Tag Archives: poverty

COVID Creates Hunger Crisis in India

As the COVD-19 tsunami began its global spread, it exacerbated crises that were already taking a toll of vulnerable populations across the world.

In India the pandemic triggered a domestic migrant worker disaster. In Yemen it threatened a death toll far worse than the one inflicted by civil war.  And in Central America, where farming was destroyed by years of extreme climate events, the pandemic wrecked food security for 1.7 million people, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)

“COVID is making the poorest of the world poorer and the hungriest hungrier,” said Steve Taravella, a senior spokesperson for the WFP, at an ethnic media press briefing on February 26 to discuss the fallout from the pandemic. Advocates warned that a coronavirus-induced global famine loomed for millions.

“270 million people marching towards the brink of starvation need our help today more than ever,”  WFP’s Executive Director, David Beasley, told the UN Security Council last year. “Famine is literally on the horizon.”

The pandemic has inflicted its heaviest toll on poorer communities in the developing world, exposing the inequities driven by poverty and economic inequality that plague marginalized populations.

In India nearly 1 in 3 people face moderate or severe food insecurity, said Parul Sachdeva, India Country Representative for Give2Asia, a non-profit that supports charities in the Asia Pacific. India has the distinction of being the country with the largest number of food insecure people, and accounts for 22% of the global burden of food insecurity. When the pandemic hit, people were already struggling with poverty and socio-economic crises that gave them less food to eat. The lockdown that followed disrupted both the harvest and the food supply chain. More than a hundred million people and their incomes were affected by the inability to harvest crops in time.

When India enforced a shutdown to stop the coronavirus spread, it forced tens of thousands of migrant workers to make the long trek back to their villages after they lost jobs and wages. Without ration cards or money to buy food, the disruption to food chains put thousands at risk of hunger, leaving them to rely on NGOs and charitable civic organizations like Akshaya Patra, rather than the government, to provide food aid.

In a double whammy, the pandemic lockdown that increased food insecurity also fueled gender-based violence (GBV).

During lockdown, reported cases of gender-based violence more than doubled during the pandemic, said Aradhana Srivastava, of WFP’s India office. “The extent of suffering is actually much larger than what is being seen.” Research shows that domestic violence closely correlates with income levels, said Srivastava, and GBV is higher among lower-income households and food-insecure families. Increased food insecurity causes mental stress in households and triggers domestic violence towards women. “The increased incidence of domestic violence is linked to loss of livelihoods, loss of access to food — so there is a direct bearing.”

Since 2014, prolonged drought and excessive hurricanes in Central America have destroyed staple crops. But severe climate events and poverty – the key causes of food insecurity – have worsened with the pandemic. “The face of hunger In Central America has changed,” stated Elio Rujano, a Communications Officer for the World Food program. In Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, food insecurity has now spread from rural communities into urban areas. COVID lockdowns have taken away income from daily wage earners – 50% of the economy depends on informal labor – which has made it harder for people to meet basic needs like food.

Six years of conflict inYemen has ripped apart the country’s infrastructure and fragile heath system, displacing almost 4 million of its 30 million inhabitants. Conflict has become the main driver of hunger, as food prices skyrocket, and frontlines move. With COVID and the ensuing lockdown, the hunger situation hit new peak in Yemen. WFP forecasts a severe risk of famine and acute malnutrition in 2021 for 2 million children aged 1 to 5, which will have severe long term impact felt by “generations to come.” But famine has not been declared in Yemen even though “people are dying of hunger,” said Annabel Symington – Head of Communications for the WFP in Yemen, calling for funds to mount programs and interventions. “The time to act is now.”

The WFP feeds 100 million in 88 countries every year divided between 3 initiatives:1.Natural disasters, typhoon, cyclones, 2. Conflicts, and 3. Ongoing non-emergency aid such as school meals, pregnant women new mother nutrition, community help, and small farmers. In 2020, WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to combat hunger.

“We provide basics for sustainability till long term solutions can be developed,” said Taravella.  For years the WFP “chipped away” effectively at hunger rates. But conflict, climate and COVID-19 are causing  humanitarian crises of catastrophic proportions, making it impossible for people to access food. Before COVID-19 there were about 135 million hungry people in the world. Today nearly 690 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. WFP projects they need $13.5 billion to bridge the gaps in their budget.

