Development goals: celebrating on an empty stomach

Nutritional failures could hamper progress on other development goals

Just four years shy of 2015, the date by which the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will have been met or missed, the world is preparing to celebrate a major success: the 2011 progress report shows that the world is on track to reach the headline target of MDG1 – to halve the global poverty rate, defined as those living on less than $1 a day.

The proportion had already been brought down from 46% in 1990 to 27% in 2005 and – despite the economic downturn – is likely to resume the downward trend and fall to below 15% by 2015, exceeding the original targets.

However, the sub-target of halving the proportion of hungry people is veering well off course. Food poverty fell from 20% of the global population in 1990 to 16% in 2000-2002 – but subsequently stagnated, remaining at that rate as late as 2007. This unhappy picture is only half the story, given that food prices have subsequently ballooned, putting basic foodstuffs out of reach for many developing country households. The most recent price spirals, rising through 2010 and peaking in early 2011, have left an extra 44m people hungry, according to the World Bank.

Lifted out of poverty – just

But what is worrying is the lack of progress on hunger even when food prices were stable and economic growth was raising incomes. The figures suggest that people are being lifted out of extreme poverty – but only marginally, and not far enough to allow them to obtain the quality and quantity of food necessary to lead a healthy life.

If the hunger target is missed, this means that the poverty target will, for all intents and purposes, also have been missed, despite what the numbers say. Beyond the arbitrary dollar a day figure, this will mean that the most basic input for a human being – food – has not been brought into reach in the quantity and quality needed. What use alleviating poverty in relation to an income threshold, when crossing the threshold does not overcome the most basic hallmark of poverty – not being able to nourish oneself sufficiently?

The UN has acknowledged that the disconnect between the two figures merits a major rethink of hunger strategies in the remaining time before 2015.

Knock-on effects of under-nourishment

Come 2015, the hunger failings could not only undermine the poverty reduction claims, but could also unravel the apparent progress on other health and education-related MDGs.

According to the 2011 progress report, primary school enrolment has risen from 82% (1990) to 89% (2009), the under-five mortality rate has been reduced by one third since 1990, access to reproductive health has shot up from 64% to 81% in the developing world, and HIV incidence and malaria deaths have been brought down by 25% and 20% over the last decade alone. These advances may not be enough to make the ambitious 2015 targets, but they are still saving millions of lives and improving countless others.

But failing to combat hunger – and the related scourge of under-nourishment – could undermine all of this. UN officials indicated this week that the combined figure of hungry and under-nourished people is as high as 2.5 billion.

1,000 days

Worryingly, the MDG progress report shows that – despite some progress over the past two decades – nearly a quarter of under-fives in the developing world remain undernourished. Failure to secure adequate nutrition in the critical ‘1,000 days’ – stretching from pregnancy through to age two – is known to lead to irreversible stunting of physical and intellectual development.

New schools and hospitals are crucial, but how much of a difference can they make if the infants arriving for their lessons and check-ups have already been consigned to debilitating physical and mental limitations by early life nutritional deficiencies?

The missing progress on hunger and nutrition highlights the need to see the MDGs as a single, interconnected undertaking. Targeted actions in the health and education fields are clearly paying off (e.g. the removal of school enrolment fees, TB immunisation programmes) and should not let up. But a failure to deliver parallel investments on the food/nutrition side could jeopardize it all, with huge human and financial costs in the long run.

Extra development cash must bolster food and agriculture

There is therefore a very strong argument for additional development support to be channeled to tackling food security and nutrition. G8 countries pledged to raise development aid to 0.7% of GNI but are only on 0.32% at present. Should they come through with the funding – as is necessary to make meaningful and sustainable progress on the MDGs – then the current trend, whereby nutrition schemes focused on breastfeeding awareness, maternal health/education, and the provision of micronutrients are gradually growing in coverage, should continue.

But support for nutritional programmes should not displace agricultural development aid, which has finally been restored as a priority area after decades of neglect. It is after all the global imbalance of food production, and the failure of the market to make food available at affordable prices, which imposes the basic limits on developing world diets, causing both hunger and deficiencies in key nutrients.

Perversely, some 75% of the world’s hungry live in subsistence farming households. Malfunctioning price signals and voracious food commodity speculators were much discussed at last month’s G20 agriculture summit. But success in combating the global food system’s failings should not be measured in terms of volumes of derivatives trade or the ratio of food supply to demand. It should instead be traced back to the MDGs, and measured in the ability of subsistence farmers to make a basic living from their trade and to feed themselves.

Otherwise, when the wealthy world toasts its successes in poverty reduction in 2015, it will be toasting little more than the headline economic growth figures in China and India, themselves riddled with discrepancies between regions and population groups.

In the big emerging countries and elsewhere, the world will have failed to make any durable, systemic change. It will have empowered millions more people with schooling, vaccines and drinking water, but will have failed, cripplingly, to address the food system that still fails to provide them with adequate quantities of food with the right nutritional values at the right price, while consigning generation after generation of rural poor to toiling in order to produce that food – and receiving only economic hardship in return.

There is scepticism about what will happen post-2013, with a new set of numerical development targets unlikely in the current climate. All of this makes it even more crucial to make the current MDGs count, and to secure progress that genuinely resonates beyond 2015, rather than pushing the requisite number of people temporarily above the poverty line.

Photo by Valentina Pavarotti