Hunger, Metrics, and SOFI 13

Jennifer Clapp

Last week, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published the 2013 version of its annual State of Food Insecurity Report (SOFI 13). The SOFI reports provide important insight into trends regarding the extent and distribution of hunger around the world, and their findings are widely reported in the media, typically with a headline announcing how many people on the planet are hungry (this year it is 842 million, down slightly from last year, meaning roughly one in eight people is chronically undernourished).

This year’s SOFI report is in many ways an improvement over SOFI 12. Last year’s report received criticism because, in introducing its revamped methods for counting hunger, the FAO made crystal clear just how narrow its key measure for hunger, the Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU), actually is, raising questions about its usefulness in policymaking. A group of scholars and activists coordinated by Frances Moore Lappé (in which I took part) published an academic article and a longer framing paper outlining our concerns about continuing to rely on such a narrow measure and using it to track global progress on the fight against hunger.

Among our concerns was the fact that the PoU only gives an indication of chronic undernourishment—i.e., those falling below the minimum caloric requirement for a sedentary lifestyle continuously for over a year. The measure thus excludes episodes of hunger that last for less than a year, and underrepresents the hunger that is experienced by those who have higher energy expenditures (e.g., due to physical labor). The problem, however, is that the PoU, although explained by the FAO in terms of its limitations, has been widely equated with “hunger” both in the media and by policymakers. The FAO itself has used PoU as shorthand for hunger in its own outreach materials.

Beyond the problem with the indicator itself being narrow, we were also concerned about the use of PoU as the key indicator for the Millennium Development Goal 1, to halve the proportion of people experiencing hunger in the developing world by 2015. The MDG goal itself was a much less ambitious goal than the 1996 World Food Summit goal of halving the number of people globally experiencing hunger by 2015.

The good news with SOFI 13 is that the report is very open about some of the shortcomings of using the PoU as an indicator. Annex 2 of the new report is devoted to an in-depth discussion of the indicator—including not only how it is measured and applied in practice, but also engaging constructively with the critiques, including our own, that have been leveled against the FAO for its continued use of the indicator.

For example, the FAO agrees that the PoU is based on a very narrow definition of hunger (although it defends its assumption of a sedentary lifestyle for setting the caloric threshold, something that will no doubt lead to further discussion on this question). It also points out that undernutrition, measured by the proportion of stunted children, is in some countries much higher than the prevalence of undernourishment, indicating that the PoU has serious shortfalls in capturing the true extent of the problem.

To make up for the narrowness of its primary measure, the report discusses a range of other indicators that can supplement the PoU in tracking broader trends and setting policy. Some of these other indicators include dietary energy supply, food price trends, rates of stunting and underweight among children, food production, water access, climate risk, etc. At the same time, we must be cautious that these other indicators are not just seen as “supplementary” measures for those who are interested in them, while the PoU continues to be a shorthand for hunger and to drive policy decisions.

Broader discussion would be welcomed on which are the most appropriate hunger indicators for tracking global progress, especially as the MDGs are reaching their endpoint and the Sustainable Development Goals are currently being formulated. The global community should seriously consider adopting a different or composite hunger indicator. Such an indicator might include, for example, a combination of child stunting and micronutrient deficiency measures along with PoU, to ensure that a wider range of factors that affect hunger are incorporated into policymaking.

It is an important step that the FAO engaged in honest discussion of these issues in SOFI 13, and we hope that the dialogue will continue. This discussion might encompass other areas that have been raised by critics yet were downplayed in its report, such as the wide regional and country differences in cutting hunger (especially the effect of China, which has enormous impact on the global numbers), global economic forces that affect hunger, state policies for redistribution of assets and food, environmental sustainability, and others.

Engaging with critiques and creating room for debate can only help policies to move forward in productive ways that incorporate a range of views and, we hope, lead to better results toward the ultimate goal of ending world hunger.

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