Think about this as you chow down on your bagel this morning. One in eight people in the world won’t get enough to eat today: 842 million people are still under-nourished, according to the U.N.’s latest estimate. That’s a lot of rumbling stomachs.
The good news: the numbers do show some improvement, and the long-term trends are good. There are 26 million fewer people hungry now compared to 2010-2012, and more than 150 million fewer compared to the early 1990s.
The latest report, from the Food and Agriculture Organization, points to economic growth as the main reason for the difference. In the developing world, there are half as many people living in poverty as 20 years ago. There’s also been an increase in agricultural productivity, and more investment in agriculture generally (both public and private). Food availability is improved: Dietary energy supply is up 10% in poorer countries.
Still, the gains are uneven. Sub-Saharan Africa–where a quarter of people are hungry–has seen only “modest progress in recent years.” The same for Western Asia, Southern Asia (295 million hungry), and Northern Africa. Yet undernourishment is falling fastest in East Asia, Southeastern Asia, and Latin America.
In 2001, the U.N. set a target of halving the percentage of people hungry by 2015. Sixty-two countries have already achieved that, according to the report. Worldwide, we’re set to be a little shy of the goal, based on current trends (though not by much).
Though economic growth is key to ending hunger, the report says market forces are not enough in themselves. The very poorest, particularly those living in the countryside, are often left behind by national booms, it says. “In poor countries, hunger and poverty reduction will only be achieved with growth that is not only sustained, but also broadly shared.” It therefore points to the importance of food assistance programs, poverty reduction, and initiatives to help smaller farmers.
The report looks in particular at six countries to understand why they have and haven’t been successful in reducing hunger. Bangladesh, Ghana, and Nicaragua have all halved undernourishment since the 1990s–mostly from “freer trade,” political stability, and high export prices, and the “commitment of consecutive governments to long-term rural development and poverty reduction.”
By contrast, countries like Tajikistan and Uganda have struggled with poor infrastructure, a lack of access to international markets (because they are landlocked), and stagnant agricultural productivity and income. What countries do and don’t do on hunger matters, the report argues. Policies to increase nutrition and enhance rural development are one of the things that separate countries that are conquering hunger and countries that are submitting to it.