Does hunger still rule?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were set up by the United Nations in the year 1990 to blueprint the steps needed to eradicate poverty worldwide. The 8 goals, including universal primary education and halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, form a set of unprecedented efforts galvanising international action to help the world’s poorest. With the deadline approaching and the world in recession, some have started to question whether any of the aims will have be achieved by 2015. This article will concentrate on the first goal: “Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the number of people whose income is less that $1 per day. Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people. Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger”.

According to the UN, (www.un.org,) the global economic slowdown has made progress “suffer” but “the world is still on track to reach this target”. Yet according to World Bank figures an estimated 1.4 billion people still live on $1 per day or less and 2.5 billion exist on under $2 per day. Three quarters of the population of sub Saharan Africa are still included in the latter category. The meaning of living on $1 per day does not correspond with literal earnings but in Purchasing Power Parity; what $1 could buy per day in the United States.

Whilst these figures show that 20% of the population still live under the poverty line it is debatable whether their quality of life has improved in some areas. Whilst characteristics of such poverty still include the following: 50 to 80% of daily income is spent on food; poor health is common; there is high unemployment and employed adults have multiple occupations in unstable jobs, quality of life may have improved in several areas.

Through the work of development agencies and charities, good medical facilities have become more widespread and emphasis has been put on training local staff, thus building up a skill base in the population. However, many of these hospitals survive on charitable donation or outside funding so if funding should drop away, as is possible in times of world financial instability, the hospitals would fall to ruin. In government-run facilities, funding is often insufficient and money to buy medicines and basics such as anaesthetics often run out mid-way through the month leaving the staff powerless. In rural areas power supplies are also frequently faulty so hospitals are unable to use facilities such as operating theatres without a generator and funds for fuel.

A classic indicator of poverty is limited access to water, electricity, infrastructure and sanitation. Access to these utilities now seems to be a geographic variable. In some countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, access to electricity is almost universal however this is far from true regarding sanitation. On the other hand, in Tanzania almost every household has or has access to toilet facilities, but electricity and running water are rare in homes. This discrepancy may reflect the foci of campaigns, (for example water and sanitation charities tend to target Africa,) and also the priority of governments. As they are governing young, expanding economies based on modern technology such as computing or mobile phones, it makes sense that many Asian governments put such an emphasis on electricity access.

Following from this, despite little possession of productive assets such as farm tools, tractors or sewing machines, the number of people owning small electrical goods has risen dramatically in the last twenty years. According to studies by Abjhit Banjeree and Esther Duflo using data from 13 countries with widespread poverty, 70% of people living on under $1 per day in Peru and Nicaragua own radios. In Hyderabad, India, 57% of people on a comparable wage owned televisions, whilst mobile phone ownership in Africa has soared with small businesses running charging points from rare electrical connections.

Some argue, on the basis of evidence shown above, that whilst the number of people living on under $1 per day is still huge, these improvements in quality of life must be taken into account when we measure success; if the overall aim is to lift people from poverty thus improving their quality of life, substantial progress has been made, even if it is patchy.

As for decreasing unemployment and improving work opportunities, the financial crisis has somewhat impinged on progress. With the deterioration of the labour market, unemployment is rife worldwide and levels of extreme poverty have increased. The middle classes of a country are generally those with steady employment, which is now becoming a rare entity. The middle class is also educated and often the driving force behind stable democracy. Poverty has been very well connected to instability, violence and extremism throughout history, so not only would an increase in poverty be a humanitarian disaster but it may also hold consequences for regional and global security.

In 2008 the UN proudly announced that poverty had reduced in virtually all regions, however in parallel with the financial crisis, world hunger spiked in 2009. Since then, processes to slow hunger have slowed in all regions and, famines and unrest have seen the need for food aid rise. 42 million people have been uprooted by conflict in the last four years. 1 in 4 children in developing countries are still underweight and children from rural areas are twice as likely to be underweight as those from urban homes.

The map of Global Hunger Index (GHI)
A map of Global Hunger Index (GHI)

The map above displays, in terms of severity, the Global Hunger Index (GHI) for 122 countries. As an average figure, the GHI has decreased since 2000 with substantial reductions in huger in Asia. In Thailand the number of underweight children has been halved from 50 to 25% using nutrition intervention and a widespread programme of community volunteers to change people’s dietary behaviour and provide nutrition education.

Despite the MDGs being a worldwide aim, Europe currently provides over half the development aid making it a powerful force for progress. Europe summarises its three doctrines as follows: strengthen programmes in health, education and social sectors; put a great deal of effort into good governance and ensure policy coherence in trade, agriculture and environment (etc) as well as aid.

Yet despite worthy aims and a vast influx of funding, more action needs to be taken in order to reach the MDGs by 2015 and continue the process to eliminate poverty in the future. Sustainable development is the buzz word for 2011 and the concept certainly carries a great deal of weight. Reduction of cash crop production, sustainable environmental policies, education and evening out of barriers in trade are all steps that need to be taken in order to ensure a poverty-free world. Our monetary system means that there will always be winners and losers but, with some simple changes, the poverty gap could be narrowed and quality of life improved worldwide. The MDGs may not succeed by 2015 in the current economic climate, but they should not be viewed as a failure; their aim is just and should be continually strived for in the future.

Emily Judson

Emily Judson is a guest contributor of the European Strategist.