Poor and Hungry

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According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) there were 850 million people in the world that were hungry in the 2006-2008 period. According to other sources the high 2008 food prices, which were followed by the economic recession of 2009, resulted 925 million people experiencing hunger in 2010. The Sahel food crisis, which began in 2010, is one example of famine and chronic hunger that has stretched across national boundaries in recent years. Hunger, famine, malnourishment and undernourishment are all areas of global concern at the moment.

Last week, Abhijit V Banerjee (co-author of the award winning book, “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty”) presented some of the findings contained his book in a seminar entitled “The Surprising Truth about Life on less than $1 per day”.

One of the points raised in this seminar was how the ‘poor’ and the ‘hungry’ are no longer two groups that unequivocally go together. Poor people are not necessarily hungry and hungry people are not necessarily poor. Consider the two maps provided below and compare the South Asia region to the Central Africa region;

Poverty headcount ratio at national poverty line (% of population)

Source: World Bank

Malnutrition prevalence, weight for age (% of children under 5)

Source: World Bank

We see here that according to national poverty lines in 2007-2011, Central Africa has a significantly higher poverty headcount than South Asia. On the other hand we see that South Asia’s malnutrition prevalence for the same time period is higher than Central Africa’s. Put simply, a ‘richer’ region is showing higher malnutrition than a ‘poorer’ region.

In different parts of the world, the percentage of monthly budgets that are spent on food and nutrition also varies. In Timor Leste, for example an average of 77% of the monthly budget in rural households is spent on food whereas in Bangladesh 45% of the monthly budget in rural households is spent on food.

What this highlights is that people do not just have a blind focus on nutrition, and their spending decisions are not based on purely nutritional factors. What contributes to these differences in spending?  And if not food, then what are hungry people choosing to spend their money on?

On their website Banerjee and Duflo write,

From the look of our eighteen-country dataset, people spent their money on food… and festivals, funerals, weddings, televisions, DVD players, medical emergencies, alcohol, tobacco and, well, better-tasting food.

They go onto say that,

…it’s clear that even though nutrition is important, people also have other pressures on their expenditures, such as funerals, festivals, and legitimate desires like cell phones or televisions.

This evidence suggests that moving forward, policy makers need to spend more time considering the drivers of spending amongst poor people; that it is not simply enough to presume that people are poor therefore they cannot eat – or that people are wealthier and therefore should be fully nourished.

Issues of famine are real, global issues that need to take centre stage… but so, it would seem, are issues of ‘hidden hunger’ where people are eating, but are not receiving the basic micronutrients essential for complete nourishment. How do we reach under-nourished people who are making rational choices not to spend their money on food? Further, in a context where there is enough food and calories being produced in the world to not have anybody left hungry, how do we distribute food better so that it reaches the hungry and malnourished? There are real and complex barriers which currently exist to ensuring that the world’s population is properly nourished. How do we deal with this multi-faceted issue rather than viewing it as a simple cause-effect situation? It would seem that the standard policy package may need to be reconsidered so that hunger is looked at for the complex issue that it is.

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