Sri Lanka’s Position in Global Hunger Index not Very Satisfactory

By Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 4 2021
FT Sri Lanka’s  Position in Global  Hunger Index not Very Satisfactory

By Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe

Today, there are various queues in various parts of the country. There are rice queues somewhere. Elsewhere are the milk powder queues. Some are in gas queues. Others are queuing up to buy a kerosene stove or a clay-wood stove. Currently, food inflation in the country has also reached a very high level. 

The market for certain food items is also in a supply shortage. At the same time, international organisations warn that the world is on the brink of a major food crisis. Such a food crisis will inevitably have a severe impact on Sri Lanka. In the midst of all this, the Global Hunger Index for 2021 was also released.

Sri Lanka is ranked 65th in the Global Hunger Index for 2021. According to the index, Sri Lanka has been identified as a moderate country with a score of 16 in 2021. According to the Global Hunger Index in 2020, Sri Lanka was ranked 64th. The countries with the lowest score on that index are recognised as the least hungry countries in the world. 

Eighteen countries, including China, Brazil, Kuwait, Cuba, Turkey and Bosnia, scored less than five points on the index, making them the world’s least hungry country in 2021. Somalia has become the world’s most hungry country. After Somalia, Syria, South Sudan, the Comoros and Burundi have been identified as the world’s most hungry countries.

This year, 116 countries around the world are included in the annual Global Hunger Index, which looks at undernourished percentage of the population, children under five suffering from wasting, children under five suffering from stunted growth and child mortality under the age of five. According to the 2021 data of the index, about 30 per cent of the population of Sri Lanka is vulnerable to food insecurity. It’s about 6,626,000 people. 

It is stated that 83 per cent of the people affected by food insecurity in Sri Lanka are rural and 17 per cent are urban. Neighbouring India ranks 101st in the index and is among the high risk countries. Myanmar is ranked 71st, Nepal and Bangladesh 76th, and Pakistan 92nd. Although Sri Lanka is in a good rank compared to other South Asian countries, it is not a very satisfactory and sustainable situation.

The world is in the process of normalising during the post-pandemic of corona epidemic as a result of the world-wide vaccination against the corona virus, and thus, the demand for many commodities have grown significantly. A key feature of that process is the increase in commodity prices. Although it is not a big problem for the developed countries which have strong economies, it is a very difficult economic problem for Sri Lanka, which has a uniquely weak economy and is severely affected by the foreign exchange crisis, to bear these price increases in the world market.

Sri Lanka is not a long-term foreign exchange earning economy. The amount of foreign exchange inflows into the country was also lost due to the corona epidemic. As a result, there were not enough dollars to import goods. Then the Government followed the imports control. It also did not succeed, and was able to control less than 10 per cent of the total import expenditure. Eventually, a shortage of goods in the local market led to an increase in commodity prices. Meanwhile, the failure of banks to provide the dollars needed to open Letters of Credit led to a black market for dollars. 

The purchase of dollars from the black market and the importation of goods further increased the prices of the imported goods and materials. Many of the short-term strategies tried, such as the compensation to be received for the damage caused to the marine environment due to the fire of X-Press Pearl ship, also failed to generate positive results in overcoming the foreign exchange crisis, as expected.

The economic strategy adopted by the Government when commodity prices went up was price control. In a free-market economy, price control is not a viable option for the Government. Price control cannot eliminate supply shortages. All that is needed is production. Black market was created due to shortage of goods and price control. Then the government had to remove the price control that was brought in according to the wishes of certain businesses communities. In the end, the poor could not afford to buy anything they could afford previously. High food inflation in Sri Lanka during 2020-2021 has made it difficult for low-income households to afford food, which threatened their food security.

The United Nations states the second goal of sustainable development to be achieved by 2030 is to eradicate hunger, improve food security and nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. It emphasises the importance of food security to reduce hunger and poverty in Sri Lanka in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. Further, it demonstrates the need for a long-term plan for sustainable development to achieve those goals.

According to the Global Food Security Index - 2019, Sri Lanka was ranked 66th out of 113 countries. The Global Food Security Index is based on food availability, food purchasing power, food quality and safety. Ranking 66th on that index is not a very satisfactory situation. Also, child malnutrition is a long standing problem in Sri Lanka. The Demographic and Health Survey (2016) by the Department of Census and Statistics found that stunting, wasting and underweight among children aged five years or below were 17.3 per cent, 15.1 per cent, and 20.5 per cent, respectively. Although Sri Lanka ranks 65th in the Global Hunger Index, this is why it is not so satisfying.

Food security in a country is not limited to ensuring food production and adequate food supply. It is a very broad concept, and a very broad practice. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, food security means having access to adequate, safe and nutritious food that can meet the dietary requirements and appetites needed to live an active and healthy life. It covers four key aspects of a country’s food security, namely; food availability, access to food, food utilisation, and stability.

The world is preparing for a severe food crisis in the future, with the predicted post-Corona consequences. Experience from the Corona epidemic also shows that without an analytical long-term policy to ensure food security in Sri Lanka, existing food insecurity problems are likely to worsen. The short-term consequence of food insecurity is hunger. But long-term food insecurity can lead to problems such as low birth weight, lack of age-appropriate height & weight, atrophy, and micronutrient deficiencies. At the height of food insecurity in a country, people in certain sections of society can even die. We see the worst case scenario of this in the countries like Somalia, South Sudan and Syria.

It is not enough for the Government to expand social security programmes to ensure food security and to alleviate the short-term financial problems of producers and consumers. Facing the food crisis that is predicted to occur in the future requires a long-term plan that goes beyond social security programmes. In order to formulate and implement such a programme, it is important to review the recommendations given in the Annual Report (2020) of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

The issues related to food security in the country need to be addressed through a policy approach that covers all aspects with short-term and long-term strategies. First, it is essential to establish a long-term mechanism for proper monitoring and regulation of food supply systems and markets in the economy. In addition to the national level regulatory agencies, local level regulatory agencies should be empowered to prevent irregularities in food production, distribution and trade. It is also important to continue the Government’s policy of encouraging urban agriculture as in the period 2020-2021.

Most importantly, Sri Lanka is still a dependent country on imports for some of the key food items on its Food Balance Sheet. So, local production of these foods should be encouraged to avoid risks to local food security. At the same time, there is a need to implement integrated strategies to reduce post-harvest losses, proper storage and transportation of foods, and keep Food Price Inflation low. Food Price Inflation in Sri Lanka averaged 6.34 per cent from 2009 until 2021, reaching an all-time high of 17.50 per cent in November of 2021. 

Many parts of Sri Lanka have very fertile soil. There are still many areas where even the discarded stalks grow very fertile. We have good water sources. Our country has the benefits of weather and climate that extends throughout the year. We have a strong cultural foundation that will help eradicate hunger and ensure food security. Opportunistic and corrupt politics and poor management have put the economy in a position where none of these can reap real strategic benefits. 

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals on hunger and food security by 2030 requires, in addition to government regulation, the empowerment of local households as well as a transformative change in community attitudes. It should happen from the beggar to the palace. It should be done on the basis of our unique cultural foundation and analytical long-term plans. Then we will not have to starve in the future.

About the Author: 

Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Human Resource Management, University of Kelaniya

By Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe | Published: 2:00 AM Dec 4 2021

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