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Hunger Drops Mere Half a Percent over Last Decade

WASHINGTON, Sep 16 2010 (IPS) - Ten years after setting the goal of halving the proportion of people suffering from poverty and hunger by 2015, only mixed success can be found for the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the degree of success is dependent not only on what country is examined but which evaluation is used.

Everyone seems to agree, however, that the food and financial crises of recent years drastically affected the progress on hunger.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Food Programme announced Tuesday that the number of people suffering from chronic hunger this year has decreased by 98 million to 925 million.

But that same day Oxfam America pointed out in a report that this decrease means that the proportion of the world’s hungry has gone down by only half a percentage point since 2000 – from 14 to 13.5 percent.

The culprit, it seems, is the “double whammy” of the food and financial crises of 2007 and 2008.

“We had two successive economic shocks that produced very bad numbers, but both are easing,” said Alan Jury, director of U.S. relations at the WFP, Thursday in Washington. “What we have on hunger numbers is similar to what we have on food prices, which is they soared in 2008, they have come back down, but the new plateau is significantly worse than it was.”

With global food prices peaking in the summer of 2008, over one billion people were undernourished in 2009 – an all-time high – making the first MDG one of the most off track. A summit to discuss progress and action with just five years to go before the MDGs’ 2015 deadline will be held early next week at United Nations headquarters in New York.

“Most hunger is really a function of access rather than availability,” notes Jury, and with prices too high, access became much more difficult.

Before the food and financial crises, “Everybody was singing growth,” said Vera Songwe, an adviser to the managing director at the World Bank. “Then, people for whom we thought that life was going to be good going forward fell back into poverty. So the question became how do we get back to the growth we had before and pick up the people who had dropped into poverty?”

“I think New York next week would be totally different if we hadn’t had the crises,” said Songwe.

The FAO’s estimate of 925 million undernourished in 2010, then, marks a 9.6 percent reduction in that number from 2009, but an increase from the pre-crisis number of 830 million people.

Even within those who have been brought out of hunger in the last year, negative news can be found. Eighty million of those no longer hungry were in Asia, while only 12 million were in sub-Saharan Africa. A third of people in sub-Saharan African remain undernourished.

And new potential crises loom. After dropping since 2008, food prices have risen recently. Wheat prices jumped five percent in August, according to the FAO.

But the FAO notes that historically the number of undernourished has continued to increase even in periods of high growth and relatively low prices, meaning that economic growth, while essential, is not sufficient to eliminate hunger.

Oxfam points to “structural causes” that might both make hunger harder to overcome and a new food price crisis more likely: biofuel subsidies, commodity speculation, growing demand for meat and energy in countries with rapidly growing middle classes, and stagnating agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The dip in the number of hungry people has more to do with luck and a weak economy than action. In places like Pakistan, Mozambique and Niger, millions of people around the world are on the brink of hunger every day and disasters great and small can push them into desperate situations. A new global food crisis could explode at any time unless governments tackle the underlying causes of hunger, which include decades of under investment in agriculture, climate change, and unfair trade rules that make it difficult for families to earn a living through farming,” Gaiwan Kripke, policy director at Oxfam America, said in releasing their report.

The lack of progress on combating hunger could have repercussions on other MDGs, as well.

Songwe pointed out that some HIV antiretroviral medications require a minimum caloric intake to work. The government of Zambia had been having trouble containing the spread of HIV even after expanding the production and distribution of antiretrovirals, but with limited success. After realising the problem was that children were not eating enough and addressing that problem, “their success has more than doubled in the past two years as opposed to the two years prior,” she said.

The experiences of some countries, though, are giving development experts hope.

“There are countries is every region of the world – including sub-Saharan Africa that are on track to meet the MDG one hunger goals – Ghana, Mali, Vietnam, Brazil, Nicaragua have all met or about to meet it,” said Jury.

He also pointed to Ethiopia as a country that has made a lot of progress but which still, because it started with such a high percentage of hungry people, has a ways to go. “They still have a very high percentage because they started with such a difficult situation but seem to be on track to meet the goal,” Jury said.

For these reasons, he said, “As we go into the summit, the message is not going to be ‘it’s hopeless’, it’s going to be ‘there’s areas we can work on’.”

The first of those areas may be increasing aid from richer countries. Oxfam estimates 75 billion dollars more a year is needed for hunger and malnutrition, with 37.5 billion of that coming from the industrialised world and the rest from developing countries’ own budgets.

Oxfam also recommends a two-track approach whereby short- term food assistance is provided to those suffering from hunger now, and help to increase agricultural production, particularly by smallholders, is provided so that countries can feed themselves in the longer-term.

Jury agrees with this two-track approach, and sees it as an expansion of the famous proverb, “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”

“If you don’t give him some fish before he learns to fish, he will die before he catches anything,” Jury said.

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