Hunger - are the experts wrong?

Posted by Richard King Policy Researcher

20th Jul 2011

Children in Bihar State, India

Almost a billion go to bed hungry every night yet some economists are questioning how hungry the world really is. Richard King examines these controversial viewpoints and draws his own conclusions.

The system is bust. Already almost a billion of us go to bed hungry every night. Not because there isn't enough to eat, but because of the deep injustice in the way the system works, and because we are destroying the natural resources on which all of us, and many more people not yet born, must rely. That's the message at the heart of Oxfam's GROW campaign and from a host of publications now tackling issues such as resource scarcity, growing demand for food, and food price volatility head on.

But among the ranks of agencies and articles lining up with similar prognoses, two contrarian positions stand out. The first, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, (the randomista superstars), in a special food issue of Foreign Policy magazine, is entitled "More than 1 billion people are hungry in the world. But what if the experts are wrong?". The second, by Derek Headey at IFPRI asks "Was the global food crisis really a crisis?" It seems some people are daring to question the severity of the resultant hunger.

So, are the experts wrong?

Banerjee and Duflo take issue with the classic nutrition-based poverty trap, which goes something like this: if you are hungry, you don't have enough energy to do much work, and without decent work, you can't adequately feed yourself, let alone earn enough to begin climbing out of poverty.

But rather than dismissing this dispiriting conundrum out-of-hand, they argue that for the majority of people living in poverty it's just not terribly relevant.

Instead they suggest that many poor people may be eating the 'wrong' kinds of food rather than too little, and that they choose to spend some of their money on things other than food.

In the Philippines, they calculate that an absolute bare minimum of daily calories (2,400) could be bought for 21 cents, "very affordable even for the very poor". The catch? You would be eating only bananas and eggs. Day-in, day-out.

So it's little surprise that when extremely poor people are able to spend a little extra on food, they don't always 'rationally' optimise their calorie consumption; instead they (equally) rationally choose to buy tastier, more expensive food.

Equally, not all of poor people's spending goes on food.

From their own 18-country dataset, the authors show that food accounts for 36-79% of consumption for extremely poor rural people and 53-74% for extremely poor urban people.

Not all the rest goes on strict 'necessities', instead people choose to spend some of their meagre income on injecting a little bit of joy into their harsh lives. Festivals, alcohol, even TV.

But who are we to judge? In the UK we spend only 8% of our disposable income on food. If the costs were in the same proportion to incomes as they are in India, we would be paying £10 for a litre of milk and £6 for a kilo of rice.

Not that Banerjee or Duflo make a moral judgement about this, they simply argue that not all of the 'billion hungry people' are confined to poverty purely by their hunger, nor are they sufficiently hungry to seize every possible opportunity to eat more and eat better. So rather than viewing these people purely as hungry victims of a system that conspires against them, we need to better understand the agency of poor people without enough food.

This is precisely why Oxfam and IDS research partners recently revisited eight communities (previously visited in 2009 and 2010) in four developing countries to ask people about their experiences of living through recurrent food price shocks.

Is the crisis a crisis?

Headey's paper takes a different stance. In it he notes that hunger estimates in recent years, although very useful for advocacy purposes (as even the World Bank has crudely employed), are the result of some fairly dubious simulation models.

I have previously pointed to some of the limitations of these hunger projections, so cannot quibble with this starting point.

As an alternative, Headey explores using self-reported food insecurity recorded by the Gallup World Poll (GWP) surveys, in which people are asked: "Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy the food that you or your family needed?" (yes or no).

This is an imperfect alternative, not least because 'food' and 'need' are more abstract than counting calories and are likely to be interpreted differently depending on respondents' location and wealth.

The GWP does contain a second, more concrete, question about whether you or your family have gone hungry in the last year, but this was dropped from Headey's analysis due to a number of problems with the survey returns.

But, despite its shortcomings, a statistical relationship does seem to exist between self-reported food insecurity and both food price inflation and (lack of) economic growth.

The raw trends calculated from the surveys are "admittedly improbable" but even after the data has been tidied "the qualitative result remains the same: Self-reported food insecurity appears to have fallen from 2005/06 to 2007/08".

However, if you exclude India and China - which grew faster than food prices rose - food insecurity everywhere else rose, just. But as India and China are now at risk of rapid food inflation, the current global food crisis (mark 2), is unlikely to replicate the 2005-8 trends in extra/fewer food insecure people.

What does any of this tell us? Do we need to rethink our approaches to evaluating the number of people experiencing hunger? Probably. But big numbers are only useful up to a point. To really understand the impacts of a broken food system which condemns a billion (give or take a few million) people to unnecessary hardships and injustices we also need to better understand the reality of what it feels like to not have a lot on one's plate.

Blog post written by Richard King

Policy Researcher

More by Richard King

Richard King