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UN: Despite Pledges, Report Finds More People Going Hungry

A United Nations report published this week says more people than ever are going hungry, despite pledges to reduce by half the number of the world's malnourished by 2015. The UN report says that noble ambition is probably now unattainable.

Prague, 28 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- More than 840 million people, one out of every seven people on Earth, will go to sleep tonight gnawed by hunger.

That was not supposed to happen following a 1996 UN conference where the world's richest countries vowed to halve the number of the world's malnourished by 2015. However, a report published on 25 November by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concludes that goal is now unattainable by the original deadline.

The report finds the number of hungry people actually increased by 18 million in the second half of the 1990s. Most of those who are malnourished are from the Third World, Africa and Asia. But 34 million live in the former communist countries of Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

FAO spokesman John Riddle says someone who is malnourished does not have enough caloric intake to expend the energy necessary for a normal productive life. He said malnourishment can lead to death but that it is difficult to measure how many deaths it causes directly.

"They can die from undernourishment, but generally they die from other things caused by the fact that they weren't healthy enough to fight off those other things. So they get sick or they get an infection or something along these lines, and they're not really well fed enough to deal with it," Riddle said.

The FAO's first analysis of the changes that have occurred since the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia shows that hunger is increasing in many of the countries in transition. Overall, the number of malnourished people in those countries grew from 25 million to 34 million.

It says the Baltic states and most Eastern European countries have largely avoided significant hunger problems, although malnourishment either rose or remained a significant problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Latvia, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro.

The report says Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia had levels of malnourishment of between 20 percent and 35 percent of their populations. The worst affected were Armenia, with around half of the population regularly undernourished, and Tajikistan, with 70 percent not getting enough to eat.

Ali Gurkan Arslan, managing editor of the FAO report, says some countries, such as China, dramatically reduced the number of their hungry in the early 1990s, but that the effort appears to be waning.

"China is, as you know, an important country because of the large numbers involved. And China has seen, in fact, one of the most important progresses in the field of decreasing undernourishment. But it has actually, over the past five years, appeared to have slowed down. So when all these things are taken into account, it appears as though we are diverging from the path that would actually take us to halving the number of undernourished by the year 2015. So there has been a general slowdown," Gurkan said.

He added: "There are, of course, some countries who have done much better, who have continued the progress that they have made. But overall, the numbers at the global level indicate that there has been some kind of slowdown which makes it difficult to reach the objective set in 1996."

He says Latin America and the Caribbean have seen a decline in the number of malnourished, with Brazil and Panama being praised as success stories. Hunger also declined in Bangladesh, Haiti, Vietnam, Kenya, and Mozambique. But it rose in India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sudan.

Gurkan says the study shows hunger declined in countries where the economies are developing well. "This report indicates that there have been a number of factors that have been instrumental in differentiating between those who have done well and those who have not done as much or as well as the others," he said. "And amongst them is indeed the economic performance, not only of the overall economy, but also of the agricultural sector, which suggests that those who have achieved higher growth rates -- as far as agriculture and overall economics are concerned --- have done better."

HIV/AIDS, which is particularly prevalent in southern Africa, has emerged as a big factor in the increase in malnourishment. The FAO report says that in parts of Africa, up to 70 percent of farms have suffered labor losses -- with one-quarter of employees dead or too sick to work. That has not only cut their ability to grow crops but also reduces the number of people who know how to farm and the ability to pass on that knowledge to future generations.

Food emergencies have also impacted the ability of countries to deal with their malnourished populations. "The other [reason] is the number of [food] emergencies that we have observed over the past decade," Gurkan said. "The higher the proportion and higher the number of emergencies that have taken place, the lower, it seems, is the achievement of those countries in trying to reduce the number of undernourished."

Around 40 percent of food emergencies are caused by armed conflicts, while about 60 percent result from natural disasters, such as drought. The report says some countries with permanent water shortages may be better off importing staple foods and using their scarce water resources to grow high-value crops for export to strengthen their economies.

FAO spokesman Riddle attributes much of the blame for the increase in undernourishment figures in Africa to the long-running conflict in the Congo. He says only by monitoring the situation for another three or four years will experts know whether the present bleak statistics are a permanent trend.

"It's not truly clear if what we are seeing -- this rise in the hungry people from 1994, 1995 -- is that a new trend or could that be a temporary thing? For instance, you have one of the countries in Africa that caused these numbers to go up is the Congo, and obviously that's because of the state of war and the really terrible situation there. And it being the biggest country, it really brought the numbers down in terms of reducing hunger because there was no hunger reduction going on in that country for the last four years," Riddle said.

Riddle says that at the 1996 UN summit, wealthier nations did promise to help poorer ones, but they did not always put their resources into areas that would yield the best results. "Each country was supposed to put into place a program to reduce hunger by half in the individual country, and the developed countries committed to assisting the developing countries with their efforts," he said. "But the actual thing that seems to be going on here is not so much that countries didn't cough up the necessary money. It's the focus of putting into place programs that would actually reduce hunger."

He says the FAO has proposed a new antihunger program that learns from past mistakes and targets assistance more accurately. The proposals include improving agricultural productivity in poor rural communities, developing and conserving natural resources, expanding rural infrastructure and market access, and ensuring access to food for the most needy.