Good governance in poor countries would end hunger faster than rich-world aid
"In the end, beating hunger is as much or even more to do with good governance in poor places, with sensible policies needed for education and health care as well as agriculture, as it is to do with access to money and technology from afar. That is hardly a secret recipe. Yet too few countries have mastered it."
Jun 13th 2002 | ROME
Getting a grasp on the size and distribution of the problem is, admittedly, tricky. Outright starvation, arising from strife or natural disaster, is a graphic affliction to which the world responds fairly swiftly. The World Food Programme, for example, delivered 2.7m tonnes of emergency food aid to 43m people last year.
On the other hand, chronic hunger—a steady lack of enough safe and nutritious food to maintain physical or mental well-being—is a less visible condition, even if a far more common and complex one. It is not just a matter of too few calories to fuel development and activity, but also too few micro-nutrients, such as iron, to keep the body running at full tilt. Its long-term impact can be devastating. The effects of hunger start before birth, as malnutrition in pregnant mothers causes problems for children in later life. In young children, malnutrition stunts mental and physical development, later hobbling them at school. It contributes to 5m childhood deaths a year, mainly through susceptibility to such diseases as pneumonia.
The FAO reckons that halving hunger by 2015 would yield $120 billion-worth of gains a year from longer, more productive lives
Apart from the moral dimension of deprivation, there are the economics to consider. The FAO reckons that halving hunger by 2015 would yield $120 billion-worth of gains a year from longer, more productive lives. If such assessments are crude, they underscore that hunger is not only a symptom of poverty, but a cause of it too.
Better estimates and clearer strategies will come only from more accurate measures of the number of chronically hungry and where they live. With wide margins of error, the FAO reckons that 780m people in developing countries are undernourished, only a little down on 820m a decade ago. South Asia accounts for something over two-fifths of the world's hungry. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of hungry people: every third person, on average, goes hungry.
The FAO bases its calculation on the amount of food available in a country, from domestic production and imports, rather than on how much people actually eat. The International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, says that an analysis of household surveys, which looks at how much food reaches family members and is now complete for a clutch of African countries, paints a more nuanced picture than the FAO's. It tallies more closely with other measures of malnutrition, such as the number of underweight children in a population. Pinpointing the hungry should improve the deployment of scarce resources.
Even putting food on the table does not mean that everybody will get a fair share. In South Asia—notably India, Pakistan and Bangladesh—half of all young children are malnourished, compared with a third in poorer sub-Saharan Africa. The institute's research shows how women in South Asia have less power at home, relative to men, than do African women. So they get less to eat, as do their children, both in the womb and in later life.
Hungry for change
Boosting poor-country agriculture is critical for tackling hunger. Simply shipping food from rich-country surpluses does little to improve the prospects of the world's desperately poor, three-quarters of whom live in rural areas and depend on farming for their income. Higher agricultural productivity and better access to markets will help these people. Although biotechnology is sometimes touted as a miracle boost for farming, the most effective fixes, in sub-Saharan Africa at any rate, are decidedly low-tech: fertiliser, irrigation, better seeds, fitter livestock, more teaching of farming skills, more roads, better access to credit and more secure land tenure.
What of international initiatives? The FAO wants action by rich and poor countries through its International Alliance Against Hunger, bringing together governments, non-governmental organisations and the private sector to find ways of boosting the agricultural productivity of small farmers in poor countries, as well as to provide direct assistance for 200m of the world's hungriest people. It reckons that using this two-pronged approach to meet the 2015 target could cost roughly an extra $24 billion a year. That will require a doubling in overseas aid to agriculture.
The World Bank is also drawing up a new rural development strategy. A homegrown initiative from African leaders, called the New Partnership for Africa's Development, includes farming as a route to economic growth. Little money or manpower, however, has yet materialised. This week, America revived its own Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa, announcing a modest $30m rise in foreign assistance for agriculture and rural development this year, with hopes of attracting some of the additional $5 billion in overseas aid that President George Bush recently promised.
America's largesse is tempered by its new farm bill, which poor-country leaders point out takes with one hand what is given with the other. Domestic farm support, import quotas and rising tariffs and export subsidies in rich countries greatly hamper poor countries' agricultural exports to rich markets—as well as distorting markets at home. The World Bank reckons that, if the rich world pulled down its trade barriers in agriculture, developing countries would be over $30 billion a year better off by 2005. Yet it is not only rich countries holding poor ones back. According to the bank, trade liberalisation within the developing world itself could yield over $110 billion a year in extra income for low-income countries.
In the end, beating hunger is as much or even more to do with good governance in poor places, with sensible policies needed for education and health care as well as agriculture, as it is to do with access to money and technology from afar. That is hardly a secret recipe. Yet too few countries have mastered it.