To the ever-expanding archive accumulating over recent years on how to make global development policies more effective, a venerable research organization has added a novel proposal. In a report published in March, the International Food Policy Research Institute suggests that looking at food-exporting rich countries as the key to ending hunger and malnutrition worldwide, or focusing exclusively on ending poverty first in countries where suffering may be most acute, leaves out the most important part of the picture.
In the view of the institute, known widely as IFPRI, middle-income countries — emerging markets — and their agricultural potential are crucial to reducing the global toll of hunger. For one thing, there are the numbers to consider. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that despite considerable progress in reducing hunger globally, an important Millennium Development Goal, about 805 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, faced chronic undernourishment from 2012 to 2014. Most of them are not in the poorest countries.
“Middle income countries, despite some being global economic powerhouses, are home to the majority of the world’s hungry and malnourished,” IFPRI said in its 2014-2015 Global Food Policy Report.
“These vulnerable populations, the ‘missing middle,’ tend not to either benefit from or contribute to the rapid economic growth. . . . That is why the international community cannot realize its ambitious international agenda of achieving zero hunger and malnutrition without a renewed focus on MICs. That these countries have increased both their economic resources and their government capacities over the last two decades is a major boon to the development effort but not yet a victory.”
The report analyzed five middle-income developing countries — Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Mexico — and found that “despite the progress that has been made in reducing the number of those chronically hungry, there remains a potential threat to sustained, inclusive growth. Close to half of the world’s hungry, or 363 million people, live in these five countries.”
Such countries can contribute in two ways to reduce global hunger, the report said: by alleviating hunger and malnutrition within their own countries and by serving as models and sharing expertise with poorer nations. The food policy research institute is linked to CGIAR, formerly the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which counts among its founders Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for what became known as the Green Revolution, and Robert McNamara (a former United States secretary of defense), in his later role as president of the World Bank.
Malnutrition can take different forms. The food report noted, for example, that while 48 percent of children in India were stunted because of inadequate nourishment, 69 percent of people in Mexico were overweight.
“Malnutrition also imposes high economic costs,” the report said. “Micronutrient deficiencies, for example, cost India up to 3 percent of its annual GDP. Overweight and obesity increase the risk of such diseases as diabetes and heart disease, which in turn strain national budgets. In Mexico, noncommunicable diseases related to overweight and obesity were estimated to comprise 13 percent of total healthcare expenditures in 2008.”
Poor sanitation or lack of access to education or good health care increases the burdens of malnutrition and disease. “Inequities in education, health, and nutrition impede human capital formation and jeopardize sustained, long-term growth,” the report said.
Making the reduction of poverty the top priority — believing that “trickle-down” growth will solve many problems — is not always the answer, the food research institute said. “Economic growth is not enough to substantially reduce hunger and malnutrition,” the report concluded.
Policies need to be reshaped in middle-income countries “to both increase incentives to produce, process, and market high-nutrient foods and reduce distorted incentives to produce just low-nutrient staple foods. . . . By fortifying powdered milk with micronutrients, including iron, Chile reduced the prevalence of anemia by around 80 percent in less than three years.”
Lowering subsidies to farmers who produce staples as an insurance against hunger in bad crop years creates political problems, however, because in some, if not all, middle-income countries with democratic systems, the rural vote counts. India’s refusal to join free-trade agreements has traditionally been rooted in its large subsidy programs to farmers and benefits such as free water for agriculture.
The food report includes a chapter on the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene — condensed as a global campaign called WASH. It said that more studies are producing “evidence that WASH can be critical in shaping key nutrition outcomes, such as child height, one of the most important measures of a population’s well-being. The evidence regarding the nutritional consequences of sanitation was particularly strong, especially for open defecation without using a toilet or latrine.”
India, which considers itself a rising global power, the report noted, accounts for half of the billion people worldwide who have no toilets or latrines.
In a report of nearly 140 pages packed with data, some fascinating, counterintuitive facts jump out. More than 90 percent of the estimated 570 farms in the world are family farms. The unlikely pair of regions where this ownership is most prevalent are North and Central America, with 83 percent family ownership, and Asia, where 85 percent of the fames are family owned.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.