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.
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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.

The government’s anti-hunger efforts so far have primarily focused on providing food supplements to stunted infants. But while this treats the symptoms, it doesn’t address the underlying problems of poverty and income inequality.

Juan Aguilar, director of the government’s food security and nutrition agency, says that in order to really make a difference, the country needs to invest in improving basic village conditions. Recognizing this, the government recently began a pilot infrastructure program in one of the country’s most-afflicted Eastern provinces. It’s a good start. But the program’s effectiveness and ability to expand are hampered by a paltry budget. Despite a fairly robust economy, the state collects little revenue, because it has one of the lowest tax rates in Latin America. That’s great for the top 10 percent of the population, who control 50 percent of the country’s wealth. But for everybody else, it’s a disaster.

Governments elsewhere in Latin America have been able to do much more for their poor. Brazil, for example, has even worse income inequality, but it has had tremendous success with a program giving money directly to the needy via ATM machines. Guatemala’s  neighbors, Honduras and El Salvador, have also engaged in sustained—and so far successful—government efforts to reduce hunger.   

By contrast, according to a 2007 report by the U.S. Agency for International Development, at Guatemala’s current slow rate of progress, it would take 83 years to put an end to stunting among the country’s indigenous populations. 

Some argue that because of the role it played in creating Guatemala’s current neo-colonial system, the U.S. should do more to help. In 1954, the U.S. supported the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected government on behalf of the United Fruit Company, and then, during the ensuing 30-year civil war, backed the right-wing military. By the time the war ended in 1996, 200,000 people had been killed or “disappeared.”

But America’s foreign aid establishment is stretched thin:  the U.S. Agency for International Development has only 2,300 employees—fewer than a third of what it had in 1990. And for the 84 countries in which it works, the agency has only five engineers and twenty-three education officers. The U.S. does give Guatemala some assistance, but unlike most its neighbors, the country failed to qualify for a Millenium Challenge grant, which is the biggest current U.S. development program. It was rejected because of its high level of corruption, poor law enforcement, and low degree of government effort in supporting the poor.

Guatemala will need to get its own house in order if it wants to save its children. As seems clear, however, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. Wayne Nilsestuen, the head of USAID’s Guatemala office, put it perhaps the most starkly: in the end it comes down to this,“There’s not enough money for the state to perform its functions.”

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