FIRST SOME GOOD NEWS. FAO’s latest estimates show that a number of countries have reduced hunger steadily since the World Food Summit (WFS) baseline period of 1990–1992. In 19 countries, the number of chronically hungry people declined by over 80 million between 1990–1992 and 1999–2001.
The list of successful countries spans all developing regions, with one country in the Near East, five in Asia and the Pacific, six in Latin America and the Caribbean and seven in Sub-Saharan Africa. It includes both large and relatively prosperous countries like Brazil and China, where levels of undernourishment were moderate at the outset, and smaller countries where hunger was more widespread, such as Chad, Guinea, Namibia and Sri Lanka.
Now the bad news. Unfortunately, this is not the situation in most other countries. Across the developing world as a whole, an estimated 798 million people were undernourished in 1999– 2001, only 19 million fewer than during the WFS baseline period. Worse yet, it appears that the number of undernourished people in the developing world is no longer falling but climbing. During the first half of the 1990s, the number of chronically hungry people decreased by 37 million. Since 1995– 1997, however, the number has increased by over 18 million.
We must ask ourselves why this has happened. Preliminary analysis does not permit any definitive answers to that question. But closer examination does identify several factors that differentiate the successful countries from those that suffered setbacks.
In general, countries that succeeded in reducing hunger were characterized by more rapid economic growth and specifically by more rapid growth in their agricultural sectors. They also exhibited slower population growth, lower levels of HIV infection and higher ranking in the UNDP’s Human Development Index.
These findings are consistent with previous analyses that helped shape the WFS Plan of Action and the anti-hunger initiative put forward by FAO at the time of the World Food Summit: five years later. They highlight the importance of a few key building blocks in the foundation for improving food security – rapid economic growth, better than average growth in the agricultural sector and effective social safety nets to ensure that those who cannot produce or buy adequate food still get enough to eat.
If the latest data tend to confirm our understanding of factors that contribute to food security, they also confront us with another difficult question: if we already know the basic parameters of what needs to be done, why have we allowed hundreds of millions of people to go hungry in a world that produces more than enough food for every woman, man and child?
Bluntly stated, the problem is not so much a lack of food as a lack of political will. The vast majority of the world’s hungry people live in rural areas of the developing world, far from the levers of political power and beyond the range of vision of the media and the public in developed countries. Except when war or a natural calamity briefly focuses global attention and compassion, little is said and less is done to put an end to the suffering of a “continent of the hungry” whose 798 million people outnumber the population of either Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa.
Too often, eliminating hunger has been relegated to a shopping list of development goals. All of these goals are interconnected through the fatal nexus of poverty and social exclusion. Every one of them deserves and demands our support. But we must also have the vision and the courage to set priorities, recognizing that lack of adequate food threatens people’s very existence and cripples their ability both to benefit from opportunities for education, employment and political participation and to contribute to economic and social development.
This brings us back to the need for political will. And it also brings us to more of the good news in this year’s report. For if we must report setbacks in reducing hunger, we can also report that we have seen many encouraging signs of growing commitment to the fight against hunger.
In Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has pledged to eradicate hunger by the end of his four-year term. And he has backed up the pledge by launching the comprehensive Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) Project.
Over the past year, more than 20 other countries have asked FAO to help them design and carry out anti-hunger programmes. Many of these countries are relying entirely on their own resources and initiative to achieve the WFS goal within their own borders. Some have committed themselves to more ambitious goals. The government of Sierra Leone, for example, has set a bold target of eliminating hunger by the year 2007. At their recent summit in Maputo, Mozambique, the heads of state of the African Union unanimously pledged to increase agriculture’s share of public expenditures to at least 10 percent within the next five years.
The fact that these countries have made eradicating hunger a top priority is encouraging. The way they are going about it is even more so.
The strategy adopted by Brazil’s Fome Zero incorporates many of the elements in the anti-hunger initiative. Most importantly, it emphasizes a two-pronged attack on hunger that combines emergency interventions to give hungry people access to food with development initiatives to increase employment, incomes and food production in impoverished communities. Fome Zero has also forged a broad and committed national alliance against hunger, engaging the active support and participations of unions, popular associations, non-governmental organizations, schools, universities, churches and companies.
A growing number of countries are showing the way, mustering the political will and the resources to attack the problem of hunger head on. Now it is time for the international community to follow through on the commitments made at the World Food Summit.
The task ahead of us is to create an international Alliance against Hunger that will mobilize national and global commitment, based not on a plea for charity but on a demand for justice and an appeal to the self-interest of almost everyone, recognizing that the suffering of 800 million hungry people represents not only an unconscionable tragedy but a threat to economic growth and political stability on a global scale.
Hunger cannot wait.