Politics of Poverty

The latest world hunger numbers: Partly sunny, but storm clouds linger

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The 2013 State of Food Insecurity in the World report offers good and bad news.

Marc Cohen is a Senior Researcher on Humanitarian Policy at Oxfam America. 

Just in time for World Food Day and the meeting of the Committee on World Food Security, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has released the latest edition of The State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI 2013). This annual publication is the principal source of information on how many people are hungry, who they are, and where they live. This year’s volume offers a mix of good and bad news.

On the positive side, using the controversial new methodology that FAO launched in SOFI 2012 (see more on SOFI2012 concerns here), the new report finds that hunger declined from 868 million people in 2011 to 842 million last year. SOFI 2013 also says that developing countries have made significant progress on meeting the Millennium Development Goal target of reducing the proportion of people living in hunger to half of the 1990 level by 2015. Indeed, according to the report, the target is well within reach over the next two years.

A vegetable seller measures bitter eggplants grown in Touba Ngembe for a customer in the village market of Ndiaganiao, Senegal. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell / Oxfam America
A vegetable seller measures bitter eggplants grown in Touba Ngembe for a customer in the village market of Ndiaganiao, Senegal. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell / Oxfam America

SOFI 2013 cautions that continued progress depends on good policies. These include ensuring that economic growth benefits a broad swath of a country’s population; supporting productivity gains among smallholder farmers to boost food availability; and offering low-income consumers access to social safety nets. That’s a good agenda, but the publication doesn’t say much about the need to tie that agenda to citizens holding their governments accountable to meeting commitments on reducing hunger and duties to respect, protect, and promote human rights, including the right to adequate food.

The report concedes that the picture of world hunger is not entirely rosy, even in the aggregate. Progress on reducing the number of food-insecure people has lagged. There is no chance to meet the more ambitious goal of the 1996 World Food Summit: halving the population living in hunger from 1990 levels by no later than 2015. With just two years left, the total decline in the number of hungry people since 1990 is only 17 percent.

Breaking down the overall numbers reveals some troubling trends. SOFI 2013 notes that the number of hungry people in Sub-Saharan Africa is up by almost 30 percent since 1990. Despite modest gains against hunger in South Asia, the region continues to account for one of every three food-insecure people. In the Middle East, both the number and proportion of people who are hungry have increased.

The report would have benefited from revisiting some themes treated in depth in past editions.

SOFI 2010 explored food insecurity in protracted crises, but the links between hunger and violent conflict don’t figure much in this year’s volume. It would be hard to argue that 2012 was a year of progress against hunger for the millions of people facing forced displacement and food insecurity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and its neighbors, and the Sudans. The Atlantic magazine reports that hunger has become a deliberate weapon of war in Syria, as combatants try to starve communities that they view as sympathetic to their opponents.

SOFI 2004 was about the costs of hunger—ill health, less productive workers, poor school performance, and children who do not live to see their fifth birthday. Those costs do not feature prominently in this year’s report, but referencing them puts a human face on the numbers, charts, and graphs that make up a typical volume of SOFI. Moreover, bringing in the human costs makes a powerful case for continued action against hunger, because it is not just a matter of righting the wrong and upholding human rights, as important as those are. In addition, not making an end to hunger a high policy priority is a very expensive proposition.

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