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Good news on the fight against hunger

News and Press Release
Originally published
Q&A with Andrew MacMillan

The number of chronically undernourished people in the world remains stubbornly high, but according to Andrew MacMillan, Director of FAO's Field Operations Division, this is not altogether surprising because only a few countries have so far taken large-scale deliberate action against hunger.

In this interview, MacMillan explains why he believes the tide is turning.

Efforts to reduce chronic hunger in the developing world have fallen far short of the pace required to halve the number of hungry people by 2015. Is there any cause for optimism?

We have a situation where the overall picture in terms of the statistics is not yet improving. We're still faced with more than 850 million people who are chronically hungry. At the same time, however, more and more countries are showing that it is possible to move quite quickly towards large-scale national programmes to reduce hunger, once they make up their mind to do so.

Can you give some examples?

Brazil set the lead with the launch of its Zero Hunger Programme in 2002, and other countries are following suit. This past May, the Presidents of Chad, Mali and Sierra Leone all unveiled major food security programmes, committing their own funds and appealing for matching donor engagement.

In Chad, the Government has pledged $100 million of its own resources, derived from oil revenues, and has received reciprocal pledges from donors. The programme in Sierra Leone responds to President Kabbah's pledge, when he was re-elected in 2002, to "do everything in his power to ensure that no Sierra Leonean goes to bed hungry" within his five-year term of office.

Nigeria, the most populous of African countries, will start in January 2006 on a comprehensive national hunger reduction programme budgeted at over $250 million and aimed at over 1 million households, or 6.5 million people.

Altogether there are around 30 countries that we believe are politically committed now to addressing hunger on a big scale. Other examples from Africa include Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Ghana. We expect to see a large programme emerging in Sudan - both North and South - in the next few months, which will link emergency interventions to a longer-term approach to dealing with food insecurity.

In Latin America, very encouraging moves towards national-scale food security programmes are being seen in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela. At a recent meeting in Guatemala City, representatives of all the major food security programmes in the region came together to share experiences and consider how they can move forward at top speed with national-scale programmes.

In Asia, Indonesia is finalizing a very large programme to support vulnerable districts in developing their own approaches to food insecurity and hunger reduction. This is tremendously important because, after China which has already made huge strides in hunger reduction through targeted programmes, it's the most populous nation in East Asia.

So we're seeing all across the world signs that governments are coming forward with a new determination to address hunger. We are seeing the political will that we asked for at the World Food Summit: five years later. Now, what we need to do is to engage with them and other partners in coming up with affordable programmes. There too, I think there's cause for optimism.

How so?

First, there is a large measure of consensus among the international institutions most concerned with hunger issues on what needs to be done. FAO sums up what is required as a "twin-track approach", which combines the promotion of broad-based sustainable agricultural development (with a special focus on small-scale farming), with targeted programmes to ensure that food-insecure people who have neither the capacity to produce their own food nor the means to buy it can have access to adequate supplies.

Second, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) process is gathering momentum. Hopefully, the expanding linkages between poverty reduction strategies and the MDGs will ensure more explicit attention to the key role that hunger reduction plays in reducing poverty and achieving many of the other MDGs. Many countries will want to come to New York in September [for the UN summit to review progress towards attaining the goals] reporting that they are taking practical action towards the achievement of the poverty and hunger reduction goal.

Third, I believe that there is a growing recognition that any country which has a fifth or more of its population chronically undernourished -- and over 50 countries are in this category -- is going to find that the fast economic growth needed for poverty reduction will prove elusive. It is like trying to drive a car with the hand brake on. Countries are also recognizing that, given that hunger is a major cause of infant mortality, health targets cannot be met unless food consumption levels amongst the poor improve. They are also seeing that rural-based economies are not likely to grow through investing only in education and health: these investments have to be matched by investments in the productive sectors, especially in agriculture and related activities.

What practical steps can be taken to translate this political will into action?

FAO and its partners are advising politically committed countries to prepare ambitious food security programmes, taking halving of hunger by 2015 as their goal, but focusing initially on what can be started with limited resources and a high confidence of success.

Instead of aspiring to double crop or livestock yields, which usually implies working with already better-off farmers who enjoy access to services and markets, we need to shift tactics towards empowering very large numbers of farm-dependent vulnerable communities to achieve, in the first instance, less ambitious performance gains - say, 25-30 percent -- but to have these reflected in better household nutrition. This will enable a larger number of people to climb the first rung of the ladder out of poverty by breaking out of a trap in which human energy shortages limit their abilities to work and learn and leave them vulnerable to sickness.

This has implications for programme design because it means that one does not have to rely on very skilled agricultural extension staff but can use trained farmers to help their own and neighbouring communities to identify and apply what they consider to be the best location-specific solutions to chronic hunger, making more productive use of the resources already available to the community, including indigenous knowledge.

It is also important to address the access dimension of food security by progressively building up a range of safety net programmes, targeting different categories of food insecure people. Governments tend to say, "Oh, it's welfare, and we can't afford welfare." What FAO's last State of Food Insecurity report made clear, in looking at the costs of hunger and the benefits of reducing it, is that governments can't afford not to get people out of hunger.

So, a lot of practical things are actually happening now that I think will all show up in much better figures in four or five years' time. It won't happen immediately because it's a matter of getting these programmes up to a scale that matches the scale of the problem, but the process has definitely started to gain momentum.

How can more countries be brought on board?

The International Alliance against Hunger will help. It was founded on the belief that eradicating hunger is not just the responsibility of governments. Everyone can contribute. Civil society has a crucial role to play in what is truly a national goal.

The successful international campaign for debt relief has been driven by civil society. The same thing can be done with ending hunger. Once people are convinced that hunger reduction is possible in our lifetimes, it can actually take place quite quickly. There are no insuperable technical or even financial hurdles. It's mainly a question of humankind resolving to make hunger - like slavery - a thing of the past. To do otherwise, is to condemn millions of our fellow humans to premature death through sheer negligence.


Teresa Buerkle
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 570 56146
(+39) 348 14 16 671