Malnourished Indian children eat a meal at the Apanalaya center, an organization working for the betterment of slum children, in Mumbai,India. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Malnourished Indian children eat a meal at the Apanalaya center, an organization working for the betterment of slum children, in Mumbai,India. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

This post introduces some of the points raised in a discussion document entitled Framing Hunger that was recently presented to the FAO by a group of experts coordinated by Frances Moore Lappé of the Small Planet Institute. Jennifer Clapp took part in the preparation of the document, which offers a detailed response to the FAO's "State of Food Insecurity 2012." This post originally appeared on the Ottawa Citizen Aid and Development Blog.

As the 2015 deadline for meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) nears, the pressure is on to define what will replace those goals as we move forward. World progress on addressing hunger, a key aspect of the first MDG – to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger – has been mixed at best.

The United Nations launched a series of processes last year and is now seeking to finalize recommendations for a Post-2015 Development Agenda. The Report of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s High Level Panel on the topic is due to be released on May 31. Food security experts are anxious to see how world hunger will be addressed within that agenda.

It is important to ensure that any new hunger agenda take into account key lessons from the MDG experience. Indeed, as pointed out in a recent communication from a group of hunger experts addressed to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the ways in which we measure hunger, and the goals we set for reducing it, matter a great deal. Current indicators are too narrow, and a broader conceptualization of hunger is sorely needed.

Recent changes to FAO methods for counting hunger help to illustrate this point. MDG 1 set a specific target of halving the proportion of people in the developing world who experience hunger. Only a year ago, it appeared that we were woefully short of that goal, despite the fact that reducing the proportion of people facing hunger is much less difficult to achieve than the World Food Summit goal set in 1996 to half the number of people in the world who experience hunger.

According to last year’s MDG progress report, the percentage of hungry people declined by only about one quarter, from 19.8 percent in 1990 to 15.5 percent in 2008, while the actual number of hungry people remained steady at around 850 million over that same period. The numbers then appeared to move in the wrong direction in the wake of the 2007-08 food crisis. The FAO reported that in 2009-10 the percentage of hungry people crept back up to around 18 percent in 2009 and that the number of hungry people climbed to over 1 billion.

In October 2012, a different story emerged with the FAO’s release of its annual State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) report. The hunger estimates in this report are significant because the FAO revised its methods for counting the number of hungry people over the course of 2011-12. With these new methods, the FAO re-ran its estimates back to 1990, the start of the MDG reporting period, producing a new trend line.

The new estimates indicated that the number of hungry people in the world topped 1 billion in 1990 and fell steadily since to reach 870 million in 2010. This meant that the proportion of people experiencing hunger fell from 23% to 15% in the 1990-2010 period. This new picture, based on the revised estimates, made the prospect of meeting the MDG hunger target seem much more plausible than it had been just a year earlier. The FAO highlighted this progress in an infographic that accompanied the report.

In addition to stressing progress instead of failure, the FAO’s 2012 SOFI report revealed more clearly than before just how narrow its main hunger indicator, the Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU), actually is. This indicator, which is used by the UN to track MDG progress, falls short in a number of ways.

First, the measure counts only those people who fall below the bare-minimum caloric intake needed for a sedentary lifestyle. This is problematic because many poor people in developing countries are engaged in hard physical labour and require additional calories to meet basic nutritional needs.

Second, the measure also does not take into account episodes of severe hunger that last less than a year. Screening out short-term hunger makes little sense in the current era, which is marked by severe spikes and drops in food prices that can occur within the span of a year. Even short-term episodes of severe hunger, especially for young children, can have lifelong effects on people’s health and earnings.

And finally, the PoU is based on caloric intake, rather than the nutritional value of the foods eaten. We are increasingly aware of the problem of ‘hidden hunger’, where macronutrients may be available but micronutrients, essential for good health, are lacking. Counting only caloric intake misses a big part of the nutritional picture.

These narrow features of the FAO’s main hunger indicator mean that the MDG tracking exercise is almost sure to undercount the number of people who experience hunger. Indeed, the FAO’s 2012 SOFI report revealed that when ‘normal’ activity levels are factored in to the assessment, the number of people who have an inadequate intake of food jumps to somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 billion people.

The main lesson from this experience is that when it comes to hunger, we need to be careful about what we choose to measure, and how we measure it. Hunger as experienced by real people is not easily captured in a single indicator. A first step in setting the post-2015 hunger agenda should be to acknowledge more openly that we need a broader conceptualization of hunger to more realistically capture the state of food insecurity in the world today.

A broader concept of hunger may require multiple indicators rather than a single, narrow one. The FAO has in fact recently recognized this point with the launch of its new website for food security indicators that cover various dimensions of hunger. Of course referring to multiple measures will complicate any attempt to have simple ‘tweet-able’ goals moving forward. But adopting a wider set of tools for measuring the various dimensions of hunger will ward against any over-simplification of hunger, its causes, and the most promising policies for addressing it.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.