… or how to attain UN millennium goals without reducing hunger
by Helena Robling
If you follow the news on international development, you know that we are in the midst of some exciting times right now. The era of the UNs Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has come to an end and it is time for evaluation of the achievements, and for some obligatory backslapping, before turning towards the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be reached until 2030. Described as “the most successful anti-poverty movement in history”, the results of the efforts towards the eradication of global poverty and world hunger of the MDGs are framed as an overwhelming success for the international community. Even so, the way in which the UN has handled the statistics related to the MDGs has been controversial, and not everyone following the development of the MDGs would agree on the picture of an overwhelming success. One of them is Jason Hickle, an anthropologist from the London School of Economics, who described his doubts regarding the results framing in an outstanding article in The Guardian, which is the whole base of this post. It is definitely worth a read in its entirely.
I would however like to go into some detail on the controversy and expand on some details of the critique in my own way. The main reason for doing this is to highlight the need for a critical eye on so called facts which we too often accept as unquestionable truths. When I say we, I mean especially social scientists, and when I say facts, I especially think about statistics. Statistical figures, numbers, graphs and ratios are so often included as supporting evidence in policy advice, political target setting and basically all sources of information around us, that we seldom take a closer look at their details and the assumptions behind them. And if there is something that I have learned during my year in Bonn, it is that those so often overlooked statistical details actually may display a completely different image of the matter than the one intended, and could even change a picture of success to one of failure.
So, what’s the fuss now about the MDGs results? Well, the whole success story of the MDGs in reducing world hunger is proved by the reduction of the proportion of undernourished people in developing regions by almost half, from 23.3 per cent in 1990, to 12.9 per cent today. That’s the achievement, which seems quite valid of some backslapping.
But here comes the fussy part: First of all, the original millennium goal concerning hunger was set in 1996 and aimed at cutting the absolute number of hungry people by half, not the percentage proportion. In 1996, the number of hungry people was 788 million, so cutting this number by half would mean the goal was to have 394 million hungry people in the world in 2015. That’s quite an ambitious goal.
So, naturally, when 2009 came and the number of hungry people had not declined at all, but risen to 1’023 million or 1.02 billion, more than one high ranked UN officer must have felt a bit nervous. Not that the increase in hunger happened over a day, but the global economic meltdown in 2008 certainly participated in creating sudden food insecurity worldwide and rapidly increased undernourishment.
In any case, it became evident that the challenge of the UN was now to reduce the number of hungry people by more than 600 million, in only 6 years! The goal was not only ambitious anymore, but rather impossible to achieve. The trick used is an old one in the books of self-help; if you can’t reach your goal, change it into something reachable. That way you can still feel good about your achievements.
Said and done; the scope of the goal was changed as we already saw, from reduction of hunger in absolute numbers to proportions. What’s more, the time line was drawn back to 1990. Why? To be able to include the progress of China in the early 90’s. China namely, as a group of US and Canadian Scholars pointed out in a response to the FAO State of Food Security in the World Report in 2012, accounts for 73% (or 96 million people!) of the overall net reduction in world hunger.
There’s even more. According to the FAO definition, a person is chronically hungry only if his or her intake of calories is “inadequate to cover even minimum needs for a sedentary lifestyle or minimal activity for over a year, (around 1,800 calories per day)”. Usually, people in the developing world have everything but a sedentary lifestyle, and would thus require way more calories to be healthy enough to pursue an active life. If the needs of people engaging in physical labor on a daily basis are considered, between 1.5 and 2.5 billion people in the world are suffering from hunger today.
And lastly a very personal remark, counting calories really seems more like a weight watchers’ advice from the 90’s than a scientific methodology for assessing global hunger. Undernourishment, severe deficiency of basic vitamins, parasite infection and temporal hunger are not counted as problems of hunger using calorie count methods. And that is, if you ask me, just outrageous.
But hey, change some scope, definitions and methodology et voilá, the MDGs are a success!
To be fair, FAO has admitted problems with the methodology, but defends its use by referring to issues with data collection, as so many statistical studies do when their methodology is questioned. Even more reason to question it, if you ask me.
The long term problem with the questionable success of the MDGs is however not some flawed statistical details but the message the MDG success story wishes to give to the world. Jason Hickle pinpoints it:
“It’s a powerful story, and provides compelling evidence for those eager to convince us that the global economic system is basically on the right track; that whatever we’re doing, we need to do more of it.”
I have always been a supporter for ambitious targets, but these hunger numbers makes me think that there is a risk in setting development goals to high. If the need to justify that we are going in the right direction and are on our way towards reaching a utopian “developed” world of bliss becomes more important than improving the lives of the people we want to “develop”, we are clearly missing the whole meaning of development.
Even if the hunger goal was far from met in reality, it was almost met on paper. What does this say about the new ambition of the SDGs to eradicate hunger completely until 2030? And what does it say about the legitimacy of the UN to set such targets?
The title of Hickles’ article is “The Hunger Numbers” which is a very intriguing title for a food economist like myself. But it hides the fact that behind every one of these hunger numbers there is actually a hungry person with a face, a soul and a body not able to fulfill its human capacity due to hunger. And it sure makes a difference if there are 493 million or 2.5 billion of these hungry people in the world.
Coming back to the magical numbers: Considering myself a social constructivist, I will forever hold that all truths are somewhat biased and to some extent subject to individual interpretation. This is in no way less true for something as determinant and seemingly neutral as numbers. First comes the normative argument of what should be done, then comes the numbers to support the normative argument with “proof”. And isn’t it fascinating how it seems like, depending on which picture of the truth we want to justify, the numbers we pick always have the ability to prove exactly our argument?
More on global development goals?