UN: Hunger on the rise, but not everywhere

The UN food agency reported Tuesday that 18 million more people face hunger around the world.

World hunger is "on the rise," says the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Or is it?

"After reducing the number of hungry people in developing countries by 37 million during the first half of the 1990s, that number increased by 18 million in the second half of the decade," the FAO announced Tuesday.

The setback was not uniform around the world, however, resulting in an overall figure that obscures areas of progress.

For instance, exempting the 30 million that India and the Democratic Republic of Congo added to the rolls of the malnourished, hunger actually continued its decade-long descent by another 12 million.

"You can always speak of the half-full and half-empty glass," FAO Assistant Director-General Hartwig de Haen told the Monitor. "But we now have consolidation of the ingredients for success. A number of countries have been able to turn the tide."

While some countries slid backward - especially those hit by war, economic crisis, drought, or HIV/AIDS - others have made the reforms to spur economic growth, like investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure, or instituted supplemental feeding programs that helped hoist millions from the ranks of the undernourished, says Mr. de Haen.

Still, it hasn't happened as quickly as many had hoped.

At the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, representatives of 179 nations vowed to halve the world's hungry by the year 2015. The FAO puts the number at 842 million, or 15 percent of the global population. This includes 798 million in developing countries, 34 million in countries "in transition," and 10 million in the industrialized countries. Overall, two-thirds of the hungry live in rural areas and are dependent on agriculture.

Yet for some, the situation is worsening - especially countries with large populations like Indonesia, Pakistan, and Sudan. Sub-Saharan Africa and Ethiopia remain the most chronically underfed regions.

In impoverished Malawi, for example, activists say the practice of families bartering off young daughters to older men in exchange for money to buy food has once again resurfaced over the past two years.

And in hermetic North Korea, stories of people relegated to eating twigs and bark have now been replaced by reports of sporadic cannibalism.

War has left three million Congolese dead and millions more starving, while conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have swelled their ranks of malnourished, says de Haen.

Meanwhile, Latin America and the Caribbean were the world's only two regions to reduce their hungry, overall, throughout the 1990s. And China, experiencing an economic boom, led a group of 19 countries that saw a decline in hunger throughout the past decade.

The hungry generally break down into two groups, say observers: the mildly to moderately malnourished, and the severely malnourished.

The first group is, relatively speaking, easier to assist. Economic growth that leads to better jobs or higher pay improves a family's ability to feed itself. The more successful countries in fighting hunger enjoyed GDP growth of 2.6 percent, while the others saw only 0.5 percent growth, says de Haen.

Governments may also institute community- or school-based programs, as India and Thailand have, to ensure that children get enough to eat each day. India's main challenge, though, is a population explosion that outstrips its ability to feed itself.

But the problem of severely malnourished people is "the tougher nut to crack," says Patrick Carey, senior vice president for programs at the non-governmental CARE USA.

"It's when hunger is a chronic condition, when they simply don't have the means to meet their basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, that one has to ask what happens to a child when he's not receiving that extra ration of food?" says Mr. Carey, who has lived and worked for CARE in India and Haiti. "Is the intervention in any way addressing why the child was malnourished in the first place?"

The answer, he says, is ultimately poverty reduction.

As for the world's lofty target of halving hunger by 2015, some are skeptical it can be met. Reaching it would require annual average reductions of about 26 million.

More dramatic progress could be made if the US and the European Union ended heavy farm subsidies that shut out the world's poorer farmers from international markets, says Benjamin Senauer, co-author of Ending Hunger In Our Lifetime: Food Security and Globalization.

"There really is consensus, from left to right on the political spectrum, on what needs to be done: You need economic growth that's broadly shared," says Mr. Senauer, co-director of the University of Minnesota's Food Industry Center. "There needs to be investment in human capital, to make sure that poor people, including girls and women, have the skills and education that allow them to participate in a growing economy."

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