Contours of the post-Food Summit strategy -- hunger mapping

The World Food Summit set the critical goal of reducing the number of people in the world suffering from hunger and malnutrition by 50 percent -- from some 800 million to 400 million -- by the year 2015. An important initiative of the post-Summit strategy will be developing a food insecurity information and mapping system to help pinpoint where the hungry are. This information will be used to direct food assistance and increase farming output, particularly in low-income food-deficit countries (LIFDCs). But how will the system work and what problems does it pose for the people who will collect, analyse and map the data? FAO nutritionist Ezzeddine Boutrif begins by describing the system's main features.

The need to develop "hunger mapping" is embodied in at least three different commitments of the World Food Summit Plan of Action. Under Commitment II, governments were requested to "develop and periodically update, where necessary, a national food insecurity and vulnerability information and mapping system (FIVIMS), indicating areas and populations, including at local level, affected by or at risk of hunger and malnutrition, and elements contributing to food insecurity, making maximum use of existing data and other information systems in order to avoid duplication of efforts".

Children and Nutrition

In Commitment V, governments, in partnership with all sectors of civil society and with international organizations, were requested to "prepare and/or maintain for each LIFDC, and other countries and regions vulnerable to emergencies, vulnerability information and mapping,... with analysis of the major causes of vulnerability and their consequences, making maximum use of existing data and information systems to avoid duplication of efforts".

Under Commitment VII, relevant agencies within the UN system were encouraged to initiate "consultations on the further elaboration and definition of a food insecurity and vulnerability information and mapping system to be developed in a coordinated manner". FAO was requested to play a catalytic role in this effort. The "hunger map" will be an important instrument in monitoring the food insecurity and vulnerability situation worldwide and in directing national and international efforts to address the problem.

As FAO's Sixth World Food Survey shows, different methods of assessing nutrition give very different pictures. How can this be reconciled?

The main difficulty will arise in the comparability of the methodologies used in assessing the magnitude of food insecurity/vulnerability and in identifying affected population groups/households. This includes the indicators employed by various institutions in their assessment work. Two main approaches are used to measure undernutrition:

  • anthropometry, which accepts a universal standard for nourishment, based on measuring people's weights and heights and comparing them to the normal range of weights and heights of a healthy population; and
  • energy intake, which compares the distribution of dietary energy supply with per caput energy requirements in different countries.

These approaches often do not cover the same time period and they generally yield different results. (For a full discussion of this debate, see The Sixth World Food Survey, FAO, 1996). Hunger mapping would aim at the inclusion of specific and accurate indicators of hunger and malnutrition and at a more detailed subnational database. It would also include indicators of vulnerability, that is, of factors that would negatively influence people's access to food under conditions of natural or man-made disasters. To take the Sudan for example: the FAO estimate for the early 1990s put the number of undernourished people at 9.7 million, or 37 percent of the population. This indicates that the country has a serious problem. But many questions remain unanswered: for example, who are the food insecure or vulnerable people? Where do they live? Why are they affected?

To answer these questions we will need information that is broken down by location much more precisely than national aggregate figures. And we will need more detailed information on undernourished population groups, including their access to productive resources and jobs. Moreover, the information on food energy supplies will have to be supplemented by a survey of nutritional status and availability of basic nutrients.

How will the mapping help developing countries in their fight against hunger?

Mapping Undernutrition
The importance of hunger mapping in directing corrective action will be reflected primarily in the data collected at the country and subcountry levels. The more accurate this information is, the more useful it will be in targeting intervention actions. Several organizations are already helping countries south of the Sahara, although some will have to develop their own expertise from scratch. Emphasis will be given to the development of appropriate guidelines for use by member countries in implementing national FIVIMs and the provision of the necessary technical assistance to developing countries in launching this activity, giving priority to LIFDCs. The mapping will also be of great use to the international community in directing their assistance programmes in favour of food security and in allocating and distributing food aid in response to emergencies.

13 February 1997

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