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Measuring hunger: A Response to the FAO

FAO’s 2012 State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI)

In December 2012, I received an email from Frances (Frankie) Moore Lappé, a woman whose name I had known since I was a teenager interested in hunger and poverty issues and reading all I could on the subject. I was honored. Frankie was reaching out to organizations and individuals who work to end hunger to ask if we had read the FAO’s 2012 State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) report and if so, what we had made of it. Frankie was concerned about a number of things, including that the report presented too rosy a view on how the world’s governments were doing in their ambition to eliminate hunger, and too rosy a view on what economic growth could do about the problem.

It did not take Frankie long to persuade a group of us, including IATP, to take notice and formalize our concerns. Those concerns include:

  1. The impression conveyed in the report that until the food price crisis of 2007-08, the world was making significant progress in eradicating hunger, when in fact just two countries (Vietnam and China) were between them responsible for more than 90 percent of the global total reduction in the number of people suffering from hunger. There were losses and gains in the rest of the world, but not a large net shift in the right direction. The world’s poorest countries (the 49 categorized as Least Developed Countries by the UN) saw hunger increase by 30 percent, or 59 million people.
  2. The linked point in SOFI’s analysis that a return to pre-2007 growth rates would put countries back on track to ending hunger, an assertion belied by a more careful breakdown of who was moving out of food insecurity and who was moving into it. It is not at all clear from the evidence that the patterns of growth, and in particular the marked escalation in inequality that most countries have experienced in the most recent decades of economic change, would provide a basis for the eradication of hunger.
  3. That SOFI counts only food insecurity that persists for a year or more, and only levels of calorie intake required for a “sedentary lifestyle”—exactly not the lifestyle people struggling in hunger can hope to lead. The vast majority of the world’s food insecure must sell their labor for an income or grow their own food, neither of which option allows for a “sedentary lifestyle.” In other words, FAO is undercounting hunger, when surely governments need to be encouraged to err the other way, to provide a safety net that would better catch too many than too few.
  4. That the report does discuss but does not highlight the weak correlation between economic growth and hunger reduction, leaving people to assume that growth is the best answer. In fact, equity-oriented public policies, especially those that focus on equity in ownership of productive assets, also characterize most of the countries that are making the greatest progress to end hunger.

From a first analysis, to a constructive discussion with officials at FAO over the spring, we now have a final version of our concerns. We hope it contributes to a better, more realistic debate. You cannot solve a problem if you do not know what you are measuring or if your correlations are false. Hunger is stubborn but not inevitable, as recent history proves. If only the FAO, and the governments it serves, can go the extra distance to eradicating the problem once and for all.