasonal poor if the causes of seasonal hunger differ from those that affect year-round poverty.  It also means that seasonal hunger may lead to endemic poverty if its adverse effects on income and consumption are irreversible.  Even worse, regions prone to severe seasonal hunger are unlikely to attract the public investments required to raise the local economy’s resilience through diversification and thus break the seasonal-poverty cycle.

Evidence from Northwest Bangladesh
A joint study of the World Bank and Bangladesh’s Institute of Microfinance (InM) recently examined the overlooked issue of seasonal hunger in the country’s greater Rangpur (northwest) region.  Well-known in the famine literature, Rangpur was among the worst hit regions during the Great Bengal Famine of 1942–44 and was at the epicentre of Bangladesh’s 1974 famine.  The region has not only lagged the rest of the country in poverty reduction, but has remained particularly vulnerable to seasonal hunger, locally known as monga.  This study evaluated various policy interventions to see which ones work best at mitigating seasonal hunger and persistent poverty.

Compared to other areas of Bangladesh, the northwest region has marked seasonal variations in food and extreme poverty, which correspond to distinct agricultural (rice) seasons.  Yet the official poverty statistics do not account for these variations (Khandker, 2009) (Figure).  More recent data shows that starvation among rural households in the Rangpur region increases from 10 percent in the non-monga period to a staggering 50 percent during monga.  About the same proportion of households also must ration food during both monga and non-monga periods. 

Figure: Seasonal variations in food and extreme poverty, 2000 and 2005
 
Source: Khandker (2009). Note: Boro = March-May, Aus = June-August, Monga = September-November, Aman = December-February. 

Seasonal hunger’s relationship to seasonal income is at least as strong as its relationship to year-round income.  Seasonal hunger results in from marked seasonality in agricultural income, combined with the inability of poor households to smooth consumption (e.g., through savings, borrowing, or food storage).  Among the most proximate causes of seasonal hunger is the seasonal loss of employment for landless wage workers, resulting from overdependence on the agricultural sector and a general lack of employment diversification in rural areas.  While seasonal food-price inflation may worsen the severity of monga, it is not a necessary correlate, as evidenced by most famines.  This may help to explain why monga remains unnoticed, given that public outcry is usually in response to abnormal food price hikes. 

A variety of recent initiatives undertaken to combat monga in Rangpur includes introducing new crop technology, public works and other safety nets, facilitating out-migration (Chowdhury and others, 2009), asset transfer (e.g., livestock), and specially-designed microcredit programs in addition to regular ones (Khandker, Khalily and Samad, 2010).  These measures are found to alleviate seasonal hunger to varying degrees.  Their collective impact appears greater than separately estimated ones, suggesting their beneficial synergies and complementarities.


References

Khandker, Shahidur R. and Wahiduddin Mahmud. 2012. Seasonal Hunger and Public Policies: A Case Study of Bangladesh, the World Bank, Washington, DC (forthcoming).

Khandker, Shahidur R., and Wahiduddin Mahmud. 2011 “Mitigating Seasonal Hunger: Evidence from  Northwest Bangladesh,” Policy Note, Institute of Microfinance, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

 

Comments

Many thanks to Shahid for this timely and well-documented reminder. Seasonal hunger still exists in large parts of the world--it is still the norm for example in many parts of semi-arid Africa. It used to be the norm in much of East Asia as well. When announcing a generous $50 million pledge to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program 18 months ago, the Korean Minister of Finance touchingly recalled his boyhood where having to make do with much less daily food at a certain time of the year was a dreaded certainty. The truth is, many people who remember the major famines of the 1960s and 1970s grew complacent in the three decades since then, when real food prices in most of the world were on a fairly steady downwards trend. Many more never knew those times. Yet the reasons for coninued complaceny are over (see the April 2011 Development Committee paper on food price volatility for details), and the fixes applied in the late 1970s look increasingly out of reach. The very sad truth is that we can expect to see a lot more seasonal hunger going forward.