Resilient livelihoods are critical for the world’s most vulnerable people to achieve freedom from hunger – one of the most basic human rights.
The 2013 Global Hunger Index (GHI), which reflects data from the period 2008–2012, shows that global hunger has improved since 1990, falling by one-third. Despite the progress made, the level of hunger in the world remains “serious,” with 870 million people going hungry, according to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Across regions and countries, GHI scores vary considerably. South Asia and Africa south of the Sahara are home to the highest GHI scores. South Asia significantly lowered its GHI score between 1990 and 1995, mainly thanks to a large decline in underweight in children, but was not able to maintain its fast progress. Social inequality and the low nutritional, educational, and social status of women continue to contribute to the high prevalence of underweight in children under five.
Africa south of the Sahara did not advance as much as South Asia in the 1990s. Since the turn of the millennium, however, Africa south of the Sahara has shown real progress, and its GHI score is now lower than South Asia’s. More political stability in countries earlier affected by civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s meant economic growth could resume. Advances in the fight against HIV and AIDS, a decrease in the prevalence of malaria, and higher immunization rates contributed to a reduction in child mortality.
Since 1990, 23 countries made significant progress, reducing their GHI scores by 50 percent or more. Twenty-seven countries moved out of the “extremely alarming” and “alarming” categories. In terms of absolute progress, the top ten countries in terms of improvements in GHI scores since 1990 were Angola, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Levels of hunger are still “alarming” or “extremely alarming” in 19 countries. Those that fell into the “extremely alarming” category—Burundi, Comoros, and Eritrea—are all in Africa south of the Sahara. Increased hunger since 1990 in Burundi and Comoros can be attributed to prolonged conflict and political instability. The Democratic Republic of Congo was listed as “extremely alarming” in the 2011 Global Hunger Index report, but since then, not enough data have been available to calculate its GHI score. Current and reliable data are urgently needed to assess the country’s situation and to calculate the GHI scores of other likely hunger hot spots, such as Afghanistan and Somalia.
It is not surprising that many of the countries with “alarming” or “extremely alarming” scores have not been among the most stable. Higher GHI scores tend to be typical of countries that experience social or political unrest or are perennially exposed to shocks such as floods and droughts. Natural and manmade disasters can directly affect the food and nutrition security of people and communities that are particularly vulnerable or lacking resilience. By extension, a critical part of building resilience is ensuring food and nutrition security; and conversely, efforts to build food and nutrition security must be designed with a resilience lens. Poor people have long been vulnerable to “hunger seasons,” droughts, and other natural and manmade disasters. In recent years, this vulnerability has been exacerbated by food and financial crises and large-scale humanitarian crises such as the recurring droughts in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. These short-term shocks have long-term consequences.
Policymakers and practitioners across the development and relief communities now recognize the need to build the resilience of vulnerable populations. More resilience will help them climb out of poverty, remain out of poverty, or avoid slipping into it in the first place. Conceptually, resilience has been expanded to include the capacity not only to absorb mild shocks, but also to learn from and adapt to moderate shocks and to transform economic, social, and ecological structures in response to severe shocks.
This framework for understanding resilience could help expand the dialogue between the relief and development sectors, which have traditionally operated in separate silos. Linking interrelated short-term shocks and long-term systemic change provides a more complete view of the factors that lead people to drift into poverty or food and nutrition insecurity. The resilience framework also focuses more attention on understanding the welfare and behavioral dynamics of vulnerable populations. It reaffirms the importance of identifying and strengthening local structures and organizations and supporting them to perform their roles effectively and to work together.
Yet, while the underlying rationale for focusing on resilience building is strong, adopting a resilience framework is challenging. Experts in development and humanitarian circles have yet to agree on a common definition of resilience. And resilience, vulnerability, and coping behaviors are difficult phenomena to measure. Shocks are by definition often short-term unpredictable events, they often occur in remote places and populations, and resilience to shocks involves complex coping or adaptive behaviors.
According to Concern and Welthungerhilfe, resilience-building efforts at the community level can deliver results. They describe lessons learned from their own programs fighting undernutrition in mostly rural communities. Despite continuing shocks and stresses and a system that is set up to favor large-scale farmers and not smallholders, households in Haiti’s North-West region managed to improve their food security by continuously addressing the underlying structural causes of vulnerability and using flexible, accurately targeted emergency funding to address capacity gaps. Lessons from the Sahel and the Horn of Africa point to some of the necessary preconditions for building resilience at the community level and helping people escape extreme poverty and hunger.
The policy recommendations in this report offer a path forward for the international development, humanitarian, and donor communities; for country-level policymakers in food-insecure countries; and for development and humanitarian practitioners.