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Towards the World Food Summit target: confronting the crippling costs of hunger

As we approach the mid-term review of progress towards the World Food Summit (WFS) goal, FAO's latest report on the state of food insecurity in the world highlights three irrefutable facts and three inescapable conclusions:

Fact number one: to date, efforts to reduce chronic hunger in the developing world have fallen far short of the pace required to cut the number of hungry people by half no later than the year 2015 (see graph). We must do better.

Fact number two: despite slow and faltering progress on a global scale, numerous countries in all regions of the developing world have proven that success is possible. More than 30 countries, with a total population of over 2.2 billion people, have reduced the prevalence of undernourishment by 25 percent and have made significant progress towards reducing the number of hungry people by half by the year 2015. We can do better.

Fact number three: the costs of not taking immediate and strenuous action to reduce hunger at comparable rates worldwide are staggering. This is the central message I would like to convey to readers of this report. Every year that hunger continues at present levels costs more than 5 million children their lives and costs developing countries billions of dollars in lost productivity and earnings. The costs of interventions that could sharply reduce hunger are trivial in comparison. We cannot afford not to do better.

We MUST do better

According to FAO's latest estimates the number of hungry people in the developing world has declined by only 9 million since the WFS baseline period, despite commitments made. More alarming still, the number has actually increased over the most recent five years for which numbers are available. In three of the four developing regions, more people were undernourished in 2000-2002 than had been the case in 1995-1997. Only Latin America and the Caribbean registered a modest reduction in the number of hungry people.

We CAN do better

More than 30 countries, representing nearly half the population of the developing world, have provided both proof that rapid progress is possible and lessons in how that progress can be achieved.

This successful group of countries is striking for several reasons. Every developing region is represented, not only those whose rapid economic growth has been widely touted. Asia accounts for by far the largest drop in the number of hungry people. But sub-Saharan ­Africa boasts the most countries that have brought the prevalence of hunger down by 25 percent or more, although often from very high levels at the outset.

Among the African countries are several that demonstrate another key lesson - that war and civil conflict must be regarded as major causes not only of short-term food emergencies but of widespread chronic hunger. Several countries that have recently emerged from the nightmare of conflict figure prominently among those that have registered steady progress since the WFS as well as those that have scored rapid gains over the past five years.

Many of the countries that have achieved rapid progress in reducing hun­­ger have something else in ­common - significantly better than average agricultural growth. Within the group of more than 30 countries that are on track to reach the WFS goal, agricultural GDP increased at an average annual rate of 3.2 percent, almost one full percentage point faster than for the developing countries as a whole.

Several of these countries have also led the way in implementing a twin-track strategy to attack hunger - strengthening social safety nets to put food on the tables of those who need it most on the one hand, while attacking the root causes of hunger with initiatives to stimulate food production, increase employability and reduce poverty on the other.

In certain cases, as Brazil's Zero Hunger Programme has demonstrated by buying food for school lunch programmes and other food safety nets from local small and medium-sized farms, the two tracks can be brought together in a virtuous circle of better diets, increased food availability, rising incomes and ­improved food security.

We cannot afford not to do better

In moral terms, just stating the fact that one child dies every five seconds as a result of hunger and malnutrition should be enough to prove that we cannot afford to allow the scourge of hunger to continue. Case closed.

In economic terms the case is more complex but no less cogent. Every child whose physical and mental development is stunted by hunger and malnutrition stands to lose 5 to 10 percent in lifetime earnings. On a global scale, every year that hunger persists at current levels causes deaths and disability that will cost developing countries future productivity with a present discounted value of US$500 billion or more.

This crushing economic burden is borne by those who can afford it least, by people struggling to eke out a living on less than a dollar a day, by countries whose economies and development efforts are slowed or stalled by lack of productivity and resources.

Studies by the Academy for Educational Development cited in this report suggest that 15 countries in Africa and Latin America could reduce protein-energy malnutrition by half between now and 2015 at a cost of just US$25 million per year. Over a ten-year period, that investment would pay for targeted interventions that would save the lives of almost 900000 children and yield long-term gains in productivity worth more than US$1 billion.

FAO's own estimates of the costs and benefits of action to accelerate progress towards the WFS goal suggest that US$24 billion a year in public investment, associated with additional private investment, would lead to a boost in annual GDP amounting to US$120 billion as a result of longer and healthier lives.

Simply stated, the question is not whether we can afford to take the urgent and immediate action needed to reach and surpass the WFS goal. The question is whether we can afford not to. And the answer is an emphatic, resounding no.

The hungry cannot wait. And neither can the rest of the human family.

Jacques Diouf
FAO Director-General

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