Global hunger statistics: does every hungry belly count?

Globally quoted – and unquestioningly accepted – estimates of people going to bed hungry are based on biased assumptions

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Biraj Swain | March 19, 2013




So the blockbuster anti-hunger campaign from the UK is here. The big ‘IF’ (see enoughfoodif.org), launched on January 23! A hundred NGOs, eight demands, countless activists and intellectuals, all coming together – not merely to fight hunger, but to end the reasons that cause it. All urging the UK to take leadership of this ambitious effort. Great timing! David Cameron is not only stepping into a leadership role in the G8, but is also co-chair of the UN secretary general’s post-2015 high-level panel. There’s a lot of buzz. You can almost feel the heat of the drawing board where this campaign was designed. IF has been touted as Make Poverty History 2.0.

Hmmm…. several big Ifs! And Cameron came calling to India too, second time in his first tenure!

But there have been more sober voices on IF’s potential. Lawrence Haddad of the institute of Development Studies (IDS) has raised concerns about the number of demands and the under-representation of nutrition. The Global Development Team at the Guardian newspaper has tried to put this campaign in perspective. There are also those like War on Want distancing themselves from IF and calling it a publicity gimmick. And us? We are supporters of IF, of the new alliances being built on the challenge of hunger. We support the intent, some of the new rules being drafted and the new roles being demanded of UK and global leaders. Yet, we are circumspect, too. Here’s why:

The IF campaign manifesto puts the hunger figures at 14% of the global population. So pegged at 7 billion this, we presume, is 1 billion hungry, i.e., every seventh person going to bed hungry. Voila! So are we really sticking to these numbers?

We ask, because leading members of the IF campaign had earlier accepted – without question – the pared-down hunger numbers of 868 million put out  by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN. [See FAO’s The State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI), 2012]. In fact, when the champions of many anti-hunger campaigns were quick to accept the SOFI 2012 numbers, it was public broadcasters like the BBC which still quoted the 1 billion poor and hungry numbers in their “Why Poverty” series. That these organizations also have Indian avatars which didn’t challenge the SOFI figures either is intriguing!

Sure, campaigning requires enormous energy and mobilisation. Fiddling with numbers, methods and statistics isn’t a luxury most NGOs and campaigners have. But campaigners use the numbers to rally and mobilise, to spark public outrage. So letting the “paring of hunger numbers” go unchallenged is worrying. When SOFI 2009 said there were one billion hungry, campaign manifestos thundered: “Every 7th person goes to bed hungry.” When SOFI 2012 said 868 million hungry, this got amended. Now, “Every 8th person goes to bed hungry.” Does it now mean the FAO-IFAD-WFP triad will be the number-crunchers of the global anti-hunger agenda?

Let’s say SOFI 2016 changes its methods of counting and declares just 350 million people remain hungry. Would we rush to declare IF a success? Should we then say “Barely every 20th person goes to bed hungry?”

The numbers – based on dubious definitions – legitimise a bad public policy discourse. When they come from the stables of organisations like FAO, the best ally for anti-hunger agenda, with its southern leadership, vibrant civil society mechanism and inspirational “zero hunger challenge”, it is worrying.

The FAO’s candour on methodological inadequacies in SOFI 2012 has won praise. But the silence of anti-hunger leaders like those of IF on what those methods result in is worrying. When such numbers coming from the FAO and are quickly endorsed the civil society groups, it gets worse.

Here’s a study taking a close look at SOFI 2012 numbers in the Indian context. Why India? Because what was the second fastest growing economy not so long ago, and is still the hunger capital of the world. Every third hungry person is an Indian. Our findings (summary) show why IF should not accept the SOFI numbers without a challenge:

Ultra conservative hunger definition: In the Gaza strip, the largest open air prison in the world, the hunger line is 1,700 calories per capita per day (pcpd). For India, it is set at 1,770/1,800 calories pcpd. By the FAO’s own admission this level is apt for a light, sedentary existence. Do we simply accept them as apt for the millions of landless labourers slaving in the sun every day? Would those who set those numbers care to do that physical labour and show the rest of us that 1,776 calories pcpd is adequate? The poor lead a life of extreme physical exertion. Body heat loss is much higher in tropical conditions. As 1,800 calories can’t meet that need, you see famished, emaciated body-types because the body consumes itself to keep going.

