Global Health Index: ‘800 million people are going to bed hungry every night’

The Global Hunger Index authors found some mothers were too 'ashamed' of their undernourished babies to bring them to health officials. [Concern Worldwide]

21,000 people die every day from hunger or food shortages, and some 795 million go to bed hungry each night, according to the new Global Hunger Index, published on Tuesday (11 October).

The Global Hunger Index 2016 is a joint publication by  the NGOs International Food Policy Research Institute, Concern Worldwide, and Deutsche Welthungerhilfe.

But there are reasons for hope, Concern Worldwide’s Olive Towley and Dominic MacSorley tell’s development correspondent Matthew Tempest.

Among those are the new Sustainable Development Goals – which now needs the political will to back it up.

Before we get into the numbers, and some of the very depressing parts of the report, perhaps you could explain ‘hunger’? We all think we know what it means, but do you have a working technical definition?

OT: The definition in the report, and it measures four different components of hunger – “stunting and wasting”, “child undernutrition”, “child malnourishment” and “child mortality”.

And the idea of pulling all that data together is looking at hunger from different perspectives – trying to come up with essentially an average of those four scores, and that then gives a sense of what *kind* of hunger, be it stunted children for their age, or you can have children who are too malnourished for their height. So there’re different dimensions of hunger, and the GHI (Global Health Index) measures that.

It seems like not just a question of hungry children being fed tomorrow. If they are left stunted or grow up with malnutrition, they then go through life with disabilities or reduced life changes, so it’s a longer-term problem than just finding food today.

OT: The ‘window of opportunity’ is 1,000 days, from conception to a child’s second birthday. That’s the period when they must get the right nutrition. If they don’t, the damage is lifelong. Physical, or mental impairment.

DM: One other aspect of this beyond the data is the whole erosion of dignity, of self-esteem, in the women who can’t feed their children. Treating women for malnutrition in the remote villages of north Ethiopia, we saw why women wouldn’t come and bring their children, simply because they were too embarrassed to unwrap their skinny baby and be labelled as ‘bad mothers’. The side effects of that disempowerment are absolutely enormous.

The flipside is ‘healthy mothers, healthy children’ – given them back real confidence.

It also must be a destructive downward spiral. If the mother is spending all day looking for ways to feed her children, there is no time for anything more constructive, in terms of employment etc.

DM: That’s a really key point. In some way, it’s a depressing report, but the ‘policy asks’ are relatively straightforward. For example, ‘conservation agriculture’ – new techniques, especially for women farmers.  We did a study in Malawi, and some of these techniques saved 34 days a year for women – women who ordinarily work 365 days a year to try to earn enough to feed their family. And through these techniques, they can save 34 days – that is just extraordinary. Just be being less labour-intensive. It gives them 34 days in the year where they can do other things. Just by having better seeds, or reducing labour, or increasing productivity. If we can scale that up across Africa, that’s important.

It’s important not to get depressed, but it seemed the top line in the report was that in 2016, we have 21,000 people dying each day of hunger or hunger-related problems.

OW: Yes. But the flipside of that is that since 2000, the levels of hunger have decreased by 30% as a whole. So it’s important to keep both sides of the story in perspective – there’s been huge progress, and very often the progress isn’t recognised or noted.

Now it’s an issue of where are the areas that have been left behind?

Well, according to the report it’s Chad, Central African Republic, Zambia

DM: And Haiti. Because climate change and conflict are two big drivers now. And they are becoming huge obstacles to reaching a ‘zero hunger’ world. I was in Tigray in northern Ethiopia in July and the most powerful story was from a young farmer, who had left with his sister because of the drought. To go to Europe. She died on the way. He ended up in a prison in Saudia Arabia and was deported back. And we worked with this guy to rehabilitate his farm.

So the challenge of migration into Europe goes back to making these connections. And this report is an alarm bell. These countries are an open wound, and if you just leave it, it’s going to get much worse. And the consequences will be on our doorstep.

That’s a message for the EU Commission, in a way, because they’re giving a lot money to the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, to improve security and prevent ‘irregular migration’. You seem to be saying if we can crack farming, and self-sufficiency and thereby hunger, that’s a much better greater reason for people to stay at home?

OT: And resilience building. The Commission has done huge work in prioritising nutrition and resilience, across whole swathes of Africa and the globe. And there’s a lot of evidence coming through of the impact of that investment. But EU funding must be tied-in with the underlying principles of ‘needs-based’. Development funding must go back to where the need is, and that’s back to root causes.

The other ‘depressing’ statistic was a lack of statistics – that there are 13 countries listed in the report where there is not even any data – Somalia, South Sudan, Syria. Are they presumably then at least as bad as the worst-case examples in the report?

OT: In ten of those, we’ve delved a little deeper. And although not four sets of data, we have three. And in three, we have two data sets. And we know they’re on the ‘extremely serious’ end. But yes, the ones that aren’t in the report are of even greater concern.

So let’s end on a positive note. Looking at the SDGs between now and 2030, what gives you ground for optimism?

DM: The fact that we’re a year on from a global commitment to the SDGs. And the issues of security, of ISIS, migration – they’re all taken in by the ‘universality’ of the SDGs. The conversation now is much more heightened – it’s no longer a problem ‘over there’ that we deal with just out of charity.

And if we’re all going to inhabit this planet, we cannot ignore the fact that there are close to 800 million people going to be hungry every night.

Civil society is now driving a level of change that even the United Nations Security Council isn’t capable of.

Further Reading

EU aid in the Horn of Africa

Europe's action in Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region provides a telling example of the challenges international donours face when trying to link emergency assistance with long-term development aid.