Economic crisis is devastating for the world's hungry

1.02 billion hungry people in 2009 - FAO hunger report published

14 October 2009, Rome - The sharp spike in hunger triggered by the global economic crisis has hit the poorest people in developing countries hardest, revealing a fragile world food system in urgent need of reform, according to a report released today by FAO and the World Food Programme (WFP).

The combination of food and economic crises has pushed the number of hungry people worldwide to historic levels — more than one billion people are undernourished, according to FAO estimates.

Nearly all the world's undernourished live in developing countries. In Asia and the Pacific, an estimated 642 million people are suffering from chronic hunger; in Sub-Saharan Africa 265 million; in Latin America and the Caribbean 53 million; in the Near East and North Africa 42 million; and in developed countries 15 million, according FAO's annual hunger report, The State of Food Insecurity, produced this year in collaboration with WFP. The report was published before World Food Day, to be celebrated on 16 October 2009.

Decade-long trend

Even before the recent crises, the number of undernourished people in the world had been increasing slowly but steadily for the past decade, the report says.

Good progress had been made in the 1980s and early 1990s in reducing chronic hunger, largely due to increased investment in agriculture following the global food crisis of the early 1970s.

But between 1995-97 and 2004-06, as official development assistance (ODA) devoted to agriculture declined substantially, the number of hungry people increased in all regions except Latin America and the Caribbean. Gains in hunger reduction were later reversed in this region as well, as a result of the food and economic crises

The rise in the number of hungry people  during both periods of low prices and economic prosperity and the very sharp rises in periods of price spikes and economic downturns shows the weakness of the global food security governance system, FAO said.

"World leaders have reacted forcefully to the financial and economic crisis and succeeded in mobilizing billions of dollars in a short time period. The same strong action is needed now to combat hunger and poverty," said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.

"The rising number of hungry people is intolerable. We have the economic and technical means to make hunger disappear, what is missing is a stronger political will to eradicate hunger forever. Investing in agriculture in developing countries is key as a healthy agricultural sector is essential not only to overcome hunger and poverty but also to ensure overall economic growth and peace and stability in the world," he said.

"We applaud the new commitment to tackle food security, but we must act quickly. It is unacceptable in the 21st century that almost one in six of the world's population is now going hungry," added Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of WFP.

"At a time when there are more hungry people in the world than ever before, there is less food aid than we have seen in living memory. We know what is needed to meet urgent hunger needs — we just need the resources and the international commitment to do the job."

Another blow for poor households

Several factors have conspired to make the current crisis particularly devastating for poor households in developing countries.

First, the crisis is affecting large parts of the world simultaneously, reducing the scope for traditional coping mechanisms such as currency devaluation, borrowing or increased use of official development assistance or migrant remittances.

Second, the economic crisis comes on top of a food crisis that has already strained the coping strategies of the poor, hitting those most vulnerable to food insecurity when they are down. Faced with high domestic food prices, reduced incomes and employment and having already sold off assets, reduced food consumption and cut spending on essential items such as health care and education, these families risk falling deeper into destitution and the hunger-poverty trap.

In for a penny, in for a pounding

The third factor that differentiates this crisis from those of the past is that developing countries have become more integrated, both financially and commercially, into the world economy than they were 20 years ago, making them more vulnerable to changes in international markets.

Many countries have experienced across-the-board drops in their trade and financial inflows, and have seen their export earnings, foreign investment, development aid and remittances falling. This not only reduces employment opportunities, but also reduces the money available to governments for programmes promoting growth and supporting those in need.

The 17 largest Latin American economies, for example, received $184 billion in financial inflows in 2007, which was roughly halved in 2008 to $89 billion and is expected to be halved again to $43 billion in 2009, the report said. This means that consumption must be reduced, and for some low-income food-deficit countries, adjusting consumption may mean reducing badly needed food imports and other imported items such as health-care equipment and medicines.

The report includes case studies compiled by WFP in five countries — Armenia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Nicaragua and Zambia — showing how households are affected by the fall in remittances and other impacts of the economic downturn and how governments are responding to the crisis by investing in agriculture and infrastructure and expanding safety nets.

These interventions will help to save lives and families, the report says, but given the severity of the crisis, much more needs to be done.

FAO and WFP continue to advocate a twin-track approach to address both the short-term acute hunger spurred by sudden food shortages and the longer-term chronic hunger that is symptomatic of extreme poverty as a way for durable solutions.

"Small-scale farmers need access to high-quality seeds, fertilizers, feed and technologies to be able to boost productivity and production," Diouf said. "And their governments need economic and policy tools to ensure that their countries' agriculture sectors are both more productive and more resilient in the face of crises."

Photo: ©FAO/Walter Astrada
Number of hungry people "intolerable"