Food security measures often fail to take the high workload into account that women in rural areas already have to bear.
Photo: © Welthungerhilfe

Global Hunger Index 2014: The challenge of hidden hunger

As usual, in the run-up to World Food Day, the organisations Welthungerhilfe, IFPRI and Concern Worldwide presented the latest Global Hunger Index in mid-October 2014. The good news is that the number of hungry people world-wide is dropping, but the bad news is that it is not doing so as quickly as hoped for.

Throughout the world, 805 million people are going hungry, while far more, in fact over two billion, are suffering from so-called hidden hunger, a form of malnutrition based on a lack of micronutrients. Also, flight, displacement and civil war are having drastic impacts on the food situation. These are some of the key findings of the World Hunger Index 2014 that Welthungerhilfe presented together with the International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI) and the relief organisation Concern Worldwide in various countries on the 13th October 2014.

At the presentation in Berlin, Germany, Welthungerhilfe President Bärbel Dieckmann highlighted the considerable influence that conflicts have on the population’s food situation. For example, in this year’s World Hunger Index, Iraq has scored the second worst result of all countries; there, the share of hungry people has more than doubled since 1990. Developments in Syria and South Sudan are worrying, too. Refugees are always exposed to an increased danger of food insecurity and disease, as well as a worsening provision of primary health care in the countries affected. 

Dieckmann warns that the situation in West Africa can also quickly become alarming, and maintains that the Ebola epidemic in the countries concerned is going to have a considerable impact on the food situation. “People have to join forces throughout the world to address these challenges. We must have the courage to display unconditional solidarity,” Dieckmann said. 

Some key findings 

  • Hunger levels in 14 countries are classified “alarming”; with the exception of Haiti, Laos, Timor-Leste and Yemen, most of these countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Hunger levels in Burundi and Eritrea are classified “extremely alarming”. 
  • Since 1990, 26 countries have reduced their scores by 50 per cent or more, the most successful ones being Angola, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chad, Ghana, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda, Thailand, and Vietnam. 
  • South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have the highest (= worst) 2014 scores, at 18.1 and 18.2, respectively; South Asia saw the steepest absolute decline, amounting to more than 12 points. 
  • Four countries have seen a rise in GHI scores since 1990: Iraq, Comores, Burundi and Swaziland. 
  • With more than 60 per cent of the population, Burundi, Eritrea, and Comoros have the highest proportion of undernourished people (in terms of GHI components).
  • Bangladesh, Niger, Timor-Leste, and Yemen have the highest prevalence of underweight in children under five, amounting to more than 35 per cent in each country.
  • Angola, Chad, and Sierra Leone have the highest under-five mortality rate, ranging from 15 per cent to more than 18 per cent.

The indicators

The 2014 Global Hunger Index (GHI) is calculated for 120 countries for which data are available for three indicators: the proportion of people who are undernourished, the proportion of children under five who are underweight, and the mortality rate of children under age five. In future, the second indicator, which establishes the number of underweight children, is to be extended by the factors “stunting” (children who are too small for their age) and “wasting” (children who are too light for their age), says IFPRI staff member Klaus von Grebmer. 

Out of the 120 countries, 44 record a situation of “little hunger”, so that only 76 countries have been included in the ranking. The necessary data are not available for a large number of other countries, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Somalia. The data to compute the scores are compiled by the United Nations agencies. The 2014 GHI reflects data spanning the period 2009–2014. 

The problem with hidden hunger

While the data base for the above-mentioned is already more than poor, as von Grebmer criticised introducing the report, this applies all the more to hidden hunger. For as its name implies, the problem is that it takes effect before one sees it. Moreover, it is difficult to measure, nutritional scientist Hans Konrad Biesalski explained during the subsequent panel debate. Regarding vitamin A deficiency, for example, children are highly vulnerable to infections. Among girls, there is an increased risk of suffering premature births later on in life or dying when giving birth. However, as a rule, the deficiency is only spotted when the first symptoms appear. This also applies to zinc deficiency. It leads to cells dying in the intestines that release zinc, so that the blood count initially suggests a high or sufficient supply of zinc. Biesalski also stresses that more and more children are suffering from both malnutrition and supernutrition.

Acute interventions are important, …

In the debate over possible ways of tackling micronutrient deficiency, the participants in the panel debate agreed that food supplements and fortification could only be temporary strategies, whereas the goal had to be a diversification of food – which however was difficult to achieve. “Increases in productivity and higher income alone are not sufficient to solve the problem,” said Birgit Poniatowski of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). Biesalski emphasised that it was important to always check first which food was locally available, and also eaten, i.e. accepted, by the population. Otherwise there was a danger e.g. of the food supplied quickly landing in the pig’s trough. He added that although acute interventions to tackle the effects of deficiencies were important, they could only be successful in the long run if a sustainable development of small-scale agriculture was taking place at the same time. 

… but integrated approaches are better

Welthungerhilfe Secretary General Wolfgang Jamann presented corresponding integrated approaches such as the project “Realigning Agriculture to Improve Nutrition” (RAIN), which the organisation is conducting in Zambia together with Concern Worldwide. In addition to small livestock husbandry, it focuses on kitchen gardening in which a wide range of useful plants are grown that bear a high nutritional value. For example, beans enriched with iron are grown that are very popular among the population thanks to their short cooking time and tastiness. Moreover, community health assistants working in an honorary capacity and specially selected smallholders run training programmes on agriculture and food for pregnant women and mothers of infants on a continuous basis. In addition, the pregnant women are given iron and folic acid preparations and the children vitamin A supplements twice a year. Just below 4,500 households are reached by the programme.

Silvia Richter, editor, Rural 21

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