17 September 2014

According to FAO, WFP and IFAD, the MDG on hunger can still be achieved : truth or wishful thinking?

As is the case every year at this time, FAO, WFP and IFAD publish their State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI), and as usual, the report is full of interesting and useful information and data. But there is only very little convincing new material and innovative thinking on hunger in this new release of SOFI, as the three Rome-based agencies continue to repeat the same statements and tends to indulge in wishful thinking on the food insecurity situation of the World.

On this last point, let’s just take two examples.

  1. First, while it is right to say that the estimates of the number of chronically undernourished is decreasing worldwide (dropping from around 840 million people in 2008-2010, at the peak of the food crisis, to 805 million in 2012-2014), it seems excessively optimistic to say that the objective of the first Millenium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing by half the proportion of hungry between 2000 and 2015 will be achieved. The report recognises this by acknowledging, en passant, that projections of this proportion for 2015 will be 1.1% above the MDG target (equivalent around 80 million people). But if we look at the numbers (instead of the proportions), we can see that the number of chronically undernourished has been reduced by only 14% (124 million people) between 2000-02 and 2012-14, very far from the World Food Summit objective fixed in 1996 of halving the number of hungry! This shows how slow the progress has been since the leaders of this world committed to the MDGs.

  1. Second, the report talks of ‘‘the modest progress’’ made by Africa, referring to a reduction of the proportion of chronically undernourished in the continent from 25.2% in 2000-02 to 20.5% in 2012-14 (and a reduction by only 0.4% of this proportion between the period of the food crisis and today). But the number of undernourished in Africa has actually increased by almost 18 million people over the period considered (and by 10 million since the food crisis!). Similar situations are found in Oceania and Western Asia. This shows that there is a bias in the optimistic picture presented of the food security situation in the world.

Hiding the reality and the shortcomings in the fight against hunger and undernourishment is definitely a disservice to this cause, as it could become a source of an unfounded feeling that everything is going fine, a source of complacency, while it is time, now more than ever, to revisit our thinking on how to fight hunger. How come that results observed in recent years have been so disappointing? One could have expected that the number of chronically undernourished people observed at the time of the food crisis would have fallen rapidly, once the crisis would subside. But it has not and in some regions, the actual numbers have even increased even though food prices are lower today than they were in 2008! But all these figures have to be taken with a pinch of salt as they tend to be frequently adjusted retrospectively and that they do no more show the peak of the number of undernourished which had been widely advertised in the press in 2008-2009...

The report mentions briefly the work conducted in the framework of FAO’s Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES), a tool designed to fill a gap in global food security monitoring. This tool has already been applied in a few countries, and one can only lament that the report says very little about the results obtained so far. Do they confirm the usual estimates published in the SOFI report or do they provide some new insights? Do they help to better understand the food security situation and design new ways to fight against food insecurity?

This year’s report introduces a new set of indicators of food security which provide some more information on the four dimensions of food security. These indicators are useful but mostly descriptive as they focus mainly on indicators of results. They unfortunately do not help much to explain the causes of chronic undernourishment or draw conclusions on good practices (for example, are there any lessons to be learned from the good results achieved in the Caribbean that could be applied elsewhere?). To be less descriptive and more action-oriented, SOFI should probably incorporate among these indicators some of the indicators of commitment used by IDS Brighton in their HANCI (Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index). This would allow linking results with actions taken by governments, a potential source of progress in the debate of what should be done to reduce hunger sustainably.

It is very welcome that some efforts in this direction have started in the report in the chapter which reviews a few country experiences and attempts to draw lessons.

One of these lessons is that sustained political commitment is a prerequisite. True. But shouldn’t the three Rome-based agencies analyse in greater depth what are the factors of this political commitment and how can it be generated? It is well known now that hunger is not a technical problem, but a political problem. And this has been repeatedly stated by FAO leadership. Starting from this important and valid observation, if the Rome-based agencies (and more broadly the World) really want to fight effectively hunger, they should not limit their thinking to technical or economic problems, but also address the political dimension of hunger, as political commitment is a key pre-requisite to hunger reduction. On this website, we had suggested earlier this year, that the political leadership of a country should be put in front of their responsibilities at the international level and that leaving their people in chronic undernourishment and hunger should be considered as a crime against humanity as it is man-made and causes every year millions of deaths [read]. At the national level, efforts should be made to facilitate the emergence of organisations of the hungry through which they can increase their political voice, clout and capacity to influence government decisions. This may be difficult and carries the risk of creating tensions with some governments, but unless this type of work is done, nothing will change and statements, commitments and speeches by political leaders will likely remain lip-service and not translate into action and results in many countries.

More innovative thinking is also required in some of the components of the integrated approach proposed in the key messages of the SOFI report. In the field of agricultural development, the approach suggested remain one of input-intensive agriculture which has shown not to be sustainable and accessible for most of the undernourished farmers. Rather than suggesting to promote this type of agriculture, the three Rome-based agencies should advice on the promotion of more accessible and environmentally friendly agricultural technologies. [read] Another suggestion made in the report, which presents some potential danger, is the proposal to boost nutrition programmes to address micronutrient deficiencies of mothers and children. The idea is good, the problem is how these deficiencies will be addressed. If the idea is to address them by diversifying the diet based on a more diversified agricultural production (as has been done in rich countries in the past), we can only support it. If it is by providing food complements produced by the industry, free of cost for some time and later at a cost on the market, we feel that this will not be a viable and sustainable solution, as the most affected people will never have the capacity to buy these products.

It is urgent that the Rome-based agencies clarify their position on these issues.


To know more, read:

  1. -The full report of the 2014 State of Food Insecurity of the World

  2. -Our comment on last year’s State of Food Insecurity of the World

  3. -Seven principles for ending hunger sustainably,

  4. -Facts and figures on hunger,


Last update:    September 2014

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