Sunday Alamba/AP
A woman sells skinned pawpaw, papaya, as she walks in a market on World Food Day in Lagos, Nigeria, Oct. 16, 2012.

Confounding expectations, global hunger is down

Despite sustained drought and population growth, global hunger has decreased over the past two decades. Food aid is smarter and 'host' governments are focusing more on local farmers.

After famine in Somalia, extreme hunger in Sudan, and increased concern about global food security in recent years, it might have seemed inevitable that world hunger would rise. In 2009, world food experts told us it would.

But here’s some surprising good news: Despite sustained drought across some of the world’s bread baskets, despite the widespread impact of global warming and a destabilizing rise in global food prices – and despite continuing population growth – hunger has decreased over the past two decades.

What’s more, the tools and conditions exist to continue the downward trend of hunger and to reduce the number – still in the hundreds of millions – of people who go without enough to eat every day, international experts say.

“We need to continue to do even better, but the smarter and more integrated approaches we’ve adopted in recent years to address hunger have put us on a good trajectory,” says Rick Leach, president of World Food Program USA. “The fact is, hunger is a solvable problem, and it’s in the interest of all of us to solve it.”

The number of the world’s people living with hunger has dropped by 132 million, or from nearly 19 percent of the world’s population in the early 1990s to 12.5 percent last year, a new report by the World Food Program and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization finds.

The decline is a bright spot for people in some of the world’s least developed countries, and also suggests that a goal set by world leaders in 2000 to cut extreme hunger in half by 2015 – one of a set of much-trumpeted Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs – can still be met.

With 868 million of the world’s 7 billion people going hungry, “I don’t want to suggest we’ve reached the end of the rainbow, because we haven’t and 868 million is still unacceptable,” Mr. Leach says. “But with the path we’re on we will reach the MDG” on hunger.

So what accounts for the drop in hunger, when a rise was anticipated?

Part of the answer is that the global food-price shocks of 2008-09 did not end up causing the predicted rise in hunger. Countries absorbed the shocks better than anticipated, in some cases by becoming more efficient with domestic food supplies, and international organizations implemented plans with less focus on massive food imports for addressing the new challenge.

The international community is also getting “smarter and more effective," Leach says, at helping countries address emergency food shortfalls resulting from natural disasters or conflict.

But even more important – and perhaps the part with the greatest potential for keeping hunger on the decline – are the innovative ways that international organizations are working with “host” governments to put a new emphasis on local food producers and farm families.

Much of the focus of new programs aimed at reducing hunger is on women and girls.

“If you look at the people suffering from hunger today, about half of them are farmers – and they are primarily women,” says Leach. He speaks of a “simple idea” recently implemented in parts of Africa that has organizations working with small farmers – on irrigation, better use of seeds, fertilization – and committing to buy their increased yields.

“We see these farmers evolve from needing to sell to the WFP to becoming successful farmers in the private market,” he says.

Another new approach: Providing food rations to families that send their daughters to school and keep them going.

Leach says it was the late Sen. George McGovern (D) of South Dakota – a lifelong champion of the world’s hungry – who as the US ambassador to the United Nations food agencies in Rome in the 1990s, lobbied for broader use of the simple idea of feeding children in school. Working with another former senator, Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, Senator McGovern pushed through a new international program combining education and child nutrition.

“When you offer food at school, suddenly parents are more likely to send their kids, and the kids end up better nourished and better educated,” says Leach, who notes that 130 million school-age children worldwide suffer from chronic hunger. At the same time, the emphasis on girls and school translates to later child-bearing, and also to healthier women farmers more open to trying new ideas in their fields.

The focus on girls and women in the battle against hunger is also a priority for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was instrumental in seeing President Obama’s “Feed the Future” program – which aims to grow more food in hungry places by tailoring public and private efforts to each country’s needs – adopted by the G8 developed countries.

The simple idea fueling the US effort is that those programs work best that are planned and executed by local governments, with outside assistance and expertise.

“We’ve learned that we’re not going to determine in Washington what needs to happen in Uganda or Somalia, it needs to be led by the country and they need to own it,” Leach says. “It’s another example of how all of us – in the donor countries, the host countries, the international organizations, the private and corporate sectors – are together getting better and smarter about solving the hunger problem.”

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