By Thomas Pogge
Each year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) report. The 2015 report has just come out. In an accompanying letter, the FAO’s Coordinator for Economic and Social Development, Jomo Kwame Sundaram, summarizes its message as follows: “With the number of chronically hungry people in developing countries declining from 990.7 million in 1991 to 779.9 million in 2014, their share in developing countries has declined by 44.4 per cent, from 23.4 to 12.9 per cent over the 23 years, but still short of the 11.7 per cent target.” We may not quite achieve the halving of chronic undernourishment envisaged in the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG-1), but we will get quite close.
Before we celebrate, let us remember the following facts. The initial version of the promise to halve chronic undernourishment by 2015 was made at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome and envisioned halving the number of chronically undernourished peopled between 1996 and 2015. The UN General Assembly’s Millennium Declaration then diluted this goal by promising to halve the proportion of chronically undernourished people in the world’s population between 2000 and 2015. And MDG-1 diluted the goal once more by promising to halve the proportion of chronically undernourished people in the population of the developing countries between 1990 and 2015. Had we stuck to the original World Food Summit interpretation of what it means to halve chronic undernourishment by 2015, then we would find a reduction of less than 15 percent: from 931 million in 1996 to 795 million in 2014.
Even this distinctly modest progress is due entirely to the FAO’s abrupt change of methodology announced in its 2012 SOFI report. Here are the official FAO numbers of chronically undernourished – in millions – according to the old and new methodologies side by side:
Of course, it is very bad practice to make so dramatic a change in methodology, with the benefit of hindsight, in the 22nd year of a 25-year measurement exercise. Moreover, it is entirely incredible that undernourishment should have remained constant while food prices near-doubled from 2005 toward twin peaks in 2008 and 2011 (source). Finally, the new definition of undernourishment (see p. 50 of the 2012 SOFI) is simply absurd. A person is counted as undernourished only if her or his
(a) “food energy availability [no other nutrient deficiencies count]
(b) is inadequate to cover even minimum needs for a sedentary lifestyle”
(c) for “over a year.”
This fails to count all the people who are seriously short of vitamins (e.g. A), minerals (e.g. iron), proteins or any other crucial nutrients. It fails to count all those who must do hard physical labor for a living and thus need more than the 1800 kcal allocated for a sedentary lifestyle. And it fails to count all those who are desperately hungry for months but not for more than a year. To take in the full absurdity of this definition, realize that, according to it, an undernourished rickshaw driver is a biological impossibility because, if such a person were to fall below the calorie intake needed for a sedentary lifestyle, he would be dead long before the year is up and thus never appear in the FAO’s statistics. (A rickshaw driver needs 3000-4000 kcals per day.)
The FAO’s new methodology vastly understates the number of chronically undernourished, and this huge undercount then also produces a much-too-rosy trend picture. (Note that there were various important changes in definitions and methods during the Millennium Development Goal period and, after every change, the trend figures improved. Surely no coincidence!)
The 2015 SOFI (p. 52) explicitly defends the new methodology against two criticisms made by myself and others – e.g., in Frances Moore Lappé, Jennifer Clapp, Molly Anderson, Robin Broad, Ellen Messer, Thomas Pogge and Timothy Wise, “How We Count Hunger Matters,” Ethics & International Affairs, 27/3 (2013), pp. 251–259.
(1) “At the moment, few surveys accurately capture habitual food consumption at the individual level and collect sufficient information on the anthropometric characteristics and activity levels of each surveyed individual; in other words, very few surveys would allow for an estimation of the relevant energy requirement threshold at the individual level.” – My response: So do some surveys instead of repeating your flawed exercise! Even just a random sample of a few thousand people would give you a sense of the quality (or lack thereof) of your estimates for some country or province. It is a scandal that world hunger is estimated in the primitive way that it is, that we don’t even know, roughly, how many chronically undernourished people there are.
(2) “Within the population, there is a range of values for energy requirements that are compatible with healthy status, given that body weight, metabolic efficiency and physical activity levels vary. It follows [!] that only values below the minimum of such a range can be associated with undernourishment, in a probabilistic sense. Hence, for the PoU [prevalence of undernourishment] to indicate that a randomly selected individual in a population is undernourished, the appropriate threshold is the lower end of the range of energy requirements.” – My response: this is gibberish. What really follows is that one has to use the minimum of the range if one wants to be absolutely certain of never counting as undernourished anyone who is not. But this certainty – given the FAO method – comes at the cost of not counting hundreds of millions of people who have enough calories for a sedentary lifestyle with low body weight and high metabolic efficiency but do not have enough calories for their actual work load, actual body weight and actual metabolism. This comes on top of ignoring (not counting) all those who are short of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) other than energy. Think of all the millions suffering from iron-deficiency anemia – are they not undernourished and chronically so?
The FAO’s new methodology was brought in before Jomo Kwame Sundaram joined the FAO and, in any case, my critique is not directed at the officials of the FAO. Their decisions may well be driven by the best intentions. Like with other UN agencies, the top officers of the FAO serve at the pleasure of politicians and get FAO’s funding from politicians; and, in order to get more support toward pursuing the FAO’s noble goals, they may have to help politicians defend their policies and in particular their grand globalization project. If I were an FAO official, perhaps I would give politicians nicer-looking numbers and trend figures in exchange for greater support for FAO’s work. But someone, somewhere, also needs to speak the truth, needs to say that the poor have been dramatically betrayed, that undernourishment is vastly more common and persistent than the FAO statistics claim, that there ought to be an independent group of academic experts producing sound alternative estimates. It is our responsibility as world citizens to relieve the FAO’s dreadful conflict of interest and our responsibility as academics to develop reliable estimates even if governments obstruct any such effort. We can do this job, and we should join forces to do so!
Photo by Zoriah