top of page

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 points out that if the World Bank’s extreme poverty line had been $2.50 per day, instead of $1.25, the number of poor would actually have risen slightly, not dropped, between 1990 and 2005. And given that, for example, in Dhaka, Bangladesh food alone for a family of three costs more than $2.00 a day, the higher cut-off point for measuring extreme poverty seems reasonable.

Besides, inequality is increasing in most parts of the world. Since 2007 the global Food Price Index has stayed well above levels of most of the previous two decades. “Land grabs” by private speculators and governments in developing countries add up to an area adequate to feed a billion people, according to Oxfam International; and good farmland continues to move into fuel production. Meanwhile, at least 842 million are suffering severe hunger, lasting longer than a year.

Sounds terrible.

So how do we untangle the apparent contradictions?

For starters, we put new energy and resources into developing realistic measuring tools. And the great news is that key players are on it. The FAO, the UN agency entrusted with monitoring and communicating the extent of hunger, is taking big steps.

For many years, the agency has measured hunger by what’s called the “Prevalence of Undernourishment” based on statistical probabilities of a share of a population failing to meet minimum calorie requirements. Explained carefully in its State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013 (SOFI 13) released last month, the measure was adopted because a “headcount” approach is impractical; and, the FAO argues, an alternative statistical-probability yardstick would result in a “gross bias” overestimating hunger.

The measure’s virtue is that its annual release reminds us all that hunger is still huge. But there’s been a big downside, too. This single number is received by the public and policymakers as a total even though it’s, well, a “partial.” For one, despite being called the “Prevalence of Undernourishment,” the indicator doesn’t capture undernourishment. It’s about calories only. (A soda’s calories, for example, fuel us with energy, but few kid themselves that soda is nourishing.) Thus, the indicator might more appropriately be labeled something like the “Prevalence of Caloric Deficiency.”

Second, it represents only the most severe and long-term hunger. The agency’s Assistant Director-General for Economic and Social Development Jomo Kwame Sundaram — speaking at the World Food Prize Foundation’s Borlaug Dialogue on October 18th — explained that:

“Our estimates are that at least 842 million people in the world are believed to be still suffering from chronic hunger. This is a very, very strict definition. In other words, they have been hungry for at least a year. So if they have [been hungry for most of a year but] not been hungry for a month or for a season of that year, they no longer qualify as being hungry by that very strict definition. In other words the number of hungry people is probably higher than that. This is very important for us to recognize.”

Appreciating this definition’s limits, the agency is taking several important steps to create more comprehensive tools. Its new hunger report, SOFI 2013, stresses that the agency is going “beyond chronic food deprivation” to present “a broader suite of indicators that aims to capture the multidimensional nature of food insecurity, its determinants and outcomes.” The indicators cover eight dimensions, including “vulnerability” (e.g. dependency on imports) and “shocks” (e.g., price volatility). “This suite, compiled for every country, allows a more nuanced picture of their food security status, guiding policy-makers [in] the eradication of hunger.”

Shocking Contradictions Spur New Thinking

Data in the report help readers grasp why the FAO is moving to supplement its primary measure.

Particularly unsettling is evidence showing how grave and widespread are “stunting” and “wasting.” Diagnosed by measuring young children, wasting means being too thin for one’s height and stunting means being too short for one’s age. Stunting is “a largely irreversible symptom of undernutrition,” notes the report. Typically, consequences include cognitive impairment, a weakened immune system, and, for females, reproductive problems.

One quarter of all the world’s children are stunted. And take note: Although diagnosis happens in childhood, consequences happen over a life time.

Remarkably, data in SOFI 13 show many instances of no meaningful relationship between a country’s rate of stunting and the severity of hunger as now understood by the public and media — that is, according the FAO’s publicized “prevalence of undernourishment” number. Three dramatic examples stand out. All have won praise for meeting the MDG goal of cutting its share of hungry people in half since 2000:

  • Vietnam. Only 8 percent are now chronically “hungry” but almost a third of its children are stunted.

  • Ghana. Less than 5 percent of its people are chronically hungry; but the country’s rate of stunting is almost six times greater: at 29 percent.

  • Niger. Only 13.9 percent are now undernourished, but half of its children are stunted, among the worst in the world.

I’m grateful to the FAO for providing much of this disturbing data. They alert us all to the fact that the FAO’s hunger numbers are based on assumptions about calorie availability only, not nutrition; and increasingly the two are diverging. An Indian doctor told me recently that the 2,000 very poor patients his clinic sees monthly eat enough calories, but 60 percent are diabetic and suffer hypertension and related conditions.

Surely, the fact that stunting — a truly dire measure of poor nutrition — isn’t necessarily reflected in the most common measure of hunger means we have work to do.


The time is right to get it right, as a “new global development agenda” is in progress to pick up the baton from the Millennium Development Goal framework. Next fall the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, created early this year by the UN General Assembly, will deliver its report.

“A data revolution for sustainable development” — that’s what the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda says we need. (And any body with a name like that must be worth listening to!) For the Panel, a data revolution means “a new international improve the quality of statistics and information available to people and governments.”

Frustrated by the lack of needed data, the FAO has put enormous effort not only into developing the “suite of indicators” just mentioned, but also into a new “Food Insecurity Experience Scale“ to capture the personally reported experience of hunger. Called “Voices of the Hungry,” the survey gathers “direct responses to a series of questions regarding...access to adequate food.” It’s been successfully tested nationally in Brazil and Colombia, and pilots are now underway in four African countries.

The FAO will fold its battery of hunger-related questions into the Gallup World Poll to generate cost-effective and “cross-culturally comparable” responses “...from a nationally representative sample of adults in a large number of countries.” The survey will allow “disaggregation at sub-national levels and across different population groups,” a big boon for policy makers.

Distressingly, roll out of Voices of Hungry has been put at risk by recent FAO budget cuts, caused by fiscally strapped governments on which the agency depends. If restored, the world — and especially poor countries with limited resources for data gathering — could have an additional and very helpful way to track hunger. I can’t wait.

Of course, better measuring tools don’t enable hungry people to eat. Ending hunger depends on citizens holding policymakers accountable for acting on the improved tools. That’s why the UN Committee on World Food Security is such an important forum: Reformed in 2009 in response to the food crisis, the Committee is the only global food policy forum in which representatives of small-scale food producers and those most affected by food insecurity can deliberate on the same footing as governments.

In all this work, better measurements can help us untangle the contradictions so that solutions come into focus. And that’s why in this moment so rich in opportunity to set new, planet-wide goals, the quest for “better data” is stirring passions far beyond the wonks among us.

bottom of page