Global Hunger at Its Roots

At the World Food Summit in 1996, leaders from 186 countries set an ambitious goal: to halve the number of hungry people (from about 800 million) by 2015. But progress to date has been slow, and the recent drought in eastern and southern Africa has cut food production and rural incomes sharply in these regions, underscoring the urgency of meeting the Summit's goal.

The World Food Summit aimed to reduce hunger by focusing on its roots: poverty, low agricultural productivity, environmental degradation, poorly designed government policies, and, increasingly, AIDS. These underlying causes are interrelated in many ways. Ironically, most hungry people live in rural areas, where food is produced. But a variety of factors combine to limit their productivity, incomes, and wealth-and thus their ability to produce or acquire food.

The productivity of farming systems is eroded in some areas by inappropriate land management practices. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, fertilizer use is well below levels applied in other regions, and soil fertility is declining. As a result, crop yields are stagnant in many Sub-Saharan African countries despite investment in yield-increasing technology. This situation could worsen because of the spread of AIDS, which threatens the health, productivity, and lives of working-age people, the most economically important segment of the population.

Government policies in low-income countries sometimes exacerbate these problems. Investment in these countries is often low and doesn't always reach rural areas. Farmers are often poorly connected to urban markets because of the lack of roads. This isolation raises the price of inputs (such as fertilizer), limits market participation, prevents the rural poor from taking advantage of economic growth, and increases income disparities between urban and rural areas. Additionally, lack of investment in rural social services, including education, health care, and social safety nets, creates a cycle of poverty and hunger that contributes to low productivity in the future.

Short-term production shocks and political instability further intensify hunger. Poor countries faced with such shocks must focus their policies and resources on dealing with short-term emergencies, thereby constraining progress toward a long-term, sustainable reduction in hunger. The current drought-induced famines that threaten millions in eastern and southern Africa illustrate the gravity of this problem.

Because of these problems, ERS estimates that the number of hungry people in low-income developing countries has actually increased in recent years, to 1.1 billion in 2002. Reversing this trend and restoring progress toward the World Food Summit's goal will require increased efforts to encourage appropriate policies, political stability, and investment in both infrastructure and people.