U.S. lacks commitment to end hunger and undernutrition

Credit: DfID

With 805 million people suffering from from chronic hunger, it is obvious to say the problem is immense. Getting that down to zero will require donors to do their fair share. The United States has plenty of room for improvement in that area, finds the latest Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Donor Index (HANCI) by the U.K.-based Institute of Development Studies.

The United States performs poorly, relative to other donor countries, according to the index. Poor scores on biodiversity protection and aid with targeted gender objectives contribute to a rank of 19th out of 23 countries. The high overall spending by the United States is noteworthy, but when it is taken relative to population and national wealth, the report argues that the country is not contributing its fair share.

“The U.S. is also falling behind on indicators that are not related to spending,” said Rajith Lakshman, Lead Researcher for the HANCI, in an interview with Humanosphere.

“Other HANCI front runners do well by focusing their energy on engaging in international treaties that help combat hunger and undernutrition and the coherence of countries’ domestic policies in relation to international aid objectives. Notably, the U.S. is also not supporting the Scaling Up Nutrition movement.”

That contributed to an overall decline by the United States as compared to last year’s index. Commitment to hunger and undernutrition by donors is essential to reaching the lofty goal of ending hunger, argues the index. Spending helps, but policy changes are essential to tackling the problem.

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That means taking hunger and undernutrition as separate problems that require unique solutions. Sometimes conflated, the hunger and undernutrition have some overlap, but are not the same thing. Hunger may steal the headlines, but undernutrition was connected to 45 percent of deaths for children under five years old, in 2011.

“Too many donor-funded food and nutrition programs neglect care aspects of infant and young child feeding and fail to adequately invest in sanitation: such measures are critical for improving nutrition, though less clearly related to hunger. Conversely, emergency food aid or agricultural development programs can help to reduce hunger by increasing food availability, but are often not aimed at achieving a balanced diet,” said Lakshman

The index makes a distinction between how donor countries perform on reducing hunger and undernutrition. It reveals that some countries perform well on one area, but not as well on the other. Sweden, for example, is second best on nutrition, but it is in the bottom third for hunger. Finland is the polar opposite with high marks on hunger and a poor score on nutrition.

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“Donor countries can have a substantial impact on how the prevalence of hunger and undernutrition in poorer countries develops,” said Lakshman. “This influence is not just about spending, but taking a well rounded approach and comes through the consequences of international cooperation and domestic trade and environmental policies.”

The hope is the index can influence countries to do more and enact better policies. Only the U.K., Canada, Australia and Denmark garner high scores on both hunger and nutrition. That might change next year due to political shifts in some of the countries and recently announced aid funding cuts in Australia and Denmark. Even top dog the U.K. has plenty of room for improvement  – specifically agricultural development, food security and climate change.

Countries are indeed paying attention. Ministers from Ireland and Canada both tweeted about how their respective countries performed, last year. The governments of the two countries and the Netherlands were among those who responded based on last year’s report. All reached out to learn how they could improve their rankings in the future.

“It is too early to say if the index drives changes in policies or donor actions, but we do know that donors respond to the index rankings,” said Lakshman.

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About Author

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.