Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Finishing Off Hunger

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.

Read more from our "Visionary Voices" series

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  1. CommentedRad Economics

    "Sustainable growth" is an oxymoron. Nothing can grow forever within a constrained system, in our case, the planet we live on. The economy is not separate from nature but rather a nested system within it. Economic growth is directly tied to increasing energy consumption and consumption of natural resources, none of which exist in infinite supply, some of which exist in a fixed, non replenishable supply (oil, coal, metals...). I am getting really tired of economists who act as if our economy is in no way limited by natural world in which we live. It's time for economists to start facing reality, before we dig ourselves into an even deeper hole.

  2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Today humanity is in a much better position then even a couple of years ago.
    We already started revealing, scrutinizing the different problems affecting people all over the world in a much more serious manner than ever before.
    There is growing, honest commitment all over the world to tackle these problems.
    We already understand that the global crisis is not simply an economical, financial crisis but something that affects all levels and facets of human life.
    But we still try to solve these problems in isolation, as if economics, finances, hunger, unemployment, depression, health system breakdown, the disappearance of the classical family model, futile education system, threatening environmental catastrophes were all disconnected from each other.
    We still do not want to identify the root cause of all problems, since this root cause is the most difficult to solve, this problem requires almost "superhuman" effort.
    The root cause of all the crisis, more accurately the whole, single crisis is our inherent, self-centred, egoistic human nature.
    This nature drives us to ruthless competition, exploitation, domination above others, succeeding at the expense of others, this is the nature that does not allow us to build, mutual, positive connections in between us despite clearly revealing that we evolved into a globally interconnected and interdependent human network.
    We will not be able to solve any of our problems until we try to adapt our nature to the global, integral, natural system we exist in.
    And such a "superhuman" task can only be achieved by mutual support, mutual responsibility, and mutual guarantee, building a new society with new, positive values and a new education system teaching people how to live life in our new system.
    Only such changes can give people positive motivation and only positive motivation can create a sustainable structure.