The World of International Organizations

Chronic hunger threatens 130 million more

A young man prepares roasted maize atop a World Food Program carton in Yemen (AN/H. Veit)
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Despite the United Nations-led push to relieve global poverty and hunger, the number of people not getting enough nutrition rose by 60 million since 2014 — and the COVID-19 pandemic may add up to 132 million more to their ranks this year.

That is the dire conclusion of five U.N. agencies in their 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report issued on Monday that finds 690 million people already suffer chronic hunger in the world.

“Much of the recent increase in food insecurity can be attributed to the greater number of conflicts, often exacerbated by climate-related shocks,” says the report by the Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, UNICEF, World Food Program and World Health Organization.

“Even in some peaceful settings, food security has deteriorated as a result of economic slowdowns threatening access to food for the poor,” it says. “As a result, the global number of undernourished people in 2030 would exceed 840 million.”

The organizations report that severe food insecurity — which FAO defines as being hungry but not eating, or not eating for an entire day, due to lack of money or other resources — rose from 2014 to 2019 in all regions of the world, except North America and Europe.

They estimate 746 million people, or nearly 10 percent of the world’s 7.8 billion population, suffered severe levels of food insecurity in 2019. Another 1.25 billion people, or one of every six in the world, experienced food insecurity at moderate levels, meaning they lacked regular and healthy, balanced diets.

“The COVID-19 pandemic may add between 83 (million) and 132 million people to the total number of undernourished in the world in 2020 depending on the economic growth scenario (losses ranging from 4.9 to 10 percentage points in global GDP growth),” the report says.

“The expected recovery in 2021 would bring the number of undernourished down but still above what was projected in a scenario without the pandemic,” it says, cautioning that due to the pandemic “any assessment at this stage is subject to a high degree of uncertainty and should be interpreted with caution.”

Asia has 381 million undernourished people, the most of any region. Africa has 250 million undernourished people, or almost one of every five inhabitants, the highest percentage (19 pecent) of any region. By comparison, Asia’s share is 8.3 percent and Latin America and the Caribbean’s is 7.4 percent.

As many as 3 billion people — 38 percent of the world’s population — could not afford a healthy diet in 2017 based on their average incomes. Most lived in Asia, 1.9 billion, and Africa, 965 million. Another 104 million live in Latin America and the Caribbean; 18 million live in North America and Europe.

The situation in East Africa is exacerbated by the worst invasion of desert locust swarms in decades from a new generation of the world’s oldest and most destructive migratory pest hatching before planting season. As the summer’s rainy season approached, Horn of Africa nations had little time to prepare.

‘Highly alarming’

The pandemic has put into serious doubt the world’s ability to accomplish many of the U.N.’s 17 anti-poverty Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, for 2030. The first goal is to end poverty; yet the pandemic couild increase global poverty by half a million people, or 8 percent of the world’s population, according to U.N. research. More than 700 million people, or 10 percent, still live in extreme poverty.

The second goal is to achieve zero hunger. The U.N. agencies’ food and nutrition report, however, says disruptions to food supplies and lost livelihoods, including jobs held by economic migrants who sent money back home to families, make it significantly harder for many people to eat healthy diets.

“Ten years remain to achieve the ambitious SDG targets within the current economic, social and political environment — an environment increasingly vulnerable to climate and other shocks, not to mention the unprecedented health, social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report says.

“With this short timeline, countries must identify and implement critical policy and investment changes that will transform their current food systems to ensure everybody can afford healthy diets that include sustainability considerations,” it concludes. “Urgent action is needed, especially for the poorest in society, who face the greatest challenges.”

Oxfam International, a Nairobi-based international organization that fights global poverty, called on governments to urgently respond to the report’s findings that there are 60 million more people hungry today than there were five years ago, and 3 billion people cannot afford enough healthy food to eat.

“This U.N. report is highly alarming. It shows our global food system is unravelling at the seams. Billions of people are paying the price for decades of political failure and COVID-19 is now adding to this toxic mix,” said Rashmi Mistry, the South Africa-based head of Oxfam’s GROW campaign for food justice.

“Governments must fully fund the U.N.’s COVID-19 appeal and cancel the debts of low-income countries to release the resources needed to tackle the surge in hunger linked to the pandemic,” she said of the U.N.’s humanitarian aid appeal for $6.7 billion, which tripled in May from $2 billion six weeks earlier.

The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs plans to use the money to help the most vulnerable and poorest countries threatened by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Governments must also create fairer, stronger, and more sustainable ways of feeding people,” Mistry said in a statement. “This means prioritizing the needs of small-scale food producers and workers over the profits of big agri-food companies, tackling the climate crisis, and ensuring all workers get paid a living wage.

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