A boy eats sugarcane in Fakirpara village, about 80 miles north west of the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, October 11, 2007.
Parth Sanyal / Reuters

Last week, at their 41st summit, the G7 nations set an unusually specific commitment: to end hunger and malnutrition for 500 million people by 2030. Insider accounts suggest that the target was a personal priority of Angela Merkel, the famously scientific German chancellor and host of the event. Yet despite the high-level policy attention to global hunger, certainly a positive step, the G7 commitment remains incomplete.

For one thing, the 500 million target is too low. According to the 2015 State of Food Insecurity in the World report, the UN publication that tracks global hunger, there are roughly 795 million hungry people in the world. It is not clear why the G7 has excluded 295 million from its commitment, especially since the same countries are in the middle of negotiating a UN-linked “sustainable development goal” to eliminate hunger by 2030. That global goal is premised on the notion that no one should be left behind, certainly not 295 million people. Perhaps the G7 is counting on other advanced economies to fill the gap. But the ambiguity exemplifies a broader problem affecting today’s global hunger efforts: goals exist without practical strategies for how to achieve them.

A boy eats roti at a slum in Mumbai, February 2009. India ranks 94th in the Global Hunger Index of 119 countries.
Arko Datta / Courtesy Reuters
That was not always the case. In 2009, at the L’Aquila summit, the G8 made a substantial $20 billion commitment to help achieve global food security. But global pledge fatigue and mixed records of donor government follow-through made L’Aquila the last of a series of high-profile collective donor commitments toward global development during the 2000s.

PROGRESS AND PITFALLS

The scale of the current global challenge was framed in the recent State of Food Insecurity in the World report, which celebrated the developing world’s progress in reducing the number of people living in hunger between 1990 and 2015. The good news is that the percentage of the developing world suffering from undernourishment has dropped by almost half, from around 23 percent in 1990 to 13 percent today. But the bad news is that the actual number of hungry people in these countries has decreased only slightly, from 990 million to 780 million over the same time frame. Most distressing, in recent years the number of hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa has climbed by roughly three million annually, cumulatively growing from some 175 million in 1990 to 220 million today.

If the world is to end hunger by 2030, it will need to make much, much faster progress. Over the past 25 years, global efforts have ended hunger for roughly eight million people a year. In the next 15 years, the rate of decline will need to rise to 55 million per year. In Africa, this will mean ending hunger for the same number of people in 15 years as happened in Asia over the past 25 years.

Reaching a global goal of zero hunger means more than making pledges and commitments. It requires a deeper entrenchment of international effort.

These are bold and ambitious targets. They are made harder still because the goal of ending hunger is qualitatively different from the goal of halving hunger. The latter approach allows better-performing countries to compensate for lagging ones. But ending hunger requires progress in every location, without exception. And although hunger is often measured by tracking caloric deficiency, the problem is bigger than that. Malnutrition, including micronutrient deficiencies, is equally pernicious and often hidden from view. These deficiencies can stunt children’s growth, inhibit their long-term cognitive progress, and cause lasting developmental harm.

In tackling the global challenge, inspiration can be drawn from Latin America, the only developing region to cut both the share and absolute number of people living in hunger by half over the past 25 years. In Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, ending hunger was former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s signature campaign promise in the 2002 election. His national “Zero Hunger” program was multifaceted, sustained over time, and driven by science. The government created the Ministry of Agrarian Development to address the specific needs of smallholder farmers and landless peasants who suffered most from hunger. The country pursued land reform alongside measures to raise agricultural productivity. Prioritization of science and technology helped raise family farmers’ yields. When these farmers produce and sell into large city markets and beyond, they can afford to feed their families a more balanced diet and reduce malnutrition.

