Politics of Poverty

Is 500 million less than zero?

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G7 leaders try to find directions to ending poverty at the summit in Bavaria: Oxfam Germany stunt. Photo: Gawain Kripke/Oxfam America.

Making sense of the G7 commitment on hunger and malnutrition

In Bavaria, the G7 announced an “aim” to lift 500 million people from hunger and malnutrition by 2030.  The flurry of reaction was generally enthusiastic, although there were some dissenters.

In the calmer aftermath, there’s a question about what, exactly, the G7 leaders actually agreed to.  Personally, I was disappointed and thought the G7 language was less than it seemed.  But, perhaps I was too negative.

Who are the 500 million?  The G7 leaders declaration says, “we aim to lift 500 million people in developing countries out of hunger and malnutrition by 2030.”  This implies reducing hunger (under-nutrition) and malnutrition as separate sub-goals with a total of 500 million.  But neither the declaration, nor the related annex is explicit about sub-goals or any possible division of the 500 million figure.  Prior to the summit, there were rumors that the figure was intended to represent 200 million hungry and 300 million malnourished.  Current estimates of hungry are just under 800 million and estimates of malnourished are around 1.2 billion, but could be as many as 2 billion.  These figures have been declining over decades.  So by 2030, the number of hungry will be approximately 550 million according to trend, and number of malnourished will decline to about 800 million.  So the G7 seems to be saying they will reduce the number of hungry and malnourished by about one-third lower than a business-as-usual trend.

That’s a pretty impressive achievement for the seven big leaders to take on.  But…

Who is committing to what?  When the G7 leaders meet, they speak for their countries, which are about 10% of the world’s population, about 45% of the world’s economic output, and 70% of foreign aid.  But the leaders’ declaration is a bit ambiguous about who they are speaking for.  They say, “As part of a broad effort involving our partner countries, and international actors…”  And in the annex; “We today commit to working with our partners to mobilize the resources necessary…”

So, reducing hunger and malnutrition by one-third is an impressive achievement for the G7.  But, it’s less impressive if undertaken by a broad group of partner countries and international actors.  In fact, it’s would be a disappointment if the 500 million reduction goal somehow supplanted the more ambitious goal of ENDING hunger and malnutrition that is currently under consideration as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  That goal, SDG-2, is a “zero-goal”; to bring to zero the number of people suffering hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030.  Reducing hunger and malnutrition by 500 million is less ambitious than the “zero-goal” of SDG-2, and would leave hundreds of millions of people still suffering.

How committed are they? The operative word in the G7 communiqué is to “aim” to deliver the goal.  This could be a difference without meaning, but the 2009 G8 communique from L’Aquila Italy said “we commit to…”  I was hoping the Elmau initiative would be modeled on the L’Aquila initiative, so found this wording disappointing.  On the other hand, in the separate joint statement on the “L’Aquila Food Security Initiative” released at the same time as the G8 leaders’ declaration said, “We will aim at substantially increasing aid to agriculture and food security including through multiyear resource commitments.”  And indeed they did, and held themselves accountable to a $22 billion pledge.  So, when the G7 “aims” at something, it can be a real commitment.

There are other interesting and important elements related to food security and nutrition from the G7 Elmau statement – especially in the annex:

  • A focus on small farmers, while recognizing that rural life is changing and that urbanization is growing rapidly,
  • A focus on women and youth in farming and food systems,
  • Continued interest from previous G7/G8 statements in leveraging private sector investment, while supporting standards for investment and land-rights,
  • Support for nutrition-for-growth and generally an emphasis on nutrition interventions,
  • Recognition of the special needs and burdens from disasters and conflicts, with a commitment to put special effort into transitions.

The G7 has created accountability mechanisms to track and review commitments made.  Staff, sometimes embedded deep in bureaucracies, meet and create tables, schedules, milestones, indicators.  Sometime in the coming months, these staff from G7 countries will meet to decide how to interpret the Elmau statement and how to track and measure the commitments therein.  While it doesn’t have the glamour of Bavarian castles, it is in these conference rooms and teleconferences where the key decisions will be made to determine if the leaders statement was mostly hot air, or if it will actually deliver something important for global hunger and malnutrition.

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