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The fight against hunger. An illusory victory

Next September, the international community will present a report that aims to assess how the world is doing in implementing the policies and actions needed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and related outcomes. We checked on the progress made.

The latest FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) estimates indicate that 805 million people around the world are still chronically undernourished in 2012-14, about 11% of the world population (7.1 billion people), a slight decrease compared to 868 million people in 2010-I2, (11.3% of the population).
These figures demonstrate that global hunger has decreased since 1990-92, when the world’s starving population amounted to 980 million people: 18.7 percent globally (5.3 billion people) and 23.4 percent for developing countries (DCs).

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In its first report on the State of Food and Agriculture published in 1974, FAO stated that half of the world population suffered from malnutrition. These data suggest that, albeit slowly, the international community is gradually winning its fight against hunger and there are good chances that the hunger target of the Millennium Development Goal – of halving the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries by 2015 – is within reach.
The international development goals that UN member states agreed to achieve by the year 2015 include, “To halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than one dollar a day, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger, and to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”.

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During the World Food Summit held at FAO headquarters in Rome in 1996, it was decided to renew global commitment to eradicate hunger in all countries with the target of reducing by half the number of undernourished people by no later than the year 2015. But four years later, the first Millennium Development Goal, based on the WFS goal, was to halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. This was less stringent than the WFS goal, since reaching the WFS goal required a reduction to half of the actual number – not just the proportion – of starving people. Continued population growth means that the proportion of hungry people in the developing countries will need to be cut by much more than half if the WFS target is to be met. The result is that 220 million people have been excluded from access to programs dedicated to the fight against hunger.
But what criteria are used to assess the number of hungry people in the world? The above figures refer to undernourished people. FAO has defined undernourishment, “as an extreme form of food insecurity, arising when food energy availability is inadequate to cover even minimum needs for a sedentary lifestyle”.

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The FAO indicator for ‘undernourishment’ takes into consideration sedentary life style, while most hungry people are poor and generally do manual labour, for which one needs a higher caloric intake. Therefore, if we measured hunger by considering calories needed for an average working day, the number of undernourished people would rise to 1.33 billion, 53% more than the official data, as currently assessed. Furthermore there is the question of the appropriate time span to assess undernourishment. The FAO indicator is designed to capture a clearly – and narrowly – defined concept of undernourishment, namely a state of energy deprivation lasting over a year. As such, the FAO indicator is not meant to capture short-lived effects of temporary crises determined by economic problems or emergencies such as natural disasters. Temporary nutritional deficiencies, in particular if they occur in the first days of life, can cause severe health damages and can even affect learning ability.

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It is also noteworthy to consider that measurement scales for food insecurity and hunger, are generally based on quantity and not on quality. When food prices rise, as has happened in recent years, the poor change their food basket by choosing cheaper products with less nutrients. Making the crucial step from quantity to quality is key to making real advances in hunger assessment. Fighting malnutrition is not just about giving hungry people more food. It is also about improving the quality of food that they eat. Measuring malnutrition also implies taking into consideration the intake of proteins, vitamins and minerals. The methods of measuring malnutrition too often focus on the number of calories, which is easily met by following an unbalanced diet based on fat and simple carbohydrates with negative consequences such as obesity and chronic diseases.
If we consider the problem of malnutrition as a whole, including the lack of micronutrients as well as overweight and obesity, the number of people involved is nearly two billion: so just under a third of the global population suffers from malnutrition.
Aggregate data, finally, mask important regional differences: 90% of the downward trend of hunger in the world, over the last fifteen years, is due to the results achieved in two countries: China and Vietnam.

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The largest number of hungry people is still in Asia (525.6 million) which however declined, compared to the number in 1990-92 (742,600,000). Despite significant progress overall, several regions and sub-regions continue to lag behind, such as sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of hungry people has increased by 24%, from 182.1million to 226.7 million people.
Therefore, while recognizing the efforts made to achieve the targets set up in 2000, it is impossible not to notice that data show the limits of the project: lack of ambition in setting targets, poor accuracy in defining the term ‘malnutrition’ and in detecting the geographic distribution of the result.
Despite positive results, such as those in China and Vietnam, as well as in Malawi, Brazil, Bangladesh and Mozambique, much remains to be done to reduce global hunger. The results related to malnutrition then, are even more discouraging and show how little has been done to ensure adequate nutritional standards. At this rate the international community risks losing the fight against hunger. (C.C.)

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