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DEVELOPMENT: More Than a Billion Going Hungry

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Oct 16 2009 (IPS) - The global economic crisis has led to an historic increase in hunger and undernourishment in the world’s poorest countries, with broad consequences for political security and stability, according to two reports released for World Food Day, observed Friday.

A child eats a World Food Programme nutritional biscuit. This year, WFP will help feed more than 100 million people. Credit: WFP/Shehzad Noorani

A child eats a World Food Programme nutritional biscuit. This year, WFP will help feed more than 100 million people. Credit: WFP/Shehzad Noorani

More than a billion people are undernourished worldwide, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP). This figure includes 642 million people suffering from chronic hunger in Asia and the Pacific; 265 million in Latin America and the Caribbean; 42 million in the Near East and North Africa; and 15 million in developed countries.

“The most striking and shocking fact in this report is that now more than one billion people are going hungry,” WFP spokesperson Bettina Luescher told IPS. “As an aid organisation, this is unbelievable and unexpected that today one in six people are going hungry.”

The increasing levels of undernourishment have been a decade-long trend, the report says, which has continued steadily in both periods of low prices and economic prosperity – as experienced in the early 2000s – and high prices and economic downturn – as seen during the global financial crisis. This implies fundamental problems with the “global food security governance system”.

“World leaders have reacted forcefully to the financial and economic crisis and succeeded in mobilising billions of dollars in a short time period. The same strong action is needed now to combat hunger and poverty,” said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.

“The rising number of hungry people is intolerable. We have the economic and technical means to make hunger disappear, what is missing is a stronger political will to eradicate hunger forever,” he said. “Investing in agriculture in developing countries is key as a healthy agricultural sector is essential not only to overcome hunger and poverty but also to ensure overall economic growth and peace and stability in the world.”

The FAO emphasised that the current situation facing the world’s poorest populations has deteriorated further during the global economic downturn. People already vulnerable to food insecurity are experiencing even greater difficulties now that food prices have gone up, migrant remittances have declined, and income and employment levels have dropped.

“I think what we’re seeing is that people who have not much to do with the financial crisis are affected the worse. First they’re hit with high food prices and then the financial crisis. In some places it may have taken time to hit them, but now they are being affected by it,” said Luescher.

Over the last two decades, developing economies have become more integrated in the global economy, making them more vulnerable to global economic shocks and recession.

“The 17 largest Latin American economies, for example, received 184 billion dollars in financial inflows in 2007, which was roughly halved in 2008 to 89 billion dollars and is expected to be halved again to 43 billion dollars in 2009,” said the WFP report.

“This means that that consumption must be reduced, and for some low-income food-deficit countries, adjusting consumption may mean reducing badly needed food imports and other imported items such as health-care equipment and medicines,” it said.

Also in observance of World Food Day, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) released its own report reflecting similar trends to those discussed in the U.N. report, and offered a detailed map of the worldwide progress in reducing hunger in its Global Hunger Index (GHI).

The report evidences the slow progress in reducing hunger, with the GHI dropping by only one quarter since 1990.

Significant progress has been made in Southeast Asia, the Near East, North Africa and Latin America, but hunger levels remain high in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

IFPRI says that the countries with the largest percentage improvement in their GHI were Kuwait, Tunisia, Fiji, Malaysia, and Turkey. The countries with the largest absolute improvements in their score were Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nicaragua and Vietnam.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the countries with the highest levels of hunger, and the highest GHI scores, were Burundi, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone.

Noticeably, most of the countries with high GHI scores have experienced war or violent conflicts which have led to poverty and food insecurity, says the IFPRI.

Like the U.N. report, the GHI points to the link between the financial crisis and food instability as a key and complex problem to address.

The IFPRI also emphasised that fighting global hunger is a crucial step in addressing gender inequality, since GHI data shows that higher levels of hunger are correlated with lower literacy levels and less access to education for women.

The focus on food security is shared not just by the U.N. and NGOs with an interest in food policy, but also by massive charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which spends billions on public health challenges and development in some of the world’s poorest countries.

“Melinda and I believe that helping the poorest small-holder farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world’s single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty,” Bill Gates said at the announcement of a 120-million-dollar grant to increase the yields of small farmers in poor countries.

“The next Green Revolution has to be greener than the first,” Gates said. “It must be guided by small-holder farmers, adapted to local circumstances, and sustainable for the economy and the environment.”

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