February , 2022
Hungry stomachs rising amidst growing global economy
00:23 am

Tushar K. Mahanti

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased global food insecurity in almost every country by reducing incomes and disrupting food supply chains. The pandemic created devastating effects on global hunger and poverty, especially, on the poor and the vulnerable populations. A July 2021 report by five UN agencies found that global hunger multiplied in 2020, with 2.3 billion people lacking year-round access to sufficient food. Additionally, more than 155 million people were suffering from acute hunger due to conflict and instability and projections for the rest of 2021 indicated the trend to continue, with climate shocks and the pandemic exacerbating the situation further.

The worsening poverty figures

The ‘State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’ report published last July is the first global assessment of the post-Covid situation. The report was jointly prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The 2020 edition of the report had already warned that the world’s food security of millions – many children among them – was at stake. “Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, which threaten the lives and livelihoods of people around the world,” the heads of the five UN agencies write in this year’s foreword.

In fact, even before the present pandemic, the hunger index had started rising since the middle of the last decade - dashing hopes of irreversible decline. Disturbingly, in 2020 hunger shot up in both absolute and proportional terms, outpacing population growth: about 9.9% of all people are estimated to have been undernourished last year – up from 8.4% in 2019.

More than half of all undernourished people (418 million) live in Asia, more than a third (282 million) in Africa and about 60 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the sharpest rise in hunger was in Africa, where the estimated prevalence of undernourishment – at 21% of the population – is more than double that of any other region.

On other measurements too, the year 2020 was equally disturbing. Overall, more than 2.3 billion people or 30% of the global population lacked year-round access to adequate food: this indicator – known as the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity – increased in one year as much as the preceding five years combined.

Malnutrition persisted in all its forms, with children paying a high price. In 2020, over 149 million under-fives were estimated to have been stunted or too short for their age; more than 45 million – wasted, or too thin for their height; and nearly 39 million – overweight. About three-billion adults and children did not get healthy diets, largely due to excessive costs. Nearly a third of women of reproductive age suffer from anaemia. Globally, despite progress in some areas – more infants, for example, are being fed exclusively on breast milk – the world is not on track to achieve targets for any nutrition indicators by 2030 - the report has observed.


Global economy is growing

Surprisingly, even as the magnitude of hunger across a large part of the world is rising, the global economy has slowly come back to the growth path. According to the October, 2021 edition of the World Economic Outlook of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the global economic recovery is continuing, even as the pandemic resurges. The global economy is projected to grow by 5.9% in 2021 and by 4.9% in 2022.

The strength of the recovery, however, would vary significantly across countries, depending on access to medical interventions, effectiveness of policy support, exposure to cross-country spill overs, and structural characteristics to tackle the crisis, IMF has argued. 

The World Bank in the last edition of its Global Economic Prospects in June 2021 projected the global economy to grow by 5.6% in 2021, largely on strong rebounds from a few major economies. However, many emerging markets and developing economies continue to struggle with the Covid-19, the World Bank has warned.


IMF: GDP growth projection (%)










Euro area













Source: IMF



The global growth projection was based on better performance by the major economies. According to the IMF, the US economy was estimated to grow by 6% in 2021. The US Federal Open Market Committee is however even more optimistic and has projected the economy to grow by 7% in 2021.

The GDP of the Euro area was estimated to rise by 5% and that of the UK by 6.8% in 2021. India, with an estimated growth projection of 9.5% in 2021, once again has become the fastest growing major economy followed by 8.5% of China.

OECD’s report on ‘Economic Outlook’ December 2021 too has appeared optimistic about global recovery. The report suggests that the global economy continues to recover, along with trade, employment and incomes. But the revival is unbalanced, with countries, businesses and people facing very different economic realities. Recent improvements also conceal structural changes, which mean that some sectors, jobs, technologies and behaviours will not return to their pre-pandemic trends. Health, supply constraints, inflation and potential policy missteps are all key concerns.


The World is losing the fight against hunger

In 2020, Oxfam, a British founded confederation of 21 independent charitable organisations focusing on the alleviation of global poverty warned in its report “The Hunger Virus” that hunger could prove even more deadly than Covid-19. In 2021, 20 million more people were pushed to extreme levels of food insecurity, reaching a total of 155 million people in 55 countries. Since the pandemic began, the number of people living in famine-like conditions has increased six-folds to more than 520,000. What began as a global health crisis has quickly turned into an inflamed hunger crisis that has laid bare the stark inequality in our world. Today, 11 people are likely dying every minute from acute hunger linked to three lethal Cs: conflict, Covid-19, and the climate crisis. This rate outpaces the current pandemic mortality rate, which is at 7 people per minute.

