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OPINION: Step Up Efforts Against Hunger

Jomo Kwame Sundaram is the Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and received the 2007 Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.

ROME, Sep 19 2014 (IPS) - At the 1996 World Food Summit (WFS), heads of government and the international community committed themselves to reducing the number of hungry people in the world by half. Five years later, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) lowered this level of ambition by only seeking to halve the proportion of the hungry.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

The latest State of World Food Insecurity (SOFI) report for 2014 by the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization, World Food Programme and International Fund for Agricultural Development estimates that 805 million people – one in nine people worldwide – remain chronically hungry: 789 million are in developing countries where this share has declined from 23.4 to 13.5 percent.

By 2012-14, 63 developing countries had reached the MDG target – to either reduce the share of hungry people by half, or keep the share of the hungry under five percent – with several more on track to do so by 2015.

Some 25 countries have made more impressive progress, achieving the more ambitious WFS target of halving the number of hungry. However, the number of hungry people in the world has only declined by one-fifth from the billion estimated for 1990-92.

Major effort needed

The proportion of undernourished people – those regularly not able to consume enough food for an active and healthy life – has decreased from 23.4 percent in 1990–1992 to 13.5 percent in 2012–2014. This is significant because a large and growing number of countries show that achieving and sustaining rapid progress in reducing hunger is feasible.

However, the MDG target of halving the chronically undernourished people’s share of the world’s population by the end of 2015 cannot be met at the current rate of progress. Meeting the target is still possible, however, with a sufficient, immediate additional effort to accelerate progress, especially in countries which have showed little progress so far.

Progress uneven

“By 2012-14, 63 developing countries had reached the MDG target – to either reduce the share of hungry people by half, or keep the share of the hungry under five percent – with several more on track to do so by 2015”
Overall progress has been highly uneven. All but 14 million of the world’s hungry live in developing countries. Some countries and regions have seen only slow progress in reducing hunger, while the absolute number of hungry has even increased in several cases. While sub-Saharan Africa has the highest share of the chronically hungry, almost one in four, South Asia has the highest number, with over half a billion undernourished.

Marked differences in reducing undernourishment have persisted across regions. There have been significant reductions in both the estimated share and number of undernourished in most countries in Southeast Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean – where the MDG target of halving the hunger rate has been reached, or nearly reached.

West Asia has seen a rise in the share of the hungry compared with 1990–1992, while progress in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Oceania has not been sufficient to meet the MDG hunger target by 2015.

In several countries, underweight and stunting persist in children, even when undernourishment is low and most people have access to sufficient food. Such nutrition failures are due not only to insufficient food access, but also to poor health conditions and the high incidence of diseases such as diarrhoea, malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

Food security and nutrition

Hunger is conventionally measured in terms of the prevalence of undernourishment, the FAO estimate of chronic inadequacy of dietary energy. While such a measure is useful for estimating hunger, it needs to be complemented by more measures to capture other dimensions of food security.

SOFI’s suite of indicators measures different dimensions of food security. Information thus generated can guide priority policy actions. For example, in countries where low undernourishment coexists with high malnutrition, specially-designed nutrition-enhancing interventions may be crucial to address early childhood stunting.

With the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals likely to seek to overcome hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition, FAO has recently developed and tested a new Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) in over 150 countries to measure the severity of reported food insecurity.


Improvements in nutrition generally require complementary policies, including improving health conditions, hygiene, water supply and education. More sophisticated and creative approaches to coordination and governance are needed, with more, and more effective, resources to end hunger and malnutrition in our lifetimes.

With high levels of deprivation, unemployment and underemployment continuing and likely to prevail in the world in the foreseeable future, poverty and hunger are unlikely to be overcome without universalising social protection to all in need, but also to provide the means for future livelihoods and resilience.

The forthcoming Second International Conference of Nutrition in Rome on November 19-21 is expected to articulate coherent bases for accelerated progress to overcome undernutrition as well as for greater international cooperation and support for enhanced and more integrated national nutrition efforts.


(Edited by Phil Harris)

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