Can We Halve Global Hunger by 2015?

This post was commissioned as part of a Pulitzer Center/Global Voices Online series on Food Insecurity. These reports draw on multimedia reporting featured on the Pulitzer Gateway to Food Insecurity and bloggers discussing the issues worldwide. Share your own story on food insecurity here.

World leaders from some 140 countries gathered at a United Nations Summit in New York from September 20-22 to discuss the best approaches for achieving eight poverty-reducing goals by 2015, including combating global hunger.

These Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted in 1990 to encourage social and economic development in the world's poorest countries. With only five years left to meet the goals, which range from slashing poverty to improving access to education and health care, the pressure is on.

The U.N. distributes bags of rice. UN Photo/Sophia Paris

The first of the goals (MDG 1) deals with poverty and hunger issues, and one of its targets is to halve the global proportion of people suffering from hunger between 1990 and 2015 from 20 to 10 percent. Some say that rapidly reducing hunger is essential for reaching the other MDGs.

Blogging for ONE, a global advocacy project for reducing poverty, Malaka Gharib writes that she appeared on the television show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon during the week of the U.N. summit and realized that most of the audience had never heard of the MDGs. She showed audience members a chart and asked them to choose which goal they found most compelling. Three out of five picked hunger. She quotes:

Hunter, New Hampshire: “Goal 1. Hunger is something that’s been kind of a constant and hasn’t been solved yet or made any better than a few years ago. And hunger is not like a disease that can be cured.”
Liam, New York: “MDG 1. Everybody’s gotta eat.”
Michelle, Canada: “MDG 1. There’s enough to go around, so we need to figure out how to distribute food properly.”

Hunger has already been reduced from 20 percent in 1990–92 to 16 percent in 2010. Some countries, including Congo, Ghana, Mali, Vietnam, Guyana and Jamaica, have already achieved the hunger target of the goal, and others including China and Brazil are coming close. In September, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that the number of people who will suffer chronic hunger this year has fallen from last year's record 1.02 billion to 925 million.

In spite of these declines in hunger, however, there are still more undernourished people worldwide now than there were in 1990. The FAO says it will be extremely difficult to achieve the MDG 1 hunger target by 2015.

A report released by the anti-poverty organization ActionAID before the U.N. Summit, revealed that 20 out of 28 poor nations are off track to halving hunger by 2015 and that 12 are actually going backwards. And it's not even the most economically struggling countries that are doing badly ― nearly half of India’s children, for instance, are malnourished.

Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst blogging on Ground Reality, laments India's lack of progress and questions the global hunger statistics.

“By 2010, the world should have removed at least 300 million people from the hunger list. It has however added another 85 million to raise the tally to 925 million. In my understanding, this too is a gross understatement. The horrendous face of hunger is being kept deliberately hidden by lowering the figures. In India, for instance, the [hunger] map shows 238 million people living in hunger. This is certainly incorrect. A new government estimate points to 37.2 per cent of the population living in poverty, which means the hunger tally in India is officially at 450 million. Even this is an understatement.”

Several events parallel to the U.N. Summit brought attention to hunger issues. A street protest by ActionAid, for example, raised awareness of the importance of female farmers in alleviating hunger and poverty. Charlie Harris, blogging for Americans for Informed Democracy (AIDemocracy), joined the action and dressed up as a farm animal:

“We were representing the farm animals of women in developing countries, and we were there to advocate on their behalf. Women farmers, if empowered and supported, can help achieve the MDGs. They are closest to those that are living in conditions of poverty and hunger, and have the power to dramatically affect those communities.”

On the Summit's second day, a forum called “1,000 Days: Change a Life, Change the Future” highlighted child undernutrition, stressing the importance of proper early feeding in combating extreme hunger and poverty. Tonya Rawe, blogging for the humanitarian organization CARE, says the event gave her hope:

“The nutrition initiative is designed to target what CARE has called the “Window of Opportunity”: the crucial first 1,000-day period that includes pregnancy and the first two years of a child’s life. This “window of opportunity” is a critical time to address malnutrition head on – to enable a child to have the greatest opportunity for the rest of his or her life. Hunger and malnutrition kill more people than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. And yet, as I wrote yesterday, our efforts to tackle hunger face great challenges. It can seem daunting – but I’m encouraged.”

The Summit's final outcome document provides recommendations for each goal. For MDG 1, the document calls for addressing the root causes of poverty and hunger, pursuing job-intensive and equitable economic growth to promote full employment and promoting the empowerment and participation of rural women. However, some were disappointed that the document didn't really address how governments will increase their efforts to fight hunger. Tony Burkson, a London-based consultant who works with companies in Africa, questioned the value of the MDGs entirely on Africa On the Blog:

“The trend is quite clear, the International Development community and their friends in the NGO [non-governmental organization] world got together to hash out an over ambitious plan which they knew would most likely never be achieved. Every five years they meet to pat each other on the back and come out with the same press releases i.e. we have seen some progress but we are still far off from achieving these goals hence we need more development aid in order to achieve them…Whilst these goals are undoubtedly well intentioned they are just not practical. Different countries have different issues, and to expect more than 100 countries to achieve the same goals in a defined period seems rather simplistic.”

Blogging on End the Neglect, Anjana Padmanabhan, the social media manager for the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, says it was hard to escape the summit's passion. Still, she questions whether that energy will actually translate into action.

“What will happen when the excitement dies down? Will governments keep their financial promises?… Is Oxfam right when they said that the MDG summit was a ‘mirage?’ It’s hard to judge what was really achieved this week, since it seems that much of what was announced was already in the works. We all know one thing. The road to achieving the MDGs will be a difficult one…With only 5 years left, it's hard not to be cynical about what can be reasonably achieved.”

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