Emily Judson

Does hunger still rule?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were set up by the United Nations in the year 1990 to blueprint the steps needed to eradicate poverty worldwide. The 8 goals, including universal primary education and halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, form a set of unprecedented efforts galvanising international action to help the world’s poorest. With the deadline approaching and the world in recession, some have started to question whether any of the aims will have be achieved by 2015. This article will concentrate on the first goal: “Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the number of people whose income is less that $1 per day. Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people. Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger”.

According to the UN, (www.un.org,) the global economic slowdown has made progress “suffer” but “the world is still on track to reach this target”. Yet according to World Bank figures an estimated 1.4 billion people still live on $1 per day or less and 2.5 billion exist on under $2 per day. Three quarters of the population of sub Saharan Africa are still included in the latter category. The meaning of living on $1 per day does not correspond with literal earnings but in Purchasing Power Parity; what $1 could buy per day in the United States.

Whilst these figures show that 20% of the population still live under the poverty line it is debatable whether their quality of life has improved in some areas. Whilst characteristics of such poverty still include the following: 50 to 80% of daily income is spent on food; poor health is common; there is high unemployment and employed adults have multiple occupations in unstable jobs, quality of life may have improved in several areas.

Through the work of development agencies and charities, good medical facilities have become more widespread and emphasis has been put on training local staff, thus building up a skill base in the population. However, many of these hospitals survive on charitable donation or outside funding so if funding should drop away, as is possible in times of world financial instability, the hospitals would fall to ruin. In government-run facilities, funding is often insufficient and money to buy medicines and basics such as anaesthetics often run out mid-way through the month leaving the staff powerless. In rural areas power supplies are also frequently faulty so hospitals are unable to use facilities such as operating theatres without a generator and funds for fuel.

A classic indicator of poverty is limited access to water, electricity, infrastructure and sanitation. Access to these utilities now seems to be a geographic variable. In some countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, access to electricity is almost universal however this is far from true regarding sanitation. On the other hand, in Tanzania almost every household has or has access to toilet facilities, but electricity and running water are rare in homes. This discrepancy may reflect the foci of campaigns, (for example water and sanitation charities tend to target Africa,) and also the priority of governments. As they are governing young, expanding economies based on modern technology such as computing or mobile phones, it makes sense that many Asian governments put such an emphasis on electricity access.

Following from this, despite little possession of productive assets such as farm tools, tractors or sewing machines, the number of people owning small electrical goods has risen dramatically in the last twenty years. According to studies by Abjhit Banjeree and Esther Duflo using data from 13 countries with widespread poverty, 70% of people living on under $1 per day in Peru and Nicaragua own radios. In Hyderabad, India, 57% of people on a comparable wage owned televisions, whilst mobile phone ownership in Africa has soared with small businesses running charging points from rare electrical connections.

Some argue, on the basis of evidence shown above, that whilst the number of people living on under $1 per day is still huge, these improvements in quality of life must be taken into account when we measure success; if the overall aim is to lift people from poverty thus improving their quality of life, substantial progress has been made, even if it is patchy.

As for decreasing unemployment and improving work opportunities, the financial crisis has somewhat impinged on progress. With the deterioration of the labour market, unemployment is rife worldwide and levels of extreme poverty have increased. The middle classes of a country are generally those with steady employment, which is now becoming a rare entity. The middle class is also educated and often the driving force behind stable democracy. Poverty has been very well connected to instability, violence and extremism throughout history, so not only would an increase in poverty be a humanitarian disaster but it may also hold consequences for regional and global security.

In 2008 the UN proudly announced that poverty had reduced in virtually all regions, however in parallel with the financial crisis, world hunger spiked in 2009. Since then, processes to slow hunger have slowed in all regions and, famines and unrest have seen the need for food aid rise. 42 million people have been uprooted by conflict in the last four years. 1 in 4 children in developing countries are still underweight and children from rural areas are twice as likely to be underweight as those from urban homes.

The map of Global Hunger Index (GHI)
A map of Global Hunger Index (GHI)

The map above displays, in terms of severity, the Global Hunger Index (GHI) for 122 countries. As an average figure, the GHI has decreased since 2000 with substantial reductions in huger in Asia. In Thailand the number of underweight children has been halved from 50 to 25% using nutrition intervention and a widespread programme of community volunteers to change people’s dietary behaviour and provide nutrition education.

Despite the MDGs being a worldwide aim, Europe currently provides over half the development aid making it a powerful force for progress. Europe summarises its three doctrines as follows: strengthen programmes in health, education and social sectors; put a great deal of effort into good governance and ensure policy coherence in trade, agriculture and environment (etc) as well as aid.

Yet despite worthy aims and a vast influx of funding, more action needs to be taken in order to reach the MDGs by 2015 and continue the process to eliminate poverty in the future. Sustainable development is the buzz word for 2011 and the concept certainly carries a great deal of weight. Reduction of cash crop production, sustainable environmental policies, education and evening out of barriers in trade are all steps that need to be taken in order to ensure a poverty-free world. Our monetary system means that there will always be winners and losers but, with some simple changes, the poverty gap could be narrowed and quality of life improved worldwide. The MDGs may not succeed by 2015 in the current economic climate, but they should not be viewed as a failure; their aim is just and should be continually strived for in the future.

Emily Judson

Emily Judson is a guest contributor of the European Strategist.

Systematic Human Rights Abuses in North Korean Prison Camps

North Korea is the enigma of the modern world. Ruled by the mysterious Kim Jong-Il through a God-like personality cult, its inhabitants are conditioned from a young age to worship their leader. The government relies heavily on a large propaganda machine that censors and controls all media, casting Kim Jon-Il and his family into a mythical light. Few North Koreans will ever see much of the world: they are unable to leave their country; mobile phones are banned and you need a permit to travel even within North Korea.

Repercussions of non-adherence to governmental rules are harsh to say the least. There is substantial evidence that torture is used to extract “confessions” from offenders and a fair trial is probably not a concept with which North Koreans are familiar. In 2001 satellite photographs showed a series of vast prison camps in remote areas of the country, surrounded by agricultural land and industrial developments such as mining. Products such a soy beans, coal, sweets and cement with camp origins have all been in circulation in the country. Earlier this year new satellite imagery re-confirmed the existence of six camps and worryingly, in the current period of instability as Kim Jong-Il prepares to hand over control to his son, Kim Jong-Un, these camps have grown. Yet North Korea continues to deny their existence.

Yodok is one of the larger camps with an estimated population of 50,000 inmates. The camp is spread along two river valleys with worked land possibly totalling up to 90 square kilometres. There are two sections to the camp: the “Revolutionary Zone” which houses people with supposedly shorter sentences, and the “Total Control” zone in which people are bound for life. Any babies born in the Total Control Zone will remain there for the entirety of their existence on earth; they are born, live and will die in circumstances akin to slavery.  Families of those accused of crimes are often also imprisoned for life on the grounds of “guilt by association”. The original crime could have been something as simple as listening to a South Korean radio broadcast.

Life in the camps is hard. In the winter temperatures can drop to minus 20 degrees centigrade and the camps do not give people clothing to cope with working in these conditions. In a testimony to Amnesty International, former inmate Jeong Kyoungil described life in the camps. The working day ran from 4am until 8pm with two breaks for food, then “from 9pm to 11pm it’s time for ideology education. If we don’t memorise the ten codes of ethics we would not be allowed to sleep”. Work for Jeong at Yodok was sweeping overgrown weeds off fields. “Everyone would be assigned 350 pyong (1157metres squared) of field and only the people who finish off their task would be given food. If you finish half of your task, you would only be given half of your food.” Daily food rations are just 200g of “poorly prepared corn gruel” per meal.

Public executions in the camps are frequent as are deaths from malnutrition, preventable diseases and exposure. Inmates also describe people eating rats and picking out corn kernels from animal waste just to survive. But even for this desperate act you could be held in solitary confinement and tortured. According to a former detainee in the “Revolutionary Zone” at Yodok, approximately 40% of inmates died from malnutrition between 1999 and 2001. In his testimony Jeong also describes the reactions of inmates to death: “Seeing people die happened frequently – every day. Frankly, unlike in a normal society we would like it rather than feel sad because if you brought a dead body and bury it, you would be given a bowl of food”.

Amnesty International compiled a report based on the testimonies of 15 former detainees and prison guards from camps around North Korea. They believe the camps have been in existence since the 1950s. Only three people are known to have ever escaped from Total Control Zones and around thirty are known to have been released from the Revolutionary Zone at Yodok and escaped North Korea. Many still live in too much fear to publicly testify their experiences in the camps.

The Asia-Pacific director of Amnesty International, Sam Zafiri said: “These places are out of sight of the rest of the world, where almost the entire range of human rights protections that international law has tried to set up for the last 60 years are ignored”. Across the world, organisations and public protests have called for North Korea to recognise the camps’ existence and ensure that they are closed down.

In the words of Amnesty International: “Conditions in these camps are inhuman and Kim Jong-Il must close them immediately”.

Emily Judson

Emily Judson is a guest contributor of the European Strategist.