Dispatch August 2009

Hungry in Guatemala

In a country plagued by chronic malnutrition, government solutions keep coming up short. The real problem: poverty and income inequality.

At the G8 meeting in Italy last month, the world’s richest countries agreed to devote $20 billion to food security and agricultural development. President Barack Obama declared that the "purpose of aid must be to create the conditions where it's no longer needed, to help people become self-sufficient, provide for their families and lift their standards of living." The initiative was primarily spurred by concerns about the effects on struggling populations of global warming and the economic downturn. But it is also perhaps a reflection of Obama’s stated intent to put a greater emphasis on what his administration calls “smart power” – diplomacy and development, as opposed to primarily defense – in his approach to foreign policy.

Here’s an unlikely candidate to be the poster child for the new program: Guatemala.  The Central American nation has the sixth-worst rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, despite being what might be described as a relatively well-off lower-middle class country. Indeed, the situation there bears little resemblance to the well-worn picture of skeletal children in African refugee camps. Measured by average GDP, Guatemala is doing fine economically. But that fact hides dramatic income inequality: while wealthy citizens live luxuriously in sequestered Guatemala City neighborhoods, the poor are barely noticed, living like feudal peasants in the countryside. Nearly half the children in this country of 13 million are chronically malnourished, according to the World Food Program.

Slideshow: The author narrates images from Guatemala’s malnutrition clinics

One reason the country’s elite seem blind to the massive hunger problem is that those affected show few physical symptoms. Guatemala’s chronically malnourished infants do eat, but their diet is low quality and carb-heavy, mostly tortillas and pasta.  So the children look short rather than wasted.  Beans have become too expensive for daily consumption, and farmers have to sell off their vegetables and eggs rather than serving them to their kids. While children don’t go hungry, their nutritional deficits take a devastating toll—hindering brain development, among other disabling effects.

The country’s stark income inequality means that rural areas suffer from a lack of basic infrastructure. Clean water and electricity are almost nonexistent in many villages. Education, too, is scarce. Less than 40 percent of indigenous women in Guatemala are literate, compared with an overall rate of 85 percent for Latin America. Worst hit by the chronic hunger are the country’s Mayans and other indigenous peoples—most of them rural farmers—who make up about half of the population. In some regions of the country, malnutrition levels top 90 percent, among the very highest rates in the world.

Presented by

Samuel Loewenberg reported from Guatemala on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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