Crucially, Brazil did not simply increase food production. It also improved food access. Large-scale cash transfer programs enabled even poor households to buy enough food to live on. By making the transfers conditional on children’s vaccination and education, the program has also helped to break the intergenerational transmission of hunger.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (L) holds a sign that reads, "Lula, Brazil is at war, but against hunger," in Sao Bernardo do Campo, March 2003.
Jose Patricios / Courtesy Reuters

NEXT STEPS

The core elements of Brazil’s success can be replicated elsewhere. But doing so requires recognizing that hunger, along with its causes and correlates, remains too poorly measured and defined. The world needs significantly better benchmarking tools to identify policy gaps, efficiently match resources to needs, and target investments where they can be most successful.

For the large number of hungry families that are smallholder farmers, boosting farm productivity is essential to increasing incomes and improving food options. That can be achieved to some extent by enhancing access to inputs such as seeds, fertilizer, and irrigation. Adopting new technologies and research-backed farming practices can also boost output. Over the long run, hungry families need stable incomes. Some require consumption support so that they do not have to sell their assets when shocks hit, whether in the form of a health emergency or crop failure. Infant- and child-focused programs need help to ensure that children have the cognitive and noncognitive skills to become productive adults.

If the world is to end hunger by 2030, it will need to make much, much faster progress.

Overall, ending hunger requires more public and private investment in rural development, more localized scientific research on family farms, policies that increase the efficiency of food markets, more integrated supply chains for small producers, improved safety nets for at-risk populations, better weather forecasting, and programs to reduce food loss and waste. Governments will not be able to meet the challenge on their own. They must partner with business and civil society to implement specific programs that have clear benchmarks for success. New country-led investment programs, such as Grow Africa and Grow Asia, which engage governments, international organizations, the private sector, and farmers’ associations, are promising in this regard.

Where is hunger most intractable? In conflict-ridden countries where progress is inherently slow. In these cases, small farmers do not invest in their land, markets are fragmented, prices are uncertain, and access to critical inputs is limited. In other cases, conflict is a consequence of hunger. Desperate people move when climate change, drought, or environmental degradation prevents them from feeding their families. Among those who stay put, female-headed households tend to have a higher prevalence of hunger. They are one of many vulnerable groups that suffer the most when food prices go up.

A child waits in his mother's arms for malnutrition treatment in Uganda, May 2008.
James Akena / Courtesy Reuters

It is tempting to conclude that the problem is too difficult. Can Africa, for example, really hope to emulate or surpass the rate of progress in Asia, one of the most economically dynamic regions in the world? The answer needs to be yes. Several countries are already seeing major jumps in farm productivity. There is also hope of a peace dividend in the Great Lakes region, in northeast Nigeria, and in Somalia. Even where conflict persists, new programs focused on safety nets and resilience can and must be developed alongside redoubled efforts to bring about peace and personal safety. In the hardest cases, the successes and failures of other countries provide a road map for what needs to be done.

Perhaps most important, anti-hunger programs need to be sustained, even when the need to address hunger appears less urgent. Global action has tended to ramp up when a spike in food prices thrusts the issue onto policymakers’ agendas. The increase in food prices in 1973, for example, gave rise to new international agencies such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development, although these efforts never achieved the scale required to end hunger. The 2008 price increases led to the L’Aquila G8 commitments, plus G20 commitments later the same year. In both cases, a subsequent decline in food prices meant a decline in political commitment and a shortfall in resources.

For aid-recipient countries, the upshot is substantial volatility in international support for agriculture. Part of Brazil’s success derived from the fact that it could tap its own resources for hunger eradication rather than depending primarily on aid. Few of the poorest countries can do the same. If they are all to end hunger by 2030, there must be a serious global and national commitment to make the requisite long-term investments.

The G7 summit brings a welcome renewal of attention to the challenge. But the bottom line is that reaching a global goal of zero hunger by 2030 means more than making pledges and commitments. It requires a vastly deeper entrenchment of international effort.

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  • HOMI KHARAS is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution. JOHN W. MCARTHUR is a Senior Fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution and a Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation.
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