Hunger in the year of sustainable development

There is no doubt that apart from making a mockery of the whole notion of sustainable development, these figures and trends make it easier to understand why as people struggle, support for extremists and anti establishment parties tends to rise, and is actually rising

While we would be burying our heads in the sand were we to dismiss lightly the worrying percentage of those who live within the poverty segment of Maltese society, when contrasting the plight of these people with that being experienced in other southern European countries right now, one will instantly realise that apart from Malta’s having a buoyant economy and one of the lowest unemployment levels in the entire eurozone, by other European standards poverty in Malta, although becoming increasingly worrying, remains less traumatic in comparative terms.

As Minister for Sustainable Development I feel that apart from focusing as I have done in my recent articles on certain environmental challenges and deficits that our country needs to address, we need to look at the whole big picture of sustainable development.

Particularly the socio-economic and also the cultural dimensions.

Even more so that later this year, the UN is expected to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals in lieu of the Millennium Development Goals during the forthcoming fall summit in New York.

I must confess having been shocked the other day reading in The Financial Times about how thousands are queuing for free food even in wealthy Milan.

Even more worrying are certain statistical figures.

That queues have doubled in size in the past year.

That while the south has long suffered from joblessness and relies on state support, the industrial north has been hit hard by the eurozone crisis and many thousands of businesses have failed.

No wonder that the state itself tends to rely on the Catholic Church and the extended family to help people in need.

The astronomic figure of 6.2m people in Italy living in absolute poverty is a shivering statistic. This apart from some four million being considered to suffer from hunger, of whom 10% are children under five and 14% are older than 65.

Real incomes are even lower than 15 years ago. 60% of those interviewed by think tank Censis feared ending up in poverty as the economy shrank.

There is no doubt that apart from making a mockery of the whole notion of sustainable development, these figures and trends make it easier to understand why as people struggle, support for extremists and anti establishment parties tends to rise, and is actually rising.

The pain in Spain is just as bad, at a time when we happen to be talking of the fourth largest economy in the eurozone.

Reports indicate that today’s youth have little to do with their time but join marches and sit-ins against the austerity cuts, the political system and rising unemployment.

When the middle classes start queuing at the food banks then the countries concerned must be in real trouble. And so will be their civil society.

These are the same people who until recently used to drive new cars to their jobs, take foreign holidays, while having university degrees and hefty mortgages.

In Spain some 21.8% of the whole population are at risk of poverty, a spike since the crisis hit in 2008.

This also explains why the number of Spaniards living outside the country has increased by more than 20% over the past three years, with many emigrating not only to N Europe and healthier economies but also to Latin America. 

Rather than merely experiencing a period of adjustment, many families, particularly the younger generation, find themselves caught between fears and impulses of unrest, rage and even worse a strong sense of resignation.

When middle classes start shrinking anywhere these tend to provoke fears of yet darker times to come.

When the middle class begins to disappear so do prospects of hope and confidence in an economic bounce back.

The situation is even worse in Greece where frontline charities report that up to 90% of families in the poorest neighbourhoods rely on food banks and soup kitchens. And with no end to austerity in sight.

Not only has this friendly neighbour country of ours experienced hardship but it is also having to make do with hunger and undernourishment too. 

The worst symptom is when such tell tale signs of an unravelling social fabric are evidenced in the heart of capital cities like Athens.

There is no doubt that the politics of poverty has left wreckage in its wake.

UNICEF claim that some 600,000 children lived under the poverty line in Greece and more than half that number lacked basic daily nutritional needs. 

All this tends to impact on the poorer families’ inability to cope with their children’s health, social and educational needs.

In an increasingly tense political environment, particularly on election eve, the politics of food becomes even more delicate. 

At a time when we have just formulated our food waste strategy in Malta and accompanying action plan, it is indeed worrying and ironic that there are countries where the authorities are not only unable to keep up recording the sheer numbers of those in need but we also face a situation where programmes are underway in an extensive manner, distributing surplus food donated by chain stores, restaurants, bakeries and hotels to some 700 soup kitchens across Greece.

Unless the tide begins to turn fast, the so-called SDGs risk losing most of their lustre, impact and even their symbolism.

This is why sustainable growth and development are needed urgently right across the board. To address, mitigate and even contain such problems that can only exacerbate tensions further in the coming months. Right across Southern Europe and beyond.