Almost every year, impending famines or severe food crises are announced somewhere in the world, most recently with the UN announcement in March of impending famines in South Sudan, Somalia, northern Kenya and Yemen. This seemingly unending stream of bad news suggests to many that little has been accomplished to enhance food security in poor countries, even after years of policy pronouncements, public investments and foreign aid. But amidst the continued problems in countries such as Somalia and South Sudan, there have been remarkable achievements in countries that previously experienced recurrent crises, most notably in Bangladesh and Ethiopia.

Social investment

In the early 1970s both Bangladesh and Ethiopia were internationally infamous for crippling famines and widespread malnutrition. Beginning in the 1980s in Bangladesh and the early 2000s in Ethiopia, though, large-scale public and private investments in modern agricultural practices and research led to substantial gains in cereal production and the availability of food. Just as importantly, smallholder farmers shared in the gains from higher yields and production, raising their incomes and access to food.

“... long-term commitment of national governments to rural development and food security can help these countries achieve progress and avoid crises.”

Building infrastructure

While many in Bangladesh and Ethiopia remained at risk for chronic hunger and under-nutrition (and still are), both countries have also established effective safety net programs to provide aid to those at-risk households. Bangladesh’s Food for Work and Food for Education programs, and Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program have largely replaced appeals for emergency food aid with well-targeted systems transferring food and/or cash to needy households.

Learning from the past

For Eastern Africa and other regions struggling with hunger today, food aid and targeted relief programs are badly needed in the short term; and in many of these areas armed conflicts must end before policies and investments can establish long-term agricultural growth and social protection. But the historical examples of Bangladesh and Ethiopia also provide strong evidence that long-term commitment of national governments to rural development and food security can help these countries achieve progress and avoid crises.