New estimates provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that an unacceptably high number of people in the world continue to be undernourished. By FAO’s count, almost 870 million people were chronically undernourished in 2010-12, of which almost 850 million are from the developing world.
While reporting on the state of the undernourished, FAO tries to capture the miseries of this section of the world population whose caloric intake is below the “minimum dietary energy requirement”, the energy needed for light activity and maintaining minimum acceptable weight for attained height. In other words, this population remains chronically hungry and is, therefore, incapable of performing the basic activities such as work that human beings are capable of. The global community’s seriousness in trying to end this state of affairs can be gauged from the fact that one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which was to be implemented by 2015, targets persons belonging to this segment.
The FAO data shows that in the past two decades, this population has not declined substantially. In overall terms, there has been only a 13% decline, with South-East and East Asia making a substantial contribution. South Asia is home to the largest number of the undernourished, and though numbers have declined in this part of the world, too, the extent of decline is far too insignificant.
If the absolute numbers paint a dismal picture, a worrying fact is the concentration of a rising number of undernourished persons in the poorest parts of the world. The least developed countries have seen these numbers rise by almost 30% since 1990, while in low income countries, the increase has been equally large. Further, the strife-torn countries of West Asia, too, have witnessed steep increases, corresponding with the virtual collapse of their economies.
The key message these numbers convey is that while economic growth makes a definite contribution to ameliorating the problem of undernourishment, its extent hinges on whether or not such growth is inclusive. In the FAO view, this implies that fruits of growth must reach and involve the poor and provide them with increased employment and income-earning opportunities. Also important, in this context, is the ability of the poor to use their additional income for improving the quantity and quality of their diet; access to water and sanitation as well as improved health services.
But above all, the move towards inclusive growth implies that governments should spend additional public revenues on safety nets and public goods and services such as education, infrastructure and public health measures.
Benefits from improved growth usually take some time to deliver. As a result, the less advantaged segments of the population cannot take immediate advantage of the opportunities that economic growth brings. It is largely accepted that strategies for reducing hunger require specific attention on short- and longer-term interventions to limit its spread if not actually halt it.
However, social protection policies can act as a bridge between the two tracks, since they can play a crucial role in ensuring that economic growth contributes to reducing hunger and malnutrition rapidly.
One of the more acceptable programmes of social protection, which has been adopted by some countries, is cash transfers. The current debate is focused on the appropriateness of cash transfers during episodes of high food prices. In situations where production of food, access and utilization are poor, questions have been raised if cash transfers can have a positive impact on nutrition, as the consumption of key nutrients has been found to be not particularly responsive to income.
Available evidence from the Productive Safety Nets Programme in Ethiopia shows that during episodes of high food prices, food transfers or “cash plus food” packages are superior to un-indexed cash transfers. Thus, any social protection programme which aims at enhancing or protecting household food security must include mechanisms that buffer social transfers against shocks such as high food prices. This means that in situations of price spikes, commodity-based vouchers are more appropriate than direct cash transfers.
The scourge of undernourishment cannot be tackled without improving the condition of the agricultural sector. This sector can play a prominent role in reducing hunger, for a significant proportion of the undernourished are located in the rural sector. This is particularly true of countries that are home to the largest numbers of the undernourished. Appropriate attention is, therefore, needed to help agricultural producers, especially small producers to meet the challenges that the sector is faced with.
There is a widely accepted view that the small holders are quite capable of meeting these challenges, provided they have an appropriate “enabling environment”. This includes provision of better infrastructure, such as roads, storage facilities and communication services, which would help reduce the transaction costs and enable farmers to participate in the markets and get a substantially higher value for their products. The solution for undernourishment surely lies in the ability of the countries to provide such facilities.
Biswajit Dhar is director general at Research and Information System for Developing Countries, New Delhi.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org