Towards the World Food Summit target

Three years ago, leaders from 186 countries gathered in Rome and made a solemn commitment - to halve the number of hungry people by the year 2015. Is the world living up to the promise it made at the 1996 World Food Summit?

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New estimates for 1995/97 show that around 790 million people in the developing world do not have enough to eat. This is more than the total populations of North America and Europe combined. The 'continent' of the hungry includes men, women and children who may never reach their full physical and mental potential because they do not have enough to eat - many of them may even die because they have been denied the basic human right to food. This state of affairs is unacceptable.

Yes, the number of undernourished people has decreased by 40 million since 1990/92, the period to which the estimates of 830 to 840 million cited at the Summit refer. But we cannot afford to be complacent. A closer look at the data reveals that in the first half of this decade a group of only 37 countries achieved reductions totalling 100 million. Across the rest of the developing world, the number of hungry people actually increased by almost 60 million. The current rate of progress - an average reduction of around 8 million a year - falls squarely within the trajectory of 'business as usual'. If the pace is not stepped up, more than 600 million people will still go to sleep hungry in the developing countries in 2015. To achieve the Summit goal, a much faster rate of progress is required, averaging reductions of at least 20 million a year in the developing world.

Hunger is often associated with developing countries. While that is true, this report provides statistical evidence that the problem is not limited to developing countries. For the first time, FAO presents aggregate estimates of the number of undernourished in developed countries. The resulting figure, 34 million people, confirms that even developed countries are confronted with the challenge of overcoming food insecurity. Although many of these 34 million people live in countries that have been undergoing major political and economic transition in the 1990s, pockets of hunger are to be found in all parts of the world.

It is my conviction that there is no reason not to have a hunger-free world some time in the next century. The world already produces enough food to feed the people who inhabit it today. And it could produce more. However, unless deliberate action is taken at all levels, the chances are that hunger and malnutrition will continue in the foreseeable future.

But, before effective action can be taken, we need to know who the hungry and vulnerable are, where they live, and why they have not been able to improve their situations. The numbers are 790 million in developing countries, and 34 million in developed countries, but we must put faces on the numbers.

Whether it is the victims of civil conflict or herders who suffer because their pastureland is disappearing, whether it is the urban poor living on national welfare or the geographically isolated ethnic minorities, we cannot forget that they are human beings, with individual needs and aspirations. In poor villages and neighbourhoods across the world, the scene is the same: people working from sunrise to sunset dealing with harsh climates, tired earth and the effects of fragile economies, labouring constantly to provide for themselves and their families - striving for little more than enough food to keep themselves alive.

That is why we must focus not only on abstract global numbers but on the faces and places that make up those numbers. In calculations and predictions that use variables of population growth, output rates, declining resource bases, political changes, devastation from diseases or the effects of natural and manmade disasters, we must always remember that we are talking about people - individuals who, given the chance, have the potential to make significant contributions to the world around them. But in order to reach their potential, they need and deserve a life free from hunger.

New technologies allow us to link national information systems and establish global networks, to examine an entire ocean or one drop of water, to punch buttons and create graphs and flow charts that show us instantly and clearly the kind of progress being made. Knowledge not only gives us power, it gives us insight and direction. With the establishment of the Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems (FIVIMS) initiative, we are expanding our ability to gather, analyse and share knowledge that can guide future initiatives to increase access to food for all.

The work of FIVIMS is essential as we enter the new millennium. We must devise and put into action policies and programmes to enable governments, international and non-governmental organizations, communities and individuals to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of what should be a birthright for every one of the 6 000 million people on this planet - enough to eat. As we have seen, the progress being made against hunger in the world is uneven. It is clear that there is no global formula for success. The success must come from specific actions undertaken and goals set at the local, national and regional levels, where individuals will be able to see the impact of their involvement.

In the absence of new investment and policy efforts at all levels, current technological and socio-economic trends are likely to continue. The number of undernourished people may continue to decline ... but only slowly and only in some regions of the world. Deliberate and targeted measures and new investments are fundamental to improve the trend.

The reduction to 790 million hungry people in the developing countries is a beginning. Our stated goal is to reduce that number, at the minimum, to around 400 million by 2015, as well as to reduce by half or more the number of 34 million hungry in developed countries. But as we work towards the goal, we must remain aware that we cannot stop when we reach it. Because, even that number is far too big. Even one hungry person is one too many.

Jacques Diouf

Director-General, FAO

Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems (FIVIMS)
A note on methodology - how the numbers are counted