Is the UN cooking up faulty numbers on global hunger?

Food distribution at the Kakuma Refugee camp in Kenya. (Credit: Zoriah/Flickr)

How much progress has the world made against hunger? The question seems easy.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says there are 209 million fewer people hungry today than in 1990. The number of people considered to be undernourished fell by 10 percentage points to 13.5 percent in the past two decades.

That is if you believe the FAO. Martín Caparrós does not. In an OpEd published in the New York Times, Caparrós says the FAO made questionable changes to 1990 hunger estimates. Increasing the number of people believed to be hungry in 1990 makes the current figures better upon comparison. That is a big problem, he argues.

“The 1990 change justifies the United Nations’ efforts and jobs, as much as it quiets our consciences,” writes Caparrós. “And it has a double economic effect: It convinces donors that their money has been fruitfully invested, and it justifies the reductions of these investments.”

There were 995 million hungry people in 1990, estimates the FAO. That is more than 200 million more than estimates made in 1992. Revisions over the past two decades saw the number steadily increase. The FAO is doing so to make it seem like things are getting better argues Caparrós.

His view on the numbers is not shared by everyone. The revisions make sense and reflect improved data, says Lawrence Haddad, senior research fellow in the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Poverty Health and Nutrition Division, in a blog post responding to Caparrós.

The significant changes over time come from East and South East Asia, specifically China, Myanmar and Indonesia. The three countries account for nearly three quarters of the overall change. They also happen to be countries that were, until recently, extremely shut off to the rest of the world.

“Arguably they are more so now, and as their data become more available and more scrutinised, they probably begin to edge closer to the realities of 1990,” writes Haddad. “Governments have stronger incentives than FAO to use numbers to their advantage, and I suspect this is what may have happened back in the 1990s.”

What Caparrós neglects to discuss in his column is the recent global progress made against hunger. Some 100 million fewer people are hungry today than they were a decade ago. That is based on data that is far better than what is available from 1990. Haddad worries that people will come to the wrong conclusions based on what Caparrós wrote.

“Their story corrodes the faith people have in our collective efforts to reduce hunger and in the institutions that are charged with leading the effort. That’s the real story,” writes Haddad.

Haddad, a well-regarded researcher on hunger and nutrition, tends to be supportive of the institutions that are trying to end hunger. It explains his concerns about the potential harm caused by the OpEd. That aside, all will agree that there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to reducing global hunger.

“Food insecurity and malnutrition are complex problems that cannot be solved by one sector or stakeholder alone, but need to be tackled in a coordinated way,” wrote the heads of FAO, IFAD and WFP, José Graziano da Silva, Kanayo F. Nwanze and Ertharin Cousin, in their forward to the FAO report.

Better data will be an important part of determining whether the coordinated effort that they speak of is working.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.