Published on Let's Talk Development

Ending hunger to end poverty, ending poverty to end hunger

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Last week we had World Food Day on October 16 and World Poverty Day on October 17.  The good news from World Poverty Day is that there is global progress on reducing extreme poverty.  Based on the latest available data, it is estimated that in 2015 there were 736 million people living on less than US$1.90/day, which compares very favorably to the 1,895 million people living in extreme poverty in 1990.  And while the world’s population grew from 5.3 billion in 1990 to 7.4 billion in 2015, the poverty rate fell from 36 percent to 10 percent or 1 percentage point per year on average over this period. 

At the same time, progress in reducing extreme poverty has been uneven. There have been sharp reductions in absolute numbers in East Asia and the Pacific and in South Asia, but the number of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa has increased significantly. 


The latest data also show that increasingly, extreme poverty is concentrated in countries that are affected by Fragility, Conflict and Violence (FCV).  Also, the annual rate of poverty reduction has slowed down.  It currently stands at 0.5 percent/year, which doesn’t leave much room for complacency when it comes to ensuring that Sustainable Development Goal #1 is achieved by 2030. 

In contrast to the news from World Poverty Day, the news from World Food Day, also held last week, was less positive.  After hitting its lowest ever recorded number in 2014 at 784 million, global hunger rose for the third consecutive year and in 2017 affected 821 million people or-- 11 percent of the world’s population.   These latest numbers imply that the number and proportion of undernourished people in the world now exceeds the number of people living in extreme poverty.  This might strike you as counterintuitive, as one would not expect people who are considered to not be poor to still be undernourished.  

Like the reduction in extreme poverty, progress in reducing hunger has been uneven across the world, with significant progress in Asia, but rising numbers of undernourished people in Africa.  Also, hunger is most prevalent in areas ravaged by conflicts, droughts and extreme poverty.  Along with the increase in hunger, in 2017 there were 124 million people facing crisis-level insecurity and requiring immediate emergency action to save their lives and preserve their livelihoods, compared to 108 million in 2016 and 80 million in 2015.

We can compare the trajectory of poverty reduction and hunger in the last decade as data are available for both extreme poverty and hunger. Between 2005 and 2016, the number of people afflicted by hunger had the steepest rise in Nigeria (doubling from 9 to 22 million), Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Madagascar, as well as areas in the Middle East affected by conflict such as Yemen and Iraq. Overall, a decline in extreme poverty was not matched by a corresponding decline in hunger and there is growing divergence in poverty and hunger prevalence. Indeed, the world has lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty over this period, spearheaded by the remarkable progress in China and India. But only around 120 million people have been “lifted” out of hunger.


There is serious concern that the probability of achieving Sustainable Development Goal #2—or ending hunger-- by 2030 is at risk. Accordingly, there was a strong call on World Food Day to urgently step up efforts to end hunger and malnutrition in all its forms. 

One explanation for why progress on ending global hunger is slow is that efforts to address hunger typically tend to focus on responding to famine and food crisis situations and are not integrated more proactively into development programs.

Given the multidimensional nature of poverty and considering that both extreme poverty and hunger are increasingly associated with countries facing FCV conditions, current concerns about achieving both SDG-1 and SDG-2 could be addressed by ensuring that efforts aimed at reducing extreme poverty are much more systematically informed by efforts aimed at reducing hunger--and vice-versa.  This is especially critical at this juncture, since moving forward, climate change could force more than 100 million into extreme poverty by 2030, mostly through impacts on agriculture and food prices.
** Numbers of the undernourished are from FAO (2018) country level data, aggregated to World Bank regional classification. The totals in this figure are slightly below the global total estimated by FAO due to rounding.


Martien van Nieuwkoop

Former Global Director, Agriculture and Food Global Practice, World Bank

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