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Global Hunger: Some Progress, Serious Concerns

Haider Rizvi

Somali children line up to receive food aid on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Despite significant progress in global efforts to reduce poverty, hundreds of millions of people across the world are still going to sleep hungry at night, according to a new study by a group of international food policy think tanks. (AFP/File/Mustafa Abdi)

NEW YORK - Despite significant progress in global efforts to reduce poverty,
hundreds of millions of people across the world are still going to
sleep hungry at night, according to a new study by a group of
international food policy think tanks.

The "2008 Global Hunger Index"
released today points out that more than 920 million people -- an
overwhelming majority of them living in developing countries -- go
hungry every day.

"Hunger is one of the most important problems the world faces, and
rapid progress in overcoming it is long overdue," said the authors of
the report highlighting the countries and regions facing the risk --
and now confronting the added burden of rising food prices and a global economic downturn.

The Index also notes, however that many countries in South and Southeast Asia, the Near East and North Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean have made significant headway in eliminating hunger over the past two decades.

The report identifies as many as 33 countries that have levels of
hunger that are "alarming or extremely alarming." Most of those
countries are located in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

While South Asia has made "rapid" strides in fighting hunger, say the
report's authors, there has been only "marginal" progress in
sub-Saharan Africa.

"For hungry and malnourished people in these regions, rising food
prices pose a serious threat," said Joachim von Braun, director general
of the U.S.-based International Food Policy Research Institute, which released the study in cooperation with Dublin-based Concern Worldwide and the Bonn-based group German Agro-Action.

The Index is calculated annually for each country based on three major
factors: the proportion of undernourished people, the prevalence of underweight children, and the mortality rate
of children under the age of five. Each country receives an overall
score, with a number below 5 indicating low levels of hunger and
anything over 20 considered "alarming." Scores above 30 are considered
"extremely alarming."

Peru, Syria,
and Turkey are among the countries showing the most improvement over
the 18 years since 1990, with scores that have decreased by over 50

At the same time, the Democratic Republic of Congo's hunger score has increased nearly 70 percent, and is the only country in the world to register a tally over 40 on this year's Index. Eritrea (39), Burundi (38), Sierra Leone (32), and Ethiopia (31) also scored in the "extremely alarming" range. All five countries are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Bangladesh (25), India (24), Cambodia (23), and Pakistan
(22) are among the Asian countries registering scores in the "alarming"
range, though all have improved their hunger situations significantly
since 1990.

Impact of Rising Food Prices

Von Braun and his colleagues say the recent surge in food prices has
had "uneven" effects across countries, depending on a range of factors,
including whether countries are net importers or exporters of food.

Among the countries with the highest levels of hunger, however, net
cereal importers greatly outnumber exporters, implying countries
fighting hunger are much more likely to suffer rather than benefit from
rising food prices.

The report notes that high food prices have also caused violent and
non-violent protests in dozens of countries across the world.

Analysts blame the escalation of the food crisis
largely on rising fuel costs, erratic weather patterns, and the
widespread diversion of food crops for biofuels and animals like cows
and chickens, which are killed to satisfy rising global demand for

Researchers say the attempts to cope with the current food crisis
will not only require more aid for the poor, but also a significant
increase in investment in small farming and a balancing of trade rules
between developing and developed countries.

The research indicates that food prices will likely remain high in
the near term and that that this might lead to further food insecurity
around the globe.

"Particularly worrisome is the effect of the food price crisis
on poor children," said von Braun. "Rising food prices may prevent even
more households from providing pregnant mothers and infants with
adequate nutrition."

Global Economic Crisis Heightens Concerns

In light of the study's findings, the researchers also raised
concerns about the possibility of a decline in the level of funding
committed by donor governments and charity organizations to alleviate extreme poverty.

"High prices reduce the amount of food aid that donors can supply with
a given amount of funds," said von Braun, who thinks it's time for the
world community, especially donor nations, to meet their promises on poverty alleviation.

Currently, the United Nations is seeking increased financial help from rich nations to help poor countries meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include a 50-percent reduction in extreme poverty and hunger worldwide by 2015.

Addressing delegates last month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that the gloomy economy threatened the well-being of billions of people, "none more so than the poorest of the poor."

"This only compounds the damage [already] being caused by much higher prices for food and fuel," he said in a statement.

Ban has called for $72 billion per year in additional financing to
achieve the MDGs, an amount which, to many analysts, is nothing
compared to the U.S. federal government's $700 billion "rescue plan"
for Wall Street and subsequent billions or banks provided by many other
governments in Asia, Europe and North America.

"The urgent needs of developing nations will now be the least of the
priorities of the United States and other Western donors," Ban worried

Father Miguel d'Escoto Brockman of Nicaragua, the newly elected president of the UN General Assembly, offered similar thoughts.

"It is always the poor who pay the price for the unbridled greed and
irresponsibility of the powerful," he said in reflecting on the current
economic meltdown and its impact on the world's millions of
impoverished laborers.

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