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As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire, the United Nations and the international NGO community are rallying around the conclusion that this has been “the most successful anti-poverty movement in history”. Poverty has been cut in half, they tell us. And hunger has taken a serious hit, falling narrowly shy of the target. It’s a powerful claim, and provides compelling evidence for those eager to convince us that the global economic system is basically on the right track; that whatever we’re doing, we need to do more of it.

But this story isn’t exactly true. Poverty has not been disappearing as quickly as the UN would have us believe; in fact, according to some measures, it has been getting significantly worse.

And for anyone who has been following the hunger numbers, the UN’s conclusion is rather surprising. After all, until very recently they were reporting that the number of hungry people in the world had been steadily rising over the past two decades, not falling. When the world’s governments first pledged in 1996 to cut hunger in half, there were 788-million hungry people in the world. In 2009, there were 1,023-million, or about 30% more.

This trend has long been a thorn in the side of the powers that be. When the Millennium Development Goals were launched in 2000 they managed to make the story a bit less terrible by shifting the goalposts, focusing on reducing the proportion of hungry people rather than the absolute number, and pushing the base year back to 1990 to retroactively claim China’s progress during that decade. But even with this statistical sleight-of-hand, it was clear to all that global hunger was getting worse, not better.

Then, at the end of 2012, the United Nations suddenly began telling the exact opposite story. With only three years to go before the expiry of the MDGs, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) announced an “improved” methodology for counting hunger. And the revised numbers delivered a rosy tale at last: while 23% of the developing world was undernourished in 1990, the UN was pleased to announce a reduction down to 15%. The goal still wasn’t in reach, but at least the Millennium Campaign could finally claim some progress.

How did the FAO manage to transform a steadily rising trend into a steadily falling one? The technicalities are a bit opaque: it has to do with retroactively revising estimates about food supplies, and new assumptions about access to calories. But what’s even less clear is why they felt it was acceptable to change the methodology of a 25-year study just three years before its conclusion, which is bad practice by any scientific standard.

The reason they give for the switch is telling. When the 2009 and 2010 hunger numbers came out, they showed a “dramatic increase” in the number of hungry people due to the food price crisis, which was spurred by reckless financial speculation and sparked riots across much of the developing world. Apparently this rising trend didn’t sit well with some at the UN, who “voiced concerns about the reliability of the method” and pushed for something more “innovative”. And it worked: the new numbers reported that undernourishment was constant — and even decreasing slightly — during the food price crisis, which was a surprise to all, especially the rioters.

There are also serious problems with the FAO’s definition of hunger. The FAO counts people as hungry only when their caloric intake reaches rock-bottom levels, “inadequate to cover even minimum needs for a sedentary lifestyle” or “minimal activity” for “over a year” (i.e., around 1,800 calories per day). But of course most poor people don’t live sedentary lifestyles; they are usually engaged in demanding physical labour, so in reality they need much more than the FAO’s caloric threshold. The average rickshaw driver in India, for example, burns through about 3,000-4,000 calories per day.

The FAO itself recognises this flaw. It calls its definition “very conservative” and “clearly insufficient” to inform policy. It acknowledges that most poor people actually require calories sufficient for “normal” or even “intense” activity.

So what happens if we measure hunger at these more accurate levels? Between 1.5- and 2.5-billion people are hungry, according to the FAO, which is two to three times as many as the Millennium Campaign would have us believe. And the numbers are rising, not falling, even according to the new methodology. And if we take China out of the equation, things look even worse. Seventy-three percent of the progress that the UN claims against hunger comes from China, mostly in the 1990s, as a result of aggressive land reform. China’s gains mask the fact that most other developing countries have seen a net increase in the number of hungry people, even according to the FAO’s most conservative definition.

Another glaring problem with the FAO’s definition is that it only counts calories. So people who have serious deficiencies of basic vitamins and nutrients (which even the FAO admits affects 2.1-billion people worldwide) are not counted as undernourished. People who suffer from parasites, which inhibit food absorption rates, also fall through the cracks. And people who are hungry for periods less than a full year are for some reason not counted as hungry, as long as they consume enough calories to keep their hearts pumping.

Later this year the UN will launch the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the headline goal of eradicating poverty and hunger once and for all. If this project is to have any credibility, it needs to adopt a more realistic measure of hunger. It needs to tell the truth about the fact that at least 2-billion people, nearly a third of humanity, cannot access adequate food. And this despite the fact that we produce enough to feed everyone in the world at 3,000 calories per day. As Yale University’s Professor Thomas Pogge puts it: “Somebody, somewhere, needs to speak the truth, needs to say that the poor have been dramatically betrayed.”

It’s an important issue, and the stakes are high. If the UN publicly states that hunger is getting worse, that means admitting that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the global economy. Perhaps it’s easier just to massage the numbers.


  • Having spent the first half of his life in Swaziland, Jason earned a doctorate at the University of Virginia and now holds a fellowship at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on development, globalisation and labor, with an emphasis on Southern Africa. He lives in constant fear of being sniffed out for his counter-revolutionary penchant for bourgeois wine and jazz. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhickel.


Jason Hickel

Having spent the first half of his life in Swaziland, Jason earned a doctorate at the University of Virginia and now holds a fellowship at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on development,...

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