Going by the human rights situation across the world, 2017 has not been a particularly good year. Despots were ‘elected’ in many countries, old armed conflicts continued while new conflicts began, and those defending human rights faced increased threats and harassment. 2017 was also the year that saw hunger levels rising—even if only slightly—after decades of decline.
This reversal in the world’s hunger trend was noted with great concern by the United Nations’ World Food Project. Its State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) Report, 2017, found that 815 million people were chronically hungry, 38 million more than the previous year. This is a throwback to the year 2000, when the number of hungry people in the world was pegged at 900 million.
Overall, 2017 underscored the well-observed and documented reality that the economic growth of a country does not necessarily translate into eradication of hunger, particularly for the weaker sections of its citizenry. Sub-national analyses of hunger statistics clearly show how governments around the world have abandoned a section of their population without any visible reduction in their hunger levels.
This is most visible in the Philippines and Sri Lanka. The rank of the Philippines in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) has hardly changed in the last three years and yet, far from making amends, it slipped further down with a 0.1 percentage point increase, returning to the ‘alarming’ situation from the ‘moderate’ category. The current GHI score of the country at 20.0 is higher than 2016’s 19.9 and barely lower than 2015’s 20.1. A higher GHI score means a worsened hunger situation, while a lower GHI score indicates improvement in the hunger situation, according to the IFPRI.
To put the data in perspective, it is necessary to look at improvements over decades. That is where the vast strides made by ‘poorer’ countries like Cambodia, Nepal, Bangladesh become apparent vis-à-vis apparent failures of the ones doing economically far better like India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. In 1992, Cambodia’s GHI score was a whopping 45.8. It decreased only marginally by 2000 and came down to 44.7. Nepal had a hunger index of 42.5 in 1992, brought it down to 36.8 in 2000 and to 22.0 in 2017. The numbers for Bangladesh are pegged at 53.6 in 1992, 37.6 in 2000 and 26.5 in 2017. Evidentially, all these countries brought down their hunger levels significantly; in fact they almost halved them over the decades. Further, they did it against many odds, Cambodia limping back to normalcy after an almost complete collapse during the Pol Pot era, Bangladesh achieving the same despite battling annual menace of devastating floods and Nepal doing the same despite its mountainous topography and a catastrophic earthquake.
Now compare the same with India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. India’s GHI score in 1992 was 46.2 (lesser than that of Bangladesh), which came down marginally to 38.2 in 2000, and is still at an alarmingly high 31.4 in 2017. In fact, at 100 India is ranked lower than all its neighbours- Nepal (72), Myanmar (77), Bangladesh (88), Sri Lanka (84) and China (29). At 106, only Pakistan is doing worse than India in containing hunger.
The regular defence offered of population, is clearly an excuse, as exposed by the performance of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has not only failed to achieve eradication of hunger, but in fact underperformed compared to the poorer countries cited above. It is in fact one of the countries that saw its hunger index remaining the same at 25.5 in 2017 as it was in 2016. Further, over the five year period 2012-2016, the prevalence of wasting in Sri Lankan children under five years also increased to 21.4%, as against only 13.3% in 2006-2010. That is quite an indictment of Sri Lankan efforts to contain hunger, as only four countries in the world have child wasting above 20%- India, Djibouti, South Sudan and now Sri Lanka.
Although the causes behind countries’ dramatic successes and failures in eradicating hunger need further exploration, one obvious factor is that those countries that invested in their public institutions and galvanized resources to fight hunger performed far better than the ones did not. Nepal’s remarkable achievement in reducing child stunting between 2001 and 2011 for instance, is attributed to increased household assets, increased maternal education levels, improved sanitation levels, and implementation and utilisation of health and nutrition programmes, including antenatal and neonatal care.
The Supreme Court of India meanwhile, slammed the government of India for woeful implementation of wonderful laws, ideas and schemes to fight child malnutrition. They key to fight hunger lies there; in ensuring that policy making is aimed at helping the poorest sections of the society and making public institutions deliver. Until all countries achieve that, the world can only get hungrier and sicker.
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About AHRC:The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.