Number of Hungry Rising, U.N. Says


New York Times

December 8, 2004

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 - For the first time in nine years, the estimated number of people going hungry around the world has increased, reversing a promising trend and raising new questions about global inequities.

Despite an overall increase in the world's wealth, the United Nations' food and agriculture agency says in a report to be released Wednesday that after a slow but steady decrease, the number of chronically hungry people rose to nearly 852 million in its latest survey, an increase of 18 million since 2000. At least five million children are now dying from hunger every year.

"The world in aggregate is getting wealthier and producing more than enough food,'' said Hartwig de Haen, the assistant director general in the economic and social department at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations who helped write the report.

"The problem is the access of people to jobs, to resources, to land and to money to buy food,'' Mr. de Haen said in an interview from Rome.

The F.A.O. report comes after others released this week that raised concerns about the plight of the world's poor . The International Labor Organization, the United Nations' labor organization, reported that half of the world's workers, or 1.4 billion people, earn less than $2 a day, the highest number ever recorded. The relief agency Oxfam International released a report on Monday showing that the aid budgets of rich nations are half what they were in 1960.

All three reports say that the member countries of the United Nations have pledged to cut world poverty in half by 2015. In the 1990's the number of people who were hungry in the developing world dropped to 796.7 million from 823.8 million. But in the latest survey, with data ending in 2002, the number was up to 814.6 million, with an additional 28.3 million from countries in transition and 9 million from the developed world.

At least 80 percent of the world's chronically hungry live in rural areas and over half of them are subsistence farmers. Competition from the world's wealthiest farmers, heavily subsidized by their rich governments, has been blamed in part for the inequity. Trade ministers have promised to continue working to reduce these agricultural subsidies and supports at global trade talks next year.

In measuring hunger, the agency considers calorie intake, the amount of food available and inequities in access to food supplies. Thirty countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America cut the percentage of hungry people by at least 25 percent over the last decade by reducing conflict and focusing their development programs on rural areas and small farmers. Among the success stories were Angola, Brazil, Chile, China, Ghana, Indonesia, Malawi, Namibia, Peru, Thailand and Vietnam.

The Zero Hunger Program of Brazil was singled out as a model. It provides free school lunch programs but only buys food from local small- and medium-sized farmers, ensuring that the money raises the standard of living of the subsistence farmers throughout the country, attacking the root cause of hunger.

Milla McLachlan, the nutrition adviser at the World Bank, said the report's emphasis on increasing development assistance for the rural areas is "spot on."

"A lot of the debate is around the notion that if you hand out food it will alleviate hunger," Ms. McLachlan said. "But that doesn't address the basic problem of malnutrition and hunger, which is providing the basic resources to a family through income and a network of social services."

Of particular concern to the F.A.O. are the children under three years of age who are most vulnerable to disease and death. Without proper nutrition, it is difficult for these children to ever recover and lead productive lives.