CL 120/INF/18


Hundred and Twentieth Session

Rome, 18-23 June 2001


Table of Contents


1. The FAO report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 1999 (SOFI 1999), identified 13 developing countries in which the proportion of hungry people in their populations had decreased by more than one percentage point per year over the period 1979-81 to 1995-97. The list of the 13 countries most successful at reducing hunger remains unchanged in the latest publication, SOFI 2000. This short note illustrates their remarkable performance with a few basic indicators. A short summary for individual countries is also attached for reference1.


2. The 13 countries are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Chad, China, The Gambia, Ghana, Indonesia, India, Mali, Mauritania, Nepal and Nigeria. Eight are in Sub-Sahara Africa and five in Asia. They are diverse in size, agro-climatic conditions, economy and political system. Yet, based on their experiences, a number of common factors emerge as keys to reducing food insecurity. Broadly speaking, five major factors can be identified as a key to success: peace and social stability, strong economic growth, primacy of policy support to and investment for food and agriculture, social safety nets for the poor, and access to food imports including food aid. The importance of each factor varies greatly by country depending on the conditions the countries face, but these factors in most cases work in combination and often reinforce each other.

3. Given the complexity of each of the factors which contribute to reducing food insecurity, it is difficult to identify a single set of indicators that explain these factors adequately. The indicators contained in Table 1 below are used as a proxy for illustrative purposes only. Each country recorded a reduction of undernourishment by 17 percentage points or more over the 17 years between 1980-97, with the largest reduction of 52 percent in Ghana. Real GDP grew positively for all 13 countries with substantial variations of between 2.6 and 10.0 percent per year. With the exception of Chad, Mauritania, Mali and The Gambia, per capita food production increased considerably. All countries experienced substantial reductions in adult illiteracy rates by between 9-27 percent over the period. Food imports, including food aid, played a critical role in the case of several countries.

4. The restoration of peace and social stability seems to be a fundamental key to success. The experience of Cambodia and Chad indicates the high dividends that peace can bring. Once this condition is met, as in most other countries throughout the review period, other factors assume importance.

5. As the case of China shows, market-oriented policies and economic growth provide farmers with strong incentives to boost food production, increase rural incomes and reduce hunger dramatically. The importance of high economic growth and food production increase is also clear in Indonesia.

6. The experiences of Benin, China, India and Indonesia demonstrate how public investment in agricultural technologies and infrastructure, supported by steady economic growth, can raise agricultural production and productivity consistently over many years. The more recent experience of Nigeria and Ghana, with improved varieties of cassava, is further evidence of the potential returns to investment in agricultural research.

7. Imports can play an important role in ensuring food security by supplementing domestic supplies. In countries such as The Gambia and Mauritania food imports contribute significantly to food security, with the share having even increased in The Gambia. The case of Mauritania, with 70 percent of total cereal supplies originating from imports, demonstrates the importance of exporter earnings to ensure adequate levels of food imports.

8. Finally, improved social and human capital offers better safety nets for food security of the poorest and reinforces other factors including social stability, economic growth and food production. While the forms which social safety nets take in the success countries are diverse and difficult to measure, one common indicator of their outcome is assumed to be adult literacy rates. In all 13 countries, adult illiteracy declined substantially over the period with the greatest reductions experienced in Nigeria, Chad and Benin. Countries such as China and Indonesia, while experiencing a lower decline in percentage points, already had relatively much lower levels of illiteracy at the beginning of the period.

9. Initial political and socio-economic conditions faced by the countries varies considerably, as do the major factors that contribute to the reduction of hunger. But the experiences of these countries indicate that, if a few fundamental conditions are met, world hunger can be reduced substantially.

Table 1: Changes in key indicators in the13 countries most successful in reducing hunger (1980-97)

