Our world is undergoing exceptional change and churn in its sociopolitical structure. Two countries, China and India, which had the largest economies in the world in the 16th century, look set to reclaim their places, while some European countries that once boasted great empires seem to be heading for a fall. In Africa, there are 15 countries which have sustained a greater than 5% annual economic growth rate for the last 10 years, and while some look set to stumble over the spikes in food and fuel prices, others are experiencing even greater growth due to simultaneous spikes in the prices of the commodities they produce.
These new dawns and frustrated hopes have profound consequences for peoples’ lives. The grand hopes for humankind at the turn of the millennium – articulated in the 8 Millennium Development Goals – were revisited at a UN Summit this year and, with 10 years completed and only 5 years to go until judgement day, only the education goal looks likely to be met. Even the few successes in health, such as the net fall in global maternal mortality, only serve to highlight egregious global inequities: in 1990 Africa’s share of total global maternal mortality was around 23%, while in 2010 it is more than half, as the continent falls behind, such that in rich countries 4 or 5 mothers die for every 100,000 births, while in the worst affected countries the death toll is more than 1,500.
The complexity of these development challenges was highlighted during a recent discussion in East Africa when a Minister of Agriculture described the remarkable increase in agricultural production that his food insecure country had achieved in the last few years, thanks to such technical advances as micro-irrigation, improved fertilizers and high yield seeds, but then he added that the human population had also increased “while we weren’t watching”, and there is now little expectation that production can keep up with the country’s 1 million new mouths each year. Finding solutions to the challenges that we face will need a much greater emphasis on synergy, on ensuring that making some things better does not make other things worse.
In this fast changing and complex world we do not have the luxury of waiting for things to happen before we take action: if we wait to ‘live life backwards’ it will be too late. As we discussed during the Global Village 20 October panel on the ‘Global Food Crisis’ and as is covered in several articles in the current edition, three of the main challenges that face us – population increase, food insecurity and climate change – are strongly inter-dependent, so they need multifactorial responses, and need intervention long before the problems become critical and perhaps irreversible. A good example of joined-up thinking is ‘Home Grown School Feeding’ (see page 42). Smallholder farmers in Africa (70% women) grow the food that feeds children in schools: the schools provide a stable and predictable market, so the smallholders earn income, and the food overcomes hunger and ensures that the children stay in school and are able to learn. This good idea – led by the Partnership for Child Development in DIDE at St Mary’s - required expert inputs in agronomy, supply chain management, nutrition and education, but once developed is proving sustainable in countries as diverse and challenging as Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria. The Imperial College mix of critical thinking, innovation, science and technological solutions is essential to the timely and effective responses that are needed to prove that Kierkegaard is only right some of the time.