The world produces enough to feed its entire global population of around seven billion people. And yet, one person in eight goes to bed hungry each night. Worldwide, the number of hungry people has dropped significantly over the past two decades but still around 795 million people continue to struggle with hunger every day. The reasons behind this are complex and varied and often interconnected.
Poverty is the main cause of hunger. This is true for both rich and poor countries. It is also true for people living in urban and rural areas. Most people who are hungry live in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty has been defined as a condition where a person earns $1.25 per day or less. The largest groups of people in the world in extreme poverty are smallholding farmers and agriculturists in developing countries. People living in poverty can’t afford nutritious food for themselves and their families. This makes them weaker, physically and mentally and less productive.
In high-income countries, hunger is mainly caused by poverty that results from the lack of employment or due to low paying jobs. Hunger rates rise when the national or local economy declines. Once the economy improves, some people still continue to struggle to find work. For example, people who have been in prison face wide-scale discrimination that makes it difficult for them to find jobs once they are released.
Food shortages and waste
One third of all food produced (1.3 billion tonnes) is never consumed. This food wastage represents a missed opportunity in a world where one in eight remains hungry. The people most affected are smallholder farmers and their families who depend on their own surplus to survive between harvests. The period leading up to a harvest is known as the “hungry season.” Food from the previous harvest runs out and families cut back on meals. This period may last for months, depending on the size of the previous harvest.
Poor infrastructure causes hunger by making it difficult, sometimes impossible, to transport food to areas where there are shortages. People die of hunger in one region of a country while there is plenty of food in another. Crops need water to grow. Irrigation infrastructure is unaffordable to most farmers in developing countries. Lack of water and sanitation infrastructure is leading causes of hunger and malnutrition. Too many developing countries lack the roads, warehouses and irrigation systems that would help them overcome hunger.
People who live on $1.25 per day spend most of their income on food. Under stable conditions they can scarcely afford enough food to protect themselves and family members against hunger. Price spikes, on the other hand, may temporarily put food out of reach, which can have lasting consequences for small children. When prices rise, consumers often shift to cheaper, less-nutritious food items and that heightens the risks of micronutrient deficiencies and other forms of malnutrition. In 2009, prices of food grains spiked and hunger surged for an additional 50 to 100 million people.
Despite having contributed little to cause climate change, the poorest developing countries are already experiencing the effects. Climate change is damaging food and water security in multiple ways. This is the greatest environmental challenge the world has ever faced. Natural disasters such as floods, tropical storms and long periods of drought are on the increase with calamitous consequences for the hungry poor in developing countries. Drought is already one of the most common causes of food shortages in the world. In 2011, persistent lack of rain caused crop failures and heavy livestock losses in parts of Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. In 2012, there was a similar situation in the Sahel region of West Africa. Success in meeting that challenge will determine whether the end of hunger remains in sight.
War and conflict
Across the globe, conflicts consistently disrupt farming and food production. Hunger is both a cause and effect of war and conflict. The conflict in Syria is a recent example. Wide-scale poverty and hunger lead to frustration and resentment with governments that appear to ignore the plight of people, who are often without access to basic food items. In war, food sometimes becomes a weapon. Soldiers will starve opponents into submission by seizing or destroying food and livestock and systematically wrecking local markets. Fields are often mined and water wells contaminated, forcing farmers to abandon their land. The poorest members of society suffer the worst during war and conflict.
All people who are hungry are malnourished. They do not get enough nutrients and they lose weight and severe lack of nutrients can lead to waste. Another form of malnutrition is known as “hidden hunger,” and it has more to do with the quality of food rather than the quantity.
Progress against hunger and poverty seldom happens without economic growth but economic growth alone does not ensure that prosperity is broadly shared. Every country, regardless of its wealth has discrimination woven into its social fabric. Disadvantaged groups tend to be left behind. In most countries, these are racial, ethnic, or religious minorities. Among all of these groups, women and girls are more disadvantaged than their male counterparts.
It’s time to rethink the solution to end hunger. We know that hand-outs don’t work. We know that top-down models of aid don’t work. We do know that ending hunger is
possible within our generation and that world hunger has been reduced dramatically in the last 30 years. So, what works? How can we end world hunger?
Starting with women
Empowering women and girls is critical to ending hunger, extreme poverty and malnutrition around the world. When women have equal access to education and participate fully in decision-making, they are the key driving force against hunger and poverty. Women with equal rights are better educated, healthier, and have greater access to land, jobs and financial resources. Their increased earning power in turn raises household incomes.
Mobilising communities to be the agents of their own change is central to ending hunger. Hungry people are not the problem – they are the solution. People living in conditions of hunger and poverty are best placed to come up with answers to the challenges they face. They have both the talent and the will to take charge of their own lives. They know their own needs and are aware of the resources their communities have and those they lack.
Foster effective partnerships with local government
Working with, not alongside of the government is central for long-term, sustainable development and ending hunger. Working with existing local democratic institutions to strengthen capacity and make the most of the resources that are already available makes for lasting change. Local government is closest to the people and has the mission of working with people to meet their basic needs.
End malnutrition in children
Poor nutrition causes 45% of deaths in children under five and that’s 3.1 million children each year. The World Health Organisation has set a target of a 40% reduction in children who are stunted from sustained malnutrition and a reduction of childhood wasting (acute malnutrition) to less than 5% by 2025. Estimates from the World Bank show it will cost $8.50 per child per year to meet the global stunting target. And it’s a good investment in purely economic terms. Being chronically malnourished affects a child’s future income, whereas $1 invested in stunting reduction generates about $18 in economic returns.