  Undernourished Population as % of Total Real GDP growth Food production per capita index
Total Population Adult Illiteracy Rate Cereal Imports including Food Aid as a Proportion of Total Cereal Availability*
% points reduction
% per year
80/97 % per year
80/97 % per year
% points reduction
Benin 37 / 14 23 2.9 85/120 2.0 3.5/5.8 3.0 82 / 64 22 18 / 17 None
Burkina Faso 64 / 32 32 3.3 82/106 1.5 7.0/10.5 2.4 89 / 79 10 12 / 8 Down
Cambodia 61 / 33 28 6.0*** 65/109 3.0 6.8/11.2 2.9 78 / 64 21 15 / 3 Down
Chad 69 / 38 31 3.9 103/112 0.5 4.5/7.1 2.7 83 / 62 24 5 / 7 Down
China 30 / 11 19 10.0 70/147 4.4 981/1227 1.3 35 / 18 14 5 / 1 Down
Gambia, The 58 / 16 42 3.2 118/64 -3.6 0.6 /1.2 3.6 84 / 67 17 48 / 56 Up
Ghana 62 / 10 52 2.9 96/122 1.4 10.7/18 3.0 56 / 32 17 34 / 16 Down
India 38 / 21 17 5.5 84/107 1.4 687/962 2.0 59 / 45 14 1 / 1 Down
Indonesia 26 / 6 20 6.3 77/108 2.0 148/200 1.8 31 / 15 16 11 / 8 None
Mali 60 / 32 28 2.7 99/98 -0.06 6.6 /10.3 2.6 86 / 64 22 14 / 6 Down
Mauritania 35 / 13 22 4.4 113/87 -1.5 1.6 / 2.5 2.7 69 / 60 9 86 / 70 Down
Nepal 47 / 28 19 4.6 85/99 0.9 14.5/22.3 2.5 77 / 62 15 3 / 1 Down
Nigeria 44 / 8 36 2.6 76/121 2.7 71/118 3.0 67 / 40 27 20 / 8 Down
Average   28 4.5   1.1   2.6   18    

*Total Availability = Commercial Imports + Food Aid + Production.
**Trend represents the overall tendency throughout the period rather than comparing two years of 80/87.
***1987-1997 period.



10. The proportion of the population suffering from undernourishment in Benin declined by 23 percentage points from 37 percent in 1979-81 to 14 percent in 1996-98. The main factor underlying this improvement was the steady expansion in food production, which was driven largely by an increase in the area cultivated, in particular in the north of the country. Roots and tubers contributed most with an increase in per-capita production of 64 percent between 1980 and 1997. Increased use of bush-fallow land contributed to increased yields, which for roots and tubers rose by 40 percent, while the area harvested was up by 90 percent.

Burkina Faso

11. In Burkina Faso, the share of undernourished in the total population declined from 64 to 32 percent between 1980 and 1997. This was largely due to the steady increase in food production, in particular of maize and millet. The marked acceleration in agricultural production growth since the mid-1980s was largely the result of new development policies which gave absolute priority to agricultural and rural development and led to a heavy focus on investment in agriculture. This was supported by positive real GDP growth of 3.3 percent on average per year over the 1980-97 period.


12. In 1997, the share of the population classified as undernourished was 33 percent, which was 28 percentage points less than in 1980. The prime contributing factor was the restoration of the peace and stability and the ensuing steady growth of food production, especially of rice. Decades of war and civil strife had left the social capital and infrastructure in ruins by the late 1970s. Irrigation systems were badly damaged while many fields had been abandoned due to land mines. Relative stability was reestablished in the late 1970s and opened the door for a recovery in economic growth, especially in agricultural production. The economic reform programme introduced in 1992 brought inflation under control. Farmers responded by increasing the area cultivated and the cropped area nearly doubled in the period between 1980 and 1997.


13. The proportion of undernourished in the total population in Chad has fallen from 69 to a still high 38 percent between 1980 and 1997. Improvements were achieved mainly in the 1990s when the country started a difficult transition to political reconciliation, peace and stability. Chad had previously experienced three decades of political instability and civil strife. Food production on a per-capita basis had fluctuated with recurrent droughts but with no overall growth. Large amounts of food aid and commercial imports were required in the first half of the 1980s. Food production recovered significantly in the 1990s with a series of good seasons and relative political stability.


14. China has seen tremendous economic transformations over the past 20 years. Economic reform, modernisation and opening to the outside world has been accompanied by buoyant economic activity. Real GDP has grown by 10 percent per year over the 1980-1997 period and GDP per-capita rose from 307 US $ in 1980 to 730 US $ in 1997. Rapid economic growth has been accompanied by significant improvements in standards of living and food security. The prime contributing factor was a shift from a centrally planned to a market-oriented agricultural sector which resulted in remarkable increases in productivity, rural incomes and food security. The 1978 reform measures provided farmers with improved price incentives and were followed by a major restructuring of China's agricultural sector. The role of direct state planning in agricultural production was largely replaced by markets and the price mechanism. The result has been a remarkable reduction, by 160 million people, in the number of undernourished between 1980 and 1997. Per-capita food production has expanded by 110 percent over the same period.

The Gambia

15. A rapid increase in food availability was recorded in the early 1980s due to a recovery in production and increased imports. After 1984, cereal production levelled off while imports continued to rise steadily, with the total increase in cereal imports being 188 percent between 1980 and 1997. Indeed, cereal imports went from 62 to 121 percent of domestic production. Though domestic production of cereals has declined in per-caput terms, per caput millet output increased by 133 percent between 1980 and 1997.


