Putting hunger on the Monterrey agenda

The Financing for Development Conference must address the link between hunger and poverty

Does poverty cause hunger? Or is it the other way around?

FAO believes that hunger is both a cause and an effect of poverty. Because hungry people are less able to improve their lives, being hungry keeps them poor. Hunger alleviation is key to development.

That means direct measures, such as feeding and other food assistance programmes, to alleviate hunger. But it also means more development for the rural areas, since three quarters of the world's poor and hungry live in them.


A taste of honey for a girl in the Republic of the Congo. Good childhood nutrition makes a major contribution to development. (FAO/19179/M.Marzot)

Those are the messages that FAO and the other Rome-based United Nations agencies -- the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development -- will take to the Financing for Development Conference in Monterrey, Mexico, from 18 to 22 March. The conference, hosted by the Government of Mexico, is being organized by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs with collaboration from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and several United Nations agencies.

The object of the conference is to mobilize funds for achieving the goals endorsed at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2000. Known as the Millennium Goals, they include halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, improving health and education, and preserving the environment. The Monterrey Conference is meant to put the Goals into practice by obtaining commitment of resources and deciding how the resources should be used.

"These funds must be mobilized to fight hunger directly," says William Meyers, who directs FAO's analysis of agriculture's role in development. "Rural development is also key to any substantial progress and fighting hunger itself is the key to the Millennium Goals. So we need that twin-track approach -- short-term hunger alleviation and long-term rural development.

"You can't improve people's health if they're hungry. You can't improve education if children are too undernourished to learn. You can't preserve the environment if people are forced to claw every last bit of nutrition from exhausted soil. And you can't persuade farmers to innovate if they are just barely able to survive"

FAO estimates that 815 million people are chronically undernourished, 777 million of them in developing countries. These people can't participate properly in development, so they are caught in a vicious circle. A direct assault on hunger is essential -- and that is the message FAO will take to Monterrey. It is a message that will be reinforced again in June, when FAO will host the World Food Summit: five years later in Rome. The Summit will confront the continuing failure to reduce the number of people who do not have enough to eat.

Hunger and development: the facts

An extension worker in Pakistan teaching a farming family how to ensure that their food is nutritious. Agricultural development will be more successful if rural people have adequate nutrition to start with. (FAO/17210/G.Bizzarri)

Conventional wisdom says that hunger is a symptom of poverty and that development will drive poverty away. But with a hungry workforce, development itself is difficult. The World Bank has estimated that in 1990 four overlapping forms of malnutrition cost almost 46 million years of productive, disability-free life worldwide. In Ethiopia, a study in 2000 found that people who were taller than average -- indicating better nutrition earlier in life -- had higher earnings. People 7.1 cm above average height earned 15 percent more.

It starts in the womb. Nutritional status during pregnancy, infant birth weight and nutrition before three years of age have the greatest effect on ability to learn. Feeding programmes for older children also help -- because no one can concentrate with an empty stomach. The relationship between child nutrition and educational performance is notoriously difficult to quantify, but nutrition clearly has an impact.

There is also a wider relationship between nutrition and economic growth. In 1994, Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel argued that improvements in nutrition and health accounted for half the economic growth in Britain and France in the nineteenth century. A recent study published by FAO found that raising per capita energy intake to 2 770 kcal a day can increase per capita GDP growth by up to 1.48 percent a year.

"The Millennium Goals need to be prioritized," says FAO economist Kostas Stamoulis. "The need to attack hunger first is so clear that it should be top of the list. At the same time, agriculture and rural development must be actively promoted for substantial and sustainable growth and poverty reduction. We're concerned that those issues have not received the attention they deserve in the document proposed as an outcome of the Conference."

Funds for rural development have tended to decline, and that trend must be reversed, says Mr Stamoulis. "And we would also like to see an end to tariffs and unfair agricultural support policies in the richer countries that make it difficult for farmers in poorer ones to compete."

The objective should be fighting hunger in all its forms, through the twin-track approach -- hunger relief through measures such as safer food, better food distribution networks in cities and school feeding programmes as one track; broad-based, long-term rural development as the other.

Says Mr Meyers, "The key targets of this conference include poverty, health, education and the environment. But if it ignores hunger, it is going to miss them all."

14 March 2002

Monterrey conference site


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