Hunger and malnutrition are killing nearly six million children each year – a figure that roughly equals the entire pre-school population of a large country such as Japan, FAO said in a new edition of its annual hunger report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World published today.
Many of these children die from a handful of treatable infectious diseases including diarrhoea, pneumonia, malaria and measles. They would survive if their bodies and immune systems had not been weakened by hunger and malnutrition.
Hunger and malnutrition are among the root causes of poverty, illiteracy, disease and mortality of millions of people in developing countries, the report said.
The FAO hunger report focuses on the critical importance of hunger reduction, which is the explicit target of the 1996 World Food Summit (WFS) and of the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG 1) calling for the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. The report stresses that hunger reduction is also essential for meeting all other MDGs.
“Progress towards reducing the number of hungry people in developing countries by half by 2015 has been very slow and the international community is far from reaching its hunger reduction targets and commitments set by the MDGs and the WFS,” wrote FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf in the foreword to the report.
“If each of the developing regions continues to reduce hunger at the current pace, only South America and the Caribbean will reach the Millennium Development Goal target of cutting the proportion of hungry people by half. None will reach the more ambitious World Food Summit goal of halving the number of hungry people,” Diouf said.
The Asia-Pacific region also has a good chance of reaching the MDG target if it can accelerate progress slightly over the next few years. In the Near East and North Africa, the prevalence of hunger is low, but it is increasing.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the prevalence of undernourishment, FAO’s measure of hunger, has been decreasing very slowly. The speed of progress was slightly better in the 1990s than it is today. The region will need to step up the pace dramatically to reach the MDG target.
“Most, if not all, of the WFS and MDG targets can still be reached, but only if efforts are redoubled and refocused. To bring the number of hungry people down, priority must be given to rural areas and to agriculture as the mainstay of rural livelihoods,” Dr Diouf wrote.
In 2004, FAO estimated that 852 million people worldwide were undernourished during the 2000-2002 period. This figure includes 815 million in developing countries, 28 million in the countries in transition and 9 million in the industrialized countries. The new hunger report does not provide a new update on the number of hungry people; new estimates will be provided in next year’s edition.
Eliminating hunger to achieve the MDGs
Around 75 percent of the world’s hungry and poor people live in rural areas in poor countries. These regions are home to the vast majority of the nearly 11 million children who die before reaching the age of five, including 8 million infants; of the 530 000 women who die during pregnancy and childbirth; of the 300 million cases of acute malaria and more than one million malaria deaths each year; and of the 121 million children who do not attend school.
Providing children with adequate food is crucial for breaking the poverty and hunger cycle and for meeting the MDGs. Reducing the prevalence of child underweight by only five percentage points, on average, could save the lives of 30% of children between one and five. This is based on a study of 59 developing countries. In some of the worst affected countries, the prevalence of underweight children under-five goes up to 45 percent.
“Reducing hunger should become the driving force for progress and hope, as improved nutrition fuels better health, increases school attendance, reduces child and maternal mortality, empowers women, and lowers the incidence and mortality rates of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis,” Dr Diouf wrote.
Ideal and reality
Economic growth, investment in agriculture, good governance, political stability, internal peace, rule of law, rural infrastructure, agricultural research, better education for children in rural areas and improving the situation of women are all essential for increasing agricultural production and reducing hunger and poverty in rural areas, the report said.
However, many countries are unable to meet these essentials. When governments cannot preserve internal peace, violent conflict disrupts agricultural production and access to food. In Africa, per capita food production dropped by an average of around 12.5 percent during times of conflict.
Rural infrastructure tends to be least developed in countries and regions with the highest levels of hunger. Road density in Africa in the early 1990s, for example, was less than one-sixth the density in India at the time of independence in 1950. Studies in China and India have identified building roads as the single most effective public goods investment in terms of poverty reduction. Evidence suggests that it has a similar impact on reducing hunger.
Millions of children do not have the chance to obtain a basic education. Poor health and stunting caused by malnutrition often prevent or delay enrolment in school. On average, adults have completed only 3.5 years of school in sub-Saharan Africa and only 4.5 years in South Asia. These are also the two sub-regions where hunger is most prevalent. In addition, low birth weight, protein-energy malnutrition, anaemia and iodine deficiency reduce children’s ability to learn.
Inequalities between women and men prevent women from improving their families’ livelihoods. Research confirms that educated women have healthier families. Their children are better nourished, less likely to die in infancy and more likely to attend school. Giving women better access to land and credit and promoting gender equality could do more to reduce hunger and malnutrition than any of the other MDGs, the report stressed.
HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis kill more than six million people each year. Most of the cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, the regions with the highest rates of undernourishment and extreme poverty. The hungry and poor are hit the hardest. Millions of families are pushed deeper into hunger and poverty by the illness and death of breadwinners and by the costs of health care for the sick, funerals and support for orphans.
HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are all diseases that are greatly exacerbated by hunger and poverty. Halting and reversing the spread of these diseases would save millions of lives and tens of billions of dollars.
To achieve agreed development goals and targets, the FAO hunger report calls for a twin-track approach consisting of national and international investments in strengthening productivity and incomes, including through investment in small-scale irrigation, infrastructure (roads, water etc.), the promotion of fisheries and agro-forestry, while also providing direct access to food through social safety nets for the poor, feeding programmes for mothers and infants, school meals and school gardens, food-for-work and food-for-education programmes.
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