Mary Atkinson in front of painting of the Red Cross emblem

© Matthew Percival/BRC

With around 925 million people going to bed hungry every night, Mary Atkinson, British Red Cross food security adviser, talks about the need to prioritise the issue of hunger and malnutrition.

1. Given the fact that more people die from hunger than HIV, TB and malaria combined, what priority does the British Red Cross place on addressing the issue?

The causes of death from hunger are usually to do with a combination of not eating enough nutritious food and disease. So it’s not just about access to food – we also need to address public health issues around clean water, sanitation, HIV, and so on. It’s important to consider all the factors both in responding to emergencies and through our longer-term work.

The reasons behind people’s vulnerability are complex and varied – poverty, drought, floods, natural disasters, conflict and inflation are all factors. At the Red Cross we take an integrated approach to try and understand all those risks, then look at how we can build people’s resilience to the issues that result in them going hungry.

2. Does the British Red Cross have a long-term strategy for tackling hunger?

Woman watering vegetables in Mali

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Yes, by taking the resilience approach, and by careful health care and food security programming. It’s about recognising that people’s vulnerability to disasters has risen due to a number of factors – including increasingly frequent climate-related and natural disasters. For people who are already struggling to survive, the impact of a disaster can destroy their fragile coping mechanisms.

One example of our resilience approach is our previous support to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ regional office in Nairobi. This included help to develop a long-term strategy to address hunger in the region – which is the best way to deal with this chronic problem.

Media attention focuses on acute short-term crises, which detracts from the fact that in many places it’s a long-term problem – in fact 90 per cent of hunger related deaths occur outside of a disaster. This is why long-term financial support is so vital. Yet gaining public support when it’s not an acute emergency is a major challenge.

3. What new goals should the Red Cross, and the international community in general, set in relation to hunger and malnutrition, following the Millennium Development Goals?

Mother feeding child in Mali

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

We need to support people living in chronic poverty before they reach crisis point, so they can protect and improve their livelihoods. It’s about governments taking more responsibility at a national level to do this.

For example, in Brazil the government prioritised addressing malnutrition and hunger nationally across different sectors – introducing safety nets and support for smallholder farmers. As a result they significantly reduced hunger – so it can be done with the right approach.

This use of ‘safety nets’ is like our welfare system that protects people in times of need with income, health care, education. Basically, if we help people living with hunger before they reach crisis point, they will cope better in times of high need – and this approach is more cost effective as well as being ethical. It makes sense.

Addressing hunger has gone up the agenda and there are already lots of global initiatives taking place. But the problem is getting commitment from governments and the resources required to achieve the goals.

So I think it’s less about setting new goals and more about having the political consensus and commitment to achieving existing goals. It is also important to have a goal of reducing hunger across different government sectors as it is a cross-cutting issue connected to economic, agricultural and health policy.

From relief to resilience: find out more about the Red Cross’ approach to helping vulnerable communities