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Hunger: Measuring Progress Amid a Tangle of Contradictions

We live in a strange, contradictory time.

As the Millennium Development Goals‘ target year 2015 fast approaches, the World Bank is already celebrating victories. We read, for example, that “target of reducing extreme poverty by half has been reached five years ahead of the 2015 deadline.”

Sounds great.

And last year the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) opened its annual report State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012 forecasting that, if world economies return to pre-recession economic growth, the MDG goal for cutting the prevalence of hunger in developing countries by half would also be “within reach.” This year, the agency tells us that we’ve cut the prevalence of chronically hungry people in the developing world by 39 percent since 1990.

Sounds pretty good.

But untangling what’s behind the good news can be sobering.

Turns out that, for both poverty and hunger, gains are highly concentrated: Without progress in China — mostly in the 90s — the world would have seen only a 6 percent drop in the number of chronically hungry people since 1990. On poverty, Yale Professor Thomas Pogge