16. In response to the deepening economic crisis, the government launched an economic reform programme in 1983. Benefiting from economic and agricultural sector growth, Ghana has been able to reduce undernourishment more rapidly than any other country in the world over the 1983-97 period. The agricultural sector benefited from a series of policy reforms and food production increased steadily on a per-capita basis after 1983. A prime contributing factor was the increase in the production of roots and tubers, in particular cassava. Improved varieties of cassava started having a significant impact following the inception of a government programme to promote roots and tubers in the early 1990s. Cassava yields increased by 40 percent to 12 tonnes per hectare, and is now the most important agricultural commodity produced in the country, accounting for 22 percent of GDP in 1998.


17. The proportion of the population that is undernourished in India declined substantially from 38 to 21 percent between 1980 and 1997. The most direct contributing factor was the increase in per-capita food production by 27 percent between 1980 and 1997. Wheat and rice, the major staple foods, recorded per-capita production increases of 2 and 2.4 percent per year respectively over the period. Increased production was due in particular to higher yields, which increased by 87 percent for wheat and 44 percent for rice over this period. These achievements were largely due to vigorous support for research and extension, programmes targeting small farmers, and improvements in rural infrastructure including irrigation systems. Accelerated growth in food production resulted in a greater degree of food security for a rapidly rising population. Access to food for the poorer sectors of the population improved because of lower real prices of wheat and rice.


18. Indonesia achieved remarkable economic growth over the three decades to 1997. Real GDP growth averaged 6.3 percent over the 1980-97 period which translated into substantial reduction in poverty. The incidence of undernourishment declined from 26 percent to 6 percent of the population between 1980 and 1997. This mirrors the performance of food production in per-capita terms, which rose by 40 percent over the period. Of particular importance was the rapid output growth in rice, the staple crop which alone accounts for about 50 percent of dietary energy supply. Rice production increased by 3.7 percent per year, or 1.8 percent on a per-capita basis. Strong government support for rice intensification programmes enabled farmers to adopt improved varieties and fertilizers with improved irrigation systems. Cereal yields rose by 40 percent while the harvested area expanded by 24 percent between 1980 and 1997.


19. Socio-political stability, coupled with economic growth, lead to a substantial decline in the proportion of undernourished in the total population, from 60 percent in 1980 to 32 percent in 1997. Per capita cereal consumption was boosted by commercial imports and food aid in the 1980s, which helps to explain the rapid increase in dietary energy supply (DES) during that time period despite adverse climatic conditions in the early 1980s. Though imports and food aid shrank in the 1990s, the level of DES in the 1990s remains well above those seen in the early 1980s. The large increase in arable area and land under permanent crops was mostly due to an expansion of the area under cotton, increasing exports which have also contributed to raising household incomes in cotton growing areas.


20. Mauritania saw a remarkable reduction in undernourishment from 35 percent of the population classified as undernourished in 1980 to 15 percent in 1990 and then 13 percent in 1997. Crucial to these improvements has been the increased production of sorghum and rice and steady export growth which has allowed rising food imports. Economic reforms which started in the mid-1980s have led to macroeconomic stability and robust real GDP growth. Food production has risen due to a steady rise in area harvested and yields of cereals. The DES per person has increased from 2120 to 2630 kcal per person per day between 1980-1997. An important factor was the relatively large cereal imports. Combined imports and production of cereals showed a steady increase from 132 kg in 1980 to 205 kg per person per year in 1997.


21. Despite a very low level of GDP per capita and its relatively modest growth, Nepal has been able to reduce the proportion of undernourished in the total population from 47 to 28 percent between 1980-97. Economic and agricultural production growth has contributed to improved living standards although these remain at a low level. Food output has outpaced population growth over the period 1980-97, mostly due to the increase during the 1980s. Cereal production trends largely explain the food production movements. Rice production rose rapidly between 1986-90, from 2.4 million tonnes to 3.5 million tonnes. The large increase in rice production between in this period was due in part to an increase in yields but mainly to an increase in the area under cultivation, mostly in the lowland areas.


22. Nigeria has managed to reduce undernourishment substantially. The leading factor was strong growth of staple food production, which more than kept pace with population growth. Per capita production of roots and tubers rose by 119 percent over the 1980-97 period. Improved high yielding varieties of cassava helped to boost output from 160 kg per person per year in 1984 to over 320 kg per person per year by 1992. Cassava's success in Nigeria was due to deliberate policy measures and government investment in distribution of planting material. Adding to improved yields for cassava was the large increase in area harvested for roots and tubers, from 2.1 million hectares in 1987 to 5.5 million hectares by 1997. Cereal production also rose sharply, due almost entirely to an increase in the area harvested from 6.1 to 18.5 million hectares over the 1980-97 period.


1 More detailed country information will be made available in a separate publication.