Trivialising the grinding effect of food inflation: India has been a case of concern with respect to high food prices for the past seven years. Food and fuel combined constitute over 86-88% of household expenses in urban India (for the poorest 20%) and 114-116% in rural India (for the poorest 20%). So when SOFI 2012 says the impact of economic and food crisis of 2007-08 is “only a mild slowdown in GDP growth in many developing countries ... and increases in domestic staple food prices were very small in China, India and Indonesia (the three largest developing countries)” without citing a single study to support this assertion, the reaction can only be of enduring anger at such trivialisation of the lived daily struggles of the poor to make two square meals (of diluted calories still!). The same FAO in 2009 had  calculated an additional 115 million people slipping into hunger, thanks to the food price volatility. How these 115 million people disappeared in SOFI 2012 is a legitimate question that needs to be asked.

SOFI 2012 specifically and FAO generally claim they are concerned with chronic hunger and not episodic hunger. But nowhere do they quantify the periodicity of the two kinds. India witnesses over 3,420 deaths  of its youngest citizens every single day due to malnutrition. The scale of these deaths over 2,500 days (i.e., seven years) of persistent high food prices can only be imagined. To term this catastrophe as episodic is simply grotesque when it comes from SOFI, the international reference for global hunger issues.

SOFI 2012 has been hailed as the first global report with food loss calculation in the methodology for hunger calculation. And we concur too. But what is inexplicable is why FAO has singled out the production side (harvesting, processing and distribution) for scrutiny whereas its own campaign Think Eat Save also targets the food wastage at the consumer, retailer end of the food supply chain. SOFI 2012 almost projects integrating the developing world’s food markets into the international retail grid chain as the ultimate silver bullet. This draws an artificial wedge between the developed and developing country blocks. P Sainath (“Knowing your onions in New York”, The Hindu, December 3, 2012) presents an insight on the wastage in developed world thanks to retail chains. And we are not even commenting on how food loss has been factored into hunger numbers!

The aggregate segregation between the developed countries’ minimum dietary energy requirements (MDERs) at 1,900+ calories and the developing country average MDER at 1,700+ calories smacks of retrospectively legitimising anthropometric failures of the poverty infested developing country blocks. That it hasn’t been discussed with methodology support casts a serious shadow on the rigour and robust claims too.

However, to remind ourselves, our concern is less about the exact numbers, but more about how it influences public policy and guides legitimisation of state failures. India is a shining example of that too:

Given the eminent guiding role of FAO, its figures become hard-cast facts for policy planners around the world; more so if they help to justify the official policy paradigm and minimalist agenda irrespective of the consequences to the people.

The daily dietary energy intake in India has been falling consistently over the years. As of 2004-05 the proportion of people consuming less than poverty line cut-off calorie norms, 2,400 calories (rural) and 2,100 calories (urban) was 87% and 64.5% in the rural and urban areas respectively. Just as the MDERs calculated by FAO do, the Tendulkar committee set up by the government in 2009 to evolve a methodology for estimation of poverty, decoupled the anchoring of poverty lines from the earlier normative calorie consumption standards (especially the tropical condition hard manual labour realities) and reduced the poverty line calorie norm to 1,800 calories per capita per day. To rub it in, the committee also cited the FAO estimates, “the revised minimum calorie norm for India recommended by FAO is currently around 1,800 calories pcpd which is very close to the average calorie intake of those near the new poverty lines in urban areas (1,776 calories per capita) and higher than the revised FAO norm at (1999 calories per capita) in rural areas…”.

So SOFI 2012 has unwittingly given the sharpest tool to country governments and bureaucracies who believe in pulling down the standards to match their under-performance and script the story of manufactured success.

If there are so many weaknesses while examining just a single country data-set, the short-comings vis-à-vis the entire world can only be imagined. No wonder the global performance on hunger reduction has been a success as per SOFI! Even country governments are surprised with their reported success!

In this context, we think it was a lost opportunity for the leaders of IF to have let go of SOFI 2012 unchallenged. In the meta-narrative of esoteric, ivory-tower metrics winning over lived realities and daily debasing struggles, this was one more capitulation. We feel it is important to pluralise discourse, democratise methods and numbers that touch our lives. Hunger and poverty numbers are such realities that need to be made accessible and have to be accessed.

The hunger measurement method and hungry numbers’ conversation need to start now and it need not be adversarial. In fact, FAO is our best bet still and we feel IF should be ambitious and quote the reference number that FAO itself put out in its SOFI 2012 public launch presentation, i.e., the prevalence of hunger in developing world by intense activity (a.k.a. hard manual labour) at 2.6 billion. IF can be a transformational campaign only when it pushes its ambition and uses the hunger number as reference which is the real lived reality of the poor. And FAO can become the international reference for global hunger issues by having this conversation with all interested anti-hunger campaigners in a new inspiring collaborative.

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