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Tackling World Hunger: Still Headed the Wrong Way

October 14, 2012
By: Frederic Mousseau

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s report, State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012, was released on October 9, 2012. Although one might be tempted to celebrate the decrease in the number of undernourished people from nearly 1 billion in 2009 to 870 million today, this new report is not a harbinger of good news.

First of all, as stressed by the FAO, the number of hungry people in the world remains unacceptably high—currently, it stands at 12.5 percent of the world’s population. In any case, the decrease seems, to some extent, to be due to changes in the calculation methodology used by the UN agency, rather than a decisive improvement in world hunger.

Secondly, the decrease hides some sharply contrasting changes in different regions of the world. Most of the reduction in world hunger comes from South East and East Asia, primarily China. In these two regions, the number of hungry people has dropped from 395 million to 232 million over the last decade. Meanwhile, the figure has remained stable in South Asia—the region saw only a slight decrease from 309 million to 304 million. More concerning, hunger continues to rise in one place, Africa, at a rate of 2 percent per year since 2007. The number of undernourished people on the continent has risen to 234 million from 170 million in 1990-1992. Furthermore, whereas Sub-Saharan Africa was the main source of concern for many years, hunger is now also increasing in the Near East and North Africa, where the number of hungry people has almost doubled in 20 years, from 22 million in 1990-1992 to 41 million in 2010-2012.

Conflicts and civil disturbances appear to constitute the primary cause of increased hunger in the Near East and North Africa, but are only a minor factor in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of wars has dramatically decreased after the turmoil of the 1990s. The FAO findings concerning Sub-Saharan Africa, as with South Asia, are critical for policy makers, given these two regions have been enjoying steady economic growth in the last decade. India’s GDP growth has been between 6 and 10 percent over the past decade, but the country remains home to the largest number of undernourished people in the world: 217 million as of 2012. It has reduced the number of undernourished people by less than 10 percent since 1990 and is one of the countries, along with Congo, Namibia, and others, that the FAO predicts will not meet its MDG target. The proportion of Indians who are undernourished now stands at 17.5 percent.

The report therefore demonstrates that economic growth does not necessarily result in reduced poverty and hunger. This conclusion must lead to a drastic rethinking of the policies currently implemented in many developing countries, whose governments are blindly welcoming all sorts of foreign investment in the hope that these will bring growth and help reduce poverty and hunger.

The FAO actually stresses that, contrarily to what is happening in many countries today, the quest for economic growth should be “…accompanied by purposeful and decisive public action”, including public policies and programmes targeting the poor and ensuring the “provision of public goods and services for the development of the productive sectors, equitable access to resources by the poor, empowerment of women, and design and implementation of social protection systems.” The establishment of such public policies was a critical factor for countries such as Brazil that have successfully reduced hunger in recent times.

Unfortunately, the policies implemented by many African governments are moving in the opposite direction; for the purpose of making their country attractive to foreign investors, African nations have slashed corporate taxes, offer all sorts of fiscal incentives, and have reduced public sector spending to a minimum. Furthermore, when focusing on such foreign investment to develop large-scale agriculture plantations, policies and programmes fail to support small farmers, fisherfolks, and pastoralists, instead destroying their livelihoods and the natural resources they rely on. These are some of the contradictions prevailing in the current so-called development practices that are driven by the IMF, the World Bank, and a number of Western countries. The new FAO report confirms what many experts and organizations have been calling for in recent years: a major policy overhaul that will decisively tackle world hunger.