According to Taravella, a small group of 2200 billionaires hold about $8 trillion in global wealth. They could help to overturn the tidal wave of food insecurity washing over the world’s poor.

“We are making an appeal to the world’s exceptionally wealthy people to help us close that gap,” he added.

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Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.
Image by billy cedeno from Pixabay

Educating India’s Children: Conversation with Dr. Rukmini Banerji, Pratham CEO

Dr. Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham, is in the San Francisco Bay Area for a conference at Stanford on global poverty. I met Dr. Banerji in San Jose during her visit.

First, a few facts about Pratham: Pratham started off in the slums of Mumbai, 1995. The educational NGO, one of the world’s largest, focuses on “high-quality, low-cost, and replicable interventions to address gaps in the education system.” It has helped about 50 million children to date, with 15 chapters across the United States, all run by volunteers. Charity Navigator, an independent evaluator of charities based in the United States, rates Pratham with its highest possible rating of four stars.

Asked about her vision for Pratham, Dr. Banerji says that they complete a strategy review once every five to ten years. Based on this review, they’ve decided on implementing three or four major programs. While school enrollment levels in India are high, functional literacy is not. Their focus is on raising the foundational educational levels for children quickly, on a large scale and in a cost effective manner.

I ask her what differentiates Pratham from other educational NGOs, considering that the Bay Area alone has over 160 registered institutions working in this arena. Dr. Banerji says Pratham’s mandate is not to buy school buildings. They don’t want to come in as outsiders, tell communities how to educate themselves, then leave. They see themselves as facilitators who facilitate community building through education. This emphasis on structuring learning is not just for the kids, but for whole communities.

According to Dr. Banerji, as these kids enter the workforce, they will need to learn to work in teams, they will need to learn to collaborate. This, she feels, is best done outside of the school curriculum.Towards this end, they bring together children in groups. Funding from companies like Google and Facebook, allows Pratham to provide each group with a tablet computer preloaded with projects, in their regional language of instruction. These tablets have a choice of mini courses. The content is grouped into videos or games; it is up to the kids to decide what they use. As a group, the kids choose a course or a plan, it could be a football game, if that’s what they want. The kids are required to find their own coach, present their plan, then ask for mentorship. This coach is someone within their own community – it could be an older sibling, it could be someone’s grandmother. But it has to be someone who can hold the children accountable. For maintenance of the hardware, Pratham assigns a mentor, one for every villages.

Dr. Banerji recalls a group of kids who came up with project on skeletons. For this, they sought out the local bone setter as their coach. Dr. Banerji feels that schools are so focused on academics that they sometimes leave behind kids who do well in collaborations. In sharing a tablet, and a project, these children learn to work together, learn how to use content that is made available for their use, and how to apply what they know. In this ‘hybrid’ learning model, the children are responsible for their own learning.

The previous year the kids were given a choice of themes – water, mango etc. The kids could choose to go with the theme, or pick something on their own. So many videos were created that village level juries – picked the kids themselves, voted on the best ones, and then uploaded them to Pratham volunteers. Currently, this program covers about a thousand villages. Pratham tests out various such projects in focus labs. Once they begin to show results, they are moved to the mainstream.

Another area that Pratham focuses on is the development of vocational skills. They have tie ups with companies like the Larsen and Toubro and others. Pratham helps train young people for entry level jobs. These youngsters are then absorbed by the organization with which they have an existing tie-up. Dr. Banerji estimates that people have been able to take advantage of this program.

On a smaller scale, Pratham runs a program for women who had to drop out of school, called “Second Chance.” Since 10th class certification is necessary for so many government programs, including government jobs at the village level, Pratham provides help to finish high school studies if the women choose to do so. Dr. Banerji estimates that young women have taken advantage of this program.

Dr. Banerji is very optimistic about the future – “India has changed quite a lot,” she says. There are major shifts even within the government to explore new technologies. When asked how people in the United States can help Pratham, she points out that most of the work of the NGO happens on the ground in India. The best way for people based here to get involved, is through fund-raising believing in the organization’s laudable vision and mission.


Rasana Atreya is a novelist and technical content writer.