FEATURE-How do you count the world's hungry people?
Wed May 2, 2012 10:00am GMT
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By Megan Rowling
LONDON, May 2 (AlertNet) - Two years ago, the U.N. Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) launched a petition to fight hunger with the slogan:
"1,000,000,000 people live in chronic hunger and I'm mad as hell."
Since then, more than 3.4 million people, including actors, pop stars and
footballers, have added their voices to the online campaign calling on
governments to make the elimination of hunger their top priority.
But outrage over the "horrifying figure" of 1 billion hungry people around
the world, as it was described by former FAO head Jacques Diouf, has turned
to embarrassment in some quarters in light of growing doubts about the
accuracy of the number.
Many researchers say the estimate was simply too high.
"The fact that it's 1 billion is a much better story, and that's why it
stays in people's minds," said Richard King, a food policy expert with
Oxfam. "It's a great number."
The controversy led the Committee on World Food Security, a top-level U.N.
forum, to urge the FAO to overhaul its calculations using better data and
methodology and to call for a set of internationally agreed food-security
The first fruits are due in October when a new estimate of the number of
undernourished people will be published along with revisions for previous
years as part of the FAO's annual report on food insecurity.
The figures will incorporate fresher data on world food supplies and more
timely and comprehensive household consumption surveys from different
countries, said Carlo Cafiero, a senior FAO statistician.
The report will also include supplemental indicators of hunger, such as the
share of household budgets spent on food.
"If you only present one number, there is a tendency to over-interpret it
and take it as if it were capturing everything, but we want to try and be
more explicit in recognising the various dimensions of food insecurity,"
Nutritionists working in the field have long complained that the FAO's
hunger estimates focused too narrowly on calorie intake, ignoring the bigger
picture - protein, vitamin and mineral deficiencies in diets and the serious
health problems they cause.
Calculating the number of hungry people around the world at any given
moment, let alone predicting how that number is likely to change in the
future, is no easy task.
Models for working out how many people don't have enough to eat are not as
precise or forward-looking as experts would like, partly due to lags in the
release of national-level statistics.
Moreover, shifting economic conditions alter the buying power of the poor
day by day, and food harvests - increasingly affected by extreme weather -
fluctuate, causing price volatility.
When the FAO came under pressure to say how much hunger was increasing due
to skyrocketing food prices and the global financial crisis in 2008, it
decided to combine U.S. Department of Agriculture projections of how
economic turmoil would hurt food production, consumption and trade with its
own hunger estimates of previous years, and extrapolate from there.
It estimated a "historic high" of 1.02 billion undernourished people, or
around one-sixth of humanity, in 2009.
But problems emerged with the assumptions behind the number. Economic
conditions did not turn out to be as disastrous as anticipated, and food
production and consumption held up better than expected.
In addition, prices didn't rise as much as feared in some developing
countries, like India and China, because they used export bans and subsidies
to keep them down.
Finally, many people were able to maintain the amount of calories they ate
by switching to cheaper foods and cutting spending on other basic needs like
education and healthcare, surveys suggest.
"All evidence now is pointing to the fact that the situation was not so
desperate in terms of (people's) calorie intake as, at that time, everybody
thought it was," FAO's Cafiero said.
In 2010, FAO forecast a drop to 925 million undernourished people and in
2011 it didn't produce a number at all given the dispute over its methods.
The question is not whether metrics are necessary, but how to collect,
interpret and share the data to present a realistic and accurate picture of
the food security situation.
Improving the way hunger is calculated could have far-reaching consequences
for the way governments and aid agencies respond more effectively to hunger
crises, experts say.
Aid groups say information from their work with local communities can
contribute to a fuller picture of hunger nationally, regionally and
globally, for example.
"We have a responsibility to bring the view from the field ... to make sure
it's not just a technical exercise, but reflects the reality on the ground,"
said Alberta Guerra, a Rome-based food policy officer for ActionAid.
In Nairobi's slums, when the cost of food soared in 2008, many poor urban
families cut out meat and fish, went without medicine and took their
children out of school. With post-election violence making matters worse,
some even stole food, scavenged in garbage dumps, brewed illegal alcohol or
turned to prostitution to survive.
But the many aid agencies based in the Kenyan capital, much more used to
working in rural hunger crises, didn't have a system to pinpoint when
conditions for already poor slum dwellers were becoming an emergency.
"It was very difficult to get funding for urban response, partly because
there were no metrics to say we are seeing a critical situation," said Lilly
Schofield, research adviser with Concern Worldwide.
The organisation has since begun testing indicators to capture changes in
household food security in Kenya's slums, where food has remained expensive.
TURNING NUMBERS INTO POLICY
Nyauma Nyasani, East Africa nutrition adviser for Action Against Hunger,
says frequent, on-the-ground checks are far more effective at anticipating
hunger problems than annual nutrition surveys.
For the past year, the aid group has been piloting a food security
surveillance system in Kenya's arid northeast, based on household
questionnaires conducted every three months. And in Uganda, after a similar
two-year project, it is developing national guidelines to monitor food
security with the health ministry.
Funding is an obstacle. Shifting to a more responsive system will require
political commitment and long-term financial resources, but rich governments
and U.N. agencies tend to offer money on a short timeframe.
"As long as something like this is donor-driven, the sustainability becomes
questionable," Nyasani said.
Ultimately, however, it is not data, but action, that makes a difference.
Saul Guerrero, evaluations adviser with Action Against Hunger, said aid
workers detected warning signs months before the onset of last year's severe
hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa, where some 13 million people needed
food aid because of a regional drought and conflict in Somalia.
"Whoever tells you the data let us down doesn't know what they are talking
about," he said. "It was the final bit that didn't work - turning data into
policy. This is the question no one has the full answer to."
(This story is part of a special multimedia report on global hunger produced
by AlertNet, a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters
Foundation) (Editing by Tim Large and Sonya Hepinstall)
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Wed May 02 2012 - 16:47:46 EDT