Globally, the number of people living in extreme poverty declined from 36% in 1990 to 10% in 2015. But the pace of change is decelerating and the Covid-19 crisis risks reversing decades of progress in the fight against poverty. New research published by the UNU World Institute for Development Economics Research warns that the economic fallout from the global pandemic could increase global poverty by as much as half a billion people, or 8% of the total human population.

This is reflected in the findings of the recent Global Hunger index projections which state that the world as a whole and 47 countries in particular, will fail to achieve a low level of hunger by 2030. Conflict, climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic – three of the most powerful and toxic forces driving hunger – threaten to wipe out any progress that has been made against hunger in recent years. The consequences of climate change are becoming ever more apparent and costly and now the Covid-19 pandemic, which has spiked in different parts of the world throughout 2020 and 2021, has shown just how vulnerable we are to global contagion and the associated health and economic consequences.

The Covid-19 pandemic is worsening food security, with the full scope of the impacts still not fully known. The pandemic is increasing food insecurity in various ways, including through lost income caused by infection, quarantine, or government-imposed lockdowns or movement restrictions, disruptions to food systems or food supplies and increases in food prices caused by these disruptions.


The Sustainable Development Goals and food

In 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres convened a Food Systems Summit as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The Summit launched bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems.

Food is at the core of the SDGs, the UN's development agenda for the 21st century. However, the impact of Covid-19 on the world economy has made it near impossible to meet the zero-hunger goal by 2030.  After remaining virtually unchanged from 2014 to 2019, the prevalence of undernourishment climbed to around 9.9% in 2020, from 8.4% a year earlier. It is estimated that between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020. Nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food in 2020 – that’s an increase of almost 320 million people in just one year. The gender gap in the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity has grown even larger in the year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The inequality rises

The fight against hunger has become more difficult after the pandemic as the income inequality between the rich and the poor has widened further. The rising concentration of wealth in a few hands has made more and more people vulnerable to poverty and hunger.

Nobel laureates Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee in their Forward to ‘World Inequality Report 2022’ have summed up the extent of the rich and poor divide clearly. “Contemporary income and wealth inequalities are very large. An average adult individual earns PPP €16,700 (PPP USD23,380) per year in 2021, and the average adult owns €72,900 (USD102,600). These averages mask wide disparities both between and within countries. The richest 10% of the global population currently takes 52% of global income, whereas the poorest half of the population earns 8.5% of it. On average, an individual from the top 10% of the global income distribution earns €87,200 (USD122,100) per year, whereas an individual from the poorest half of the global income distribution makes €2,800 (USD3,920) per year.” 

Indian experience

According to the World Inequality Report 2022, India is among the most unequal countries in the world, with rising poverty and an ‘affluent elite.’ It highlights that the top 10% and top 1% in India hold 57% and 22% of the total national income respectively while the bottom 50%’s share has gone down to 13%. The average national income of the Indian adult population is `2,04,200. Here, the bottom 50% earns `53,610 while the top 10% earns `11,66,520 – over 20 times more. The report says that emerging economies like India and China experienced faster increases in private wealth than wealthy countries after they transitioned away from regulated economies.

This is reflected in the sharp rise in the number of billionaires in India despite the Covid-19 pandemic increasing unemployment and pushing millions to starvation in India. According to Forbes World’s Billionaires list 2021, the number of billionaires in India rose to 140 in 2021 from 102 in 2020. India had the third highest number of billionaires across the world in 2021, with a combined wealth of $596 billion — nearly double that of the previous year.


India’s GDP forecast 2021-22 (%)

















World Bank



Source: Press reports


No wonder, despite spectacular economic rebound in post-pandemic days India has gone down further in Global Hunger Index. India slipped to 101st position in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2021 of 116 countries, from its 2020 position of 94th. It is now behind its neighbours Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The GHI report prepared jointly by the Irish aid agency Concern Worldwide and German organisation Welt Hungerhilfe, termed India’s level of hunger ‘alarming’.


India in global hunger index




No of countries






























Source: European NGOs of Concern Worldwide and Wealthhungerhilfe


 India’s GHI score has also decelerated - from 38.8 in 2000 to the range of 28.8 - 27.5 between 2012 and 2021.The GHI score is calculated on four indicators –undernourishment, child wasting (the share of children under the age of five who are wasted i.e who have low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition), child stunting (children under the age of five who have low height for their age, reflecting chronic undernutrition) and child mortality (the mortality rate of children under the age of five).

And this is despite the fact that India has emerged once again as the highest growing major economy last year. The gross domestic product is expected to grow 9.2% in 2021-22. The projection is lower than the 9.5% GDP growth estimated by the Reserve Bank of India's (RBI) monetary policy committee last month, but signals a reversal from 7.3% contraction registered during the Covid-19 pandemic hit previous year (2020-21).

The rising number of hungry stomachs amidst the growing economy indicates the extent of inequality that persists in the country. Maybe, this led Mahatma Gandhi to say, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed.” 

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