Finishing the Fight Against Hunger

Ed note. This article originally appeared in Project Syndicate and is reprinted here with permission. The author, Jomo Kwame Sundaram is Assistant Director General and Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

ROME – At least 842 million people worldwide suffer from chronic hunger – a nearly 1.5% decrease from the 854 million estimated for 2010-2012. Clearly, while some progress has been made, the world still has a long way to go to eradicate under-nutrition.

As world leaders attempt to determine the best way forward, a report published jointly this year by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Program, can serve as an important resource. “The State of Food Insecurity in the World” (SOFI 2013) provides updated estimates of under-nutrition and progress toward achieving the hunger targets set by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the World Food Summit (WFS).

Progress on the MDGs has been uneven. While many countries in the developing world – home to 827 million of the world’s undernourished (compared to 838 million in 2010-2012) – have moved toward halving, by 2015, the share of hungry people relative to 1990, the average rate of decline is inadequate to meet the target in the next two years. The more ambitious WFS target of halving the total number of hungry people worldwide is even more distant, with the number of undernourished people having fallen by only 17% since 1990-1992.

As SOFI 2013 points out, progress toward eradicating hunger and undernourishment has slowed since 2000, when food prices began to rise, following almost a half-century of decline. Although rapid economic growth has boosted per capita incomes in much of the developed world, income gains are not spread evenly, leaving hundreds of millions of people to face higher food prices without sufficient increases in income.

The World Bank originally defined its “dollar a day” extreme-poverty threshold principally in terms of the amount of food one needed to purchase to avoid hunger. But subsequent adjustments – such as to $1.25 per day for 2005 – appear to have lost this link. Today’s extreme-poverty line is inadequate to avoid being undernourished – in Nicaragua, for example. Although the share of people living in extreme poverty in 1990 was halved by 2010, progress will have to accelerate considerably to halve the prevalence of under-nutrition by 2015.

Meanwhile, despite declining expatriate employment and incomes in the last half-decade, remittances have helped to fight poverty, reduce hunger, improve diets, and increase agricultural investment. Globally, remittances amount to nearly three times the size of official development assistance, which has been an easy target for budget cuts by rich countries in recent years.

The SOFI 2013 report also describes the persistent and marked disparities among regions. East and Southeast Asia and Latin America – which have experienced particularly rapid economic growth in recent decades – have fared the best in terms of reducing hunger. Sub-Saharan Africa has, after a quarter-century of economic stagnation, made some progress over the last decade, but it maintains the highest rate of under-nutrition worldwide. Gains in South Asia and North Africa have been modest, while conditions in West Asia have actually worsened.

Hunger and undernourishment (which reflects only dietary energy supply) often coexist. But, in most places, under-nutrition rates – as indicated by, say, the proportion of stunted children – are much higher than estimates for the prevalence of undernourishment. That is why nutrition-enhancing interventions in agriculture, schools, health care, water supplies, and elsewhere – especially targeting women and young children – are needed.

Efforts to ensure sustainable and inclusive economic growth are also vital. With the protracted economic slowdown of the last half-decade spreading to even the most resilient areas of the developing world, achieving full employment is unlikely in most countries, at least in the foreseeable future. But much can still be done to improve workers’ employment prospects, and thus their ability to acquire the nourishment that they and their families need.

In many cases, comprehensive reforms aimed at inducing sufficient agricultural investment and providing adequate social protection could facilitate major reductions in poverty and hunger. This includes ensuring that people have reliable access to potable water and adequate sanitation.

With the right design, the contribution of social-protection measures to reducing malnutrition would increase substantially. For example, certain benefits could be conditional on prenatal and postnatal nutrition measures targeting mothers and pre-school children.

Well-designed school meal programs have enabled children to overcome hunger – including the “hidden hunger” caused by micronutrient deficiencies. Related food-procurement policies have spurred the emergence of cooperatives of small family farmers practicing sustainable agriculture. Such measures – together with initiatives to enhance poor people’s incomes – also help to spur rural development, stimulate markets, and promote job creation.

A long-term political commitment to eradicating hunger and undernourishment – backed by decisive action – holds the key to improving health outcomes and supporting sustainable, inclusive economic growth worldwide. A good start has been made; now it is time to finish the job.