With one more year before the 2015 deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the 2014 Global Hunger Index report offers a multifaceted overview of global hunger that brings new insights to the global debate on where to focus efforts in the fight against hunger and malnutrition.
The state of hunger in developing countries as a group has improved since 1990, falling by 39 percent, according to the 2014 GHI. Despite progress made, the level of hunger in the world is still “serious,” with 805 million people continuing to go hungry, according to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The global average obscures dramatic differences across regions and countries. Regionally, the highest GHI scores—and therefore the highest hunger levels—are in Africa south of the Sahara and South Asia, which have also experienced the greatest absolute improvements since 2005. South Asia saw the steepest absolute decline in GHI scores since 1990. Progress in addressing child underweight was the main factor behind the improved GHI score for the region since 1990.
From the 1990 GHI to the 2014 GHI, 26 countries reduced their scores by 50 percent or more. In terms of absolute progress, comparing the 1990 GHI and the 2014 GHI, Angola, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chad, Ghana, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda, Thailand, and Vietnam saw the biggest improvements in scores.
Levels of hunger are “extremely alarming” or “alarming” in 16 countries, with Burundi and Eritrea both classified as “extremely alarming,” according to the 2014 GHI. Most of the countries with “alarming” GHI scores are in Africa south of the Sahara. Unlike many other countries south of the Sahara, where hunger has been decreasing, Swaziland is an exception. It suffered the biggest increase in a GHI score between the 1990 GHI and the 2014 GHI. Reliable data for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, however, are sorely lacking.
One form of hunger that is often ignored or overshadowed by hunger related to energy deficits is hidden hunger—also called micronutrient deficiency—which affects some 2 billion people around the world. This shortage in essential vitamins and minerals can have long-term, irreversible health effects as well as socioeconomic consequences that can erode a person’s well-being and development. By affecting people’s productivity, it can also take a toll on countries’ economies.
Hidden hunger can coexist with adequate or even excessive consumption of dietary energy from macronutrients, such as fats and carbohydrates, and therefore also with overweight /obesity in one person or community.
Poor diet, disease, impaired absorption, and increased micronutrient needs during certain life stages, such as pregnancy, lactation, and infancy, are among the causes of hidden hunger, which may “invisibly” affect the health and development of a population.
Possible solutions to hidden hunger include food-based approaches: dietary diversification, which might involve growing more diverse crops in a home garden; fortification of commercial foods; and biofortification, in which food crops are bred with increased micronutrient content. Food-based measures will require long-term, sustained, and coordinated efforts to make a lasting difference. In the short term, vitamin and mineral supplements can help vulnerable populations combat hidden hunger.
Along with these solutions that address the low content or density of vitamins and minerals in food, behavioral change communication is critical to educate people about health services, sanitation and hygiene, and caring practices, as well as the need for greater empowerment of women at all levels.
To eliminate hidden hunger, governments must demonstrate political commitment by making fighting it a priority. Governments and multilateral institutions need to invest in and develop human and financial resources, increase coordination, and ensure transparent monitoring and evaluation to build capacity on nutrition.
Governments must also create a regulatory environment that values good nutrition. This could involve creating incentives for private sector companies to develop more nutritious seeds or foods.
Transparent accountability systems are needed in order to ensure that investments contribute to public health, while standardized data collection on micronutrient deficiencies can build the evidence base on the efficacy and cost effectiveness of food-based solutions.
These and other recommendations set out in this report are some of the steps needed to eliminate hidden hunger. Ending hunger in all its forms is possible. It must now become a reality.