Every country must make tough choices when faced with finite resources. For low-income countries especially, addressing very immediate needs, like hunger, shelter, education, health, and security, can be perceived as competing directly with efforts to develop a space capability. As Col. Francis Ngabo from the Rwanda Space Agency put it during a recent panel, the question to some minds can come down to “space or hunger?”
When the question is framed as a choice between building space capabilities (with indirect and poorly understood benefits) and addressing hunger (a very concrete and understandable benefit), space professionals often fall into the trap of over-emphasizing the futuristic uses of space technologies. They can overwhelm by “laundry-listing” too many, too technical, or too foreign examples, or they rely on sharing a wonder for space (“space for space’s sake”). None of these approaches fully satisfies skeptics, who are usually busy calculating how space-earmarked funding could be put to other, more pressing uses. A commercial vessel’s day’s catch of ~500,000 kilos of fish, for example, is worth about the same as three South African satellites. So which makes more sense—spending money on fish (and other direct food aid) or satellites?
A more useful starting point in answering questions such as this is to reframe space as infrastructure, akin to roads or power. Road systems and electricity grids, for example, don’t directly feed people, but they do contribute greatly to the ability to grow, move, store, and sell agricultural goods, and to quickly deliver emergency aid when needed. As many low- and middle-income countries can attest, roads must be built and electricity grids installed, in balance with, and in support of, various national needs.
A state that is able to use space infrastructure has more tools to communicate and access many types of useful information about its land, water, and people, which, in turn, supports hunger prevention, mitigation, and even relief efforts.
Three examples show how satellites help to prevent or mitigate food shortages:
- Protects fisheries. Satellite sensors capture data (“remote data”) that is commonly used, for example, to alert authorities to illegal fishing. The resulting information on suspicious activity is fed to maritime operations centers that, in turn, (ideally) direct authorities to interdict ships at sea or inspect ships at port. Satellites trigger a series of actions that help protect an important food source (fish) for the local population, as well as economic activity.
- Supports planning. Satellite data supports crop forecasts, which can be relayed over internet, radio, text, or print to local populations. (Satellite communications can extend the reach of this broadcast.) These evidence-backed predictions can spur people to prepare for and mitigate food shortages and can be used to trigger government or international intervention.
- Builds resilience. A government uses satellite data to monitor the well-being of livestock herds and satellite-enabled digital financing to provide subsidized insurance to rural areas. A new area of economic activity creates jobs and more pastoral households are insulated against loss of livestock, an important food-source.
Design and implementation of a space program also matters. No country starts the expansion of its transportation infrastructure with an eight lane mega-highway and fleet of trucks. Similarly, the first objective of any early space program is not to put satellites into space, per se. Rather the early goal is to maximize the state’s ability to apply existing space infrastructure to address national priorities, which can include hunger, insecurity, and other issues. Building capacity to extend broadband internet access and to apply (free) geospatial data to local issues doesn’t require state-owned satellites or a NASA-like budget. Built thoughtfully, methodically, a relatively modest investment in localized space applications can unlock access to billions of dollars’ worth of existing space infrastructure.
When ready to build home-grown satellites and associated ground components, states can avoid “wasteful” spending by ensuring such “upstream” systems also provide a unique and focused benefit to the population. The South African space program, for example, has been building its space capability since the 1980s. Its first fully domestic-designed and developed satellites, the MDASats, were launched in early 2022 as part of the “Oceans Phaskisa” initiative. These satellites are charged with finding ships conducting illegal fishing, piracy, or other nefarious activity in South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone, an area larger than the landmass of South Africa itself, thus enabling the protection of South African fish stocks, commercial and subsistence fishers, and the African Blue Economy in general, for years to come. While food insecurity will be an enduring issue that periodically needs direct action, country policy must also incorporate long-term solutions that address the drivers behind such crises.
So, it's true: space capabilities don’t directly feed hungry people. But they are a powerful enabler to address the cause of and response to hunger, as well as other UN Sustainable Development Goals and national interests, like security and long-term economic growth. An early space program should pursue and clearly communicate this purpose both internally and to the public, thus shifting the question from “build satellites or address hunger?” to “how do we balance investment in enabling infrastructure, like space, with direct action, like distributing food, to address hunger?” To make smart policy and development decisions, we need to recognize that investing in space and addressing basic needs can indeed go hand in hand.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.