Looking Back - The Tyranny of Hunger

Published: 16 October 2012 9:26 CET

By Bekele Geleta, Secretary General, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

For many people, hunger is nothing new; it’s often just a part of life’s daily grind. In many parts of Africa, communities find themselves in its grip again and again - unable to get out or get ahead. Hunger and malnutrition can affect individuals, families, communities and entire nations, having a serious impact on health, children’s learning potential, livelihoods and national economies. As statistics show the world now produces enough food to feed us all, hunger is the shame of our global society.

In 1984, as Secretary General of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, I saw the devastating effects of hunger first hand as hundreds of thousands of lives in my country were lost, millions left destitute, and the entire country plunged into the worst famine in its history. At the Ethiopian Red Cross, we scaled up our assistance from 100,000 to over 1 million people. This type of crisis leaves scars, both visible and invisible, which can make communities less able to deal with future challenges. 

Progress has been made over the past 30 years to address chronic food shortages, to raise awareness of food and nutrition issues while also building stronger capabilities and expertise in this area. However, when considering the situation in the context of the Sahel or the Horn of Africa, there is no doubt that we still have long way to go. And the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people affected by hunger still seems like a distant dream to many.

We also know as a fact that no one will be able to make a difference alone. Achieving the Zero Hunger Challenge, which was launched in June at the Rio+20 Conference by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, will take much greater collaboration and commitment.

Looking Forward

The cycle of hunger and malnutrition is both predictable and preventable. And it is possible to find ways of reducing the likelihood that failed crops or global food price fluctuations become food crises and famine. We know that we must help communities become better prepared to withstand and recover from shocks, whether they’re caused by climatic or economic forces.

Our focus, then, is on resilience. If we can help communities to be knowledgeable and healthy; to enhance their ability to assess, manage and monitor their food and nutrition security risks; to learn new skills and build on past experiences, then we stand a better chance of combating hunger and malnutrition in the long run.

For this to work, we must think both locally and globally.

We are working logistically to ensure that smallholder farmers have the tools they need. We are working with national and local governments as they create and strengthen policies and programmes to promote food security.  Crucially, we are also working with communities, and can count on an unparalleled network of volunteers who are best placed to foster real community engagement and walk the last mile in creating safer, healthier, more resilient communities. This is where the Red Cross and Red Crescent can really make a sustainable difference. This is also where we need to strengthen capacities, supported by appropriate management systems and well targeted partnerships, from local to global.

Within the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies - over the past 12 years - a number of National Societies in Africa, Asia Pacific and the Americas have been at the forefront of efforts aimed at reducing food and nutrition insecurity by linking relief, rehabilitation and development. They are showing in action that we can achieve Zero Hunger.

But to get there, we must listen; listen when there are signs of trouble. We must commit; commit to action when, and even before, it is needed. We must work together; work together to strengthen the capacities of those who are in need so that they able to withstand any challenge they face.

Then we have the chance to overcome the tyranny of hunger.


The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 190 member National Societies. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright