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Which governments are best/worst at ending hunger?

November 13, 2009
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League tables are a powerful weapon in the armoury of NGO advocacy. Politicians in the country that ends up in the top slot feel like they are getting some fleeting recognition for their efforts, while those at the bottom are annoyed and hopefully prodded into action. Newspapers love them too as they reduce a complex issue to a nice simple ‘heroes and zeroes’ story.

But doing them well is hard work, so hats off to ActionAid, who have published a ‘HungerFREE Scorecard’ in the run up to next week’s World Summit on Food Security (Copenhagen isn’t the only important international summit between now and Christmas).

The Scorecard ranks 29 developing countries according to 14 indicators across four issue clusters: hunger, the legal framework, sustainable agriculture and social protection. (It tries to do something similar for developed countries, but I found that exercise much less convincing.)

ActionAid Hunger Scorecard

What are the policy conclusions?

‘Ability and commitment to fight hunger does not depend on wealth. Some relatively poor countries have made striking progress. On the other hand, some middle income countries have allowed rural misery to deepen in the midst of growing wealth. Pakistan, for instance, is performing no better than desperately poor and conflict-torn countries such as Sierra Leone, despite having a per capita income over two and half times higher. India ranks below Ethiopia and Cambodia.

Brazil tops our league table, showing what can be achieved when the state has both resources and political will to tackle hunger. President Lula da Silva has made it his objective to eradicate hunger. Within six years, the program Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) has introduced food banks, community kitchens and locally procured school meals along with simultaneous support for smallholder family farmers and land reform settlers. The result: child malnutrition has fallen by 73 percent and child deaths by 45 percent.

China (2nd place), through heavy investment in supporting its poor farmers and a relatively equitable distribution of land, has reduced the number of undernourished people by 58 million between 1990 and 2001. Now less than 9 percent of the population goes hungry.

Ghana (3rd place) has made food security a national priority and backed this with consistent support to smallholder farmers and democratic, stable governance. Ghana has made remarkable strides in reducing hunger – especially for a low income country.

Vietnam (4th place) pursued equitable land reform and investment in smallholders, and with relatively strong social policies has made unprecedented progress, reducing poverty by half in the decade of the nineties, with comparatively low levels of inequality.

Even Malawi (5th place), one of the poorest countries in the world, and burdened with a devastating HIV epidemic to boot – has reaped rich results within three short years. Through a massive boost of investment to small scale farmers, it has trebled production to halt a famine that threatened to leave nearly a third of its population hungry.

In line with their different circumstances, our top five countries have followed different paths. However, they have some interesting things in common.

• Rejecting the conventional wisdom of the free-market era, all retained – or reclaimed – a central role for the state in agriculture, and especially in developing and supporting poor farmers (whether through credit, research and extension, technology, income or price supports, input subsidies or a combination of these, targeted on smallholders).

• While these countries have also invested in commercial agriculture for export, they have maintained or introduced specific policies to ensure that production of staple foods for domestic markets continues to thrive.

• They either already had a relatively equitable distribution of land or introduced land reforms (although land reform in Brazil needs to go much further).

• Finally, all have introduced basic social protection measures (although in Malawi and Ghana, which endured donor-imposed cuts in social spending in the 1990s, these are still at an early stage). ‘

And if you want to dig down a bit, each of the 29 countries gets its own scorecard.

3 comments

  1. It seems that some of the ranking is inevitably determined by exogenous conditions: Malawi’s success in fighting hunger has been primary due to a large scale fertiliser subsidy program. However, the country has also seen five years of relatively good rain. The real test of a good government comes in a drought year, when you’ve spend 12% of your budget on now-useless fertiliser but only 2% on irrigation.

  2. I am curious to track the progress of Guatemala within this spectrum.

    Overall, Guatemala is rated #6, with its legal framework rated at #2 (constitutional and legislative guarantee to food/ p.15 of report). Yet on page 23 of the report, Guatemala is listed last, as #26 in the sustainable agriculture section. On the specific scorecard for Guatemala, details highlight the small number of elites controlling the arable land, mostly for exports of coffee and sugar.

    It seems that the government’s policy to institute free/reduced school lunch to all children should help mitigate the hunger problem, as Guatemala has the world’s fourth highest level of chronic child malnutrition. Yet, will the lack of funding to the agricultural sector and elite control of land make this plan possible? Are food dependent policy reforms putting the cart before the horse? Should Guatemala not focus on its domestic supply before it focuses on the distribution? I hope that some apparent inconsistencies do not cause civil strife for Guatemala.

  3. Thank you for this posting. What I am most curious about is whether the HIV epidemic’s impact upon hunger alleviation efforts within the developing nations mentioned in the list. In societies where HIV is prevalent, are the majority of the resources and finances targeted toward erradicating the illness, rather than ending starvation? Or, do most of the nations that received a ‘D’ grade have governments (and members of society) that continue to believe in aspects of ‘Social Darwinism,’ where limited resources lead to survival of the fittest? Also, what impact does religion (particularly religions like Christianity that stress the importance of charity) have upon members of society helping one another to have their basic needs met? It’s great to have tangible information as to where current developing nations stand in regard to erradicating hunger and what their strategies to do so are; however, I am very curious as to what the specific reasons for nations’ receiving a ‘D’ grades are.

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