London - Two years ago, the UN Food and Agriculture
Organisation (FAO) launched a petition to fight hunger with the slogan: "1
000 000 000 people live in chronic hunger and I'm mad as hell."
Since then, more than 3.4 million people, including actors,
pop stars and footballers, have added their voices to the online campaign
calling on governments to make the elimination of hunger their top priority.
But outrage over the "horrifying figure" of 1
billion hungry people around the world, as it was described by former FAO head
Jacques Diouf, has turned to embarrassment in some quarters in the light of
growing doubts about the accuracy of the number.
Many researchers say the estimate was simply too high.
"The fact that it's 1 billion is a much better story,
and that's why it stays in people's minds," said Richard King, a food
policy expert with Oxfam.
"It's a great number."
The controversy led the Committee on World Food Security, a
top-level UN forum, to urge the FAO to overhaul its calculations using better
data and methodology and to call for a set of internationally agreed food
The first fruits are due in October, when a new estimate of
the number of undernourished people will be published along with revisions for
previous years as part of the FAO's annual report on food insecurity.
The figures will incorporate fresher data on world food
supplies and more timely and comprehensive household consumption surveys from
different countries, said Carlo Cafiero, a senior FAO statistician.
The report will also include supplemental indicators of
hunger, such as the share of household budgets spent on food.
"If you only present one number, there is a tendency to
over-interpret it and take it as if it were capturing everything, but we want
to try and be more explicit in recognising the various dimensions of food
insecurity," Cafiero said.
Nutritionists working in the field have long complained that
the FAO's hunger estimates focused too narrowly on calorie intake, ignoring the
bigger picture - protein, vitamin and mineral deficiencies in diets and the
serious health problems they cause.
Calculating the number of hungry people around the world at
any given moment, let alone predicting how that number is likely to change in
the future, is no easy task.
Models for working out how many people don't have enough to
eat are not as precise or forward-looking as experts would like, partly due to
lags in the release of national-level statistics.
Moreover, shifting economic conditions alter the buying
power of the poor day by day, and food harvests - increasingly affected by
extreme weather - fluctuate, causing price volatility.
When the FAO came under pressure to say how much hunger was
increasing due to skyrocketing food prices and the global financial crisis in
2008, it decided to combine US department of agriculture projections of how
economic turmoil would hurt food production, consumption and trade with its own
hunger estimates of previous years, and extrapolate from there.
It estimated a "historic high" of 1.02 billion
undernourished people, or around one-sixth of humanity, in 2009.
But problems emerged with the assumptions behind the number.
Economic conditions did not turn out to be as disastrous as anticipated, and
food production and consumption held up better than expected.
In addition, prices didn't rise as much as feared in some
developing countries, like India and China, because they used export bans and
subsidies to keep them down.
Finally, many people were able to maintain the amount of
calories they ate by switching to cheaper foods and cutting spending on other
basic needs like education and healthcare, surveys suggest.
"All evidence now is pointing to the fact that the
situation was not so desperate in terms of (people's) calorie intake as, at
that time, everybody thought it was," FAO's Cafiero said.
In 2010, FAO forecast a drop to 925 million undernourished
people and in 2011 it didn't produce a number at all, given the dispute over
The question is not whether metrics are necessary, but how
to collect, interpret and share the data to present a realistic and accurate
picture of the food security situation.
Improving the way hunger is calculated could have
far-reaching consequences for the way governments and aid agencies respond more
effectively to hunger crises, experts say.
Aid groups say information from their work with local
communities can contribute to a fuller picture of hunger nationally, regionally
and globally, for example.
"We have a responsibility to bring the view from the
field... to make sure it's not just a technical exercise, but reflects the
reality on the ground," said Alberta Guerra, a Rome-based food policy
officer for ActionAid.
In Nairobi's slums, when the cost of food soared in 2008,
many poor urban families cut out meat and fish, went without medicine and took
their children out of school.
With post-election violence making matters worse, some even
stole food, scavenged in garbage dumps, brewed illegal alcohol or turned to
prostitution to survive.
But the many aid agencies based in the Kenyan capital, much
more used to working in rural hunger crises, didn't have a system to pinpoint
when conditions for already poor slum dwellers were becoming an emergency.
"It was very difficult to get funding for urban
response, partly because there were no metrics to say we are seeing a critical
situation," said Lilly Schofield, research adviser with Concern Worldwide.
The organisation has since begun testing indicators to
capture changes in household food security in Kenya's slums, where food has
Turning numbers into policy
Nyauma Nyasani, East Africa nutrition adviser for Action
Against Hunger, says frequent, on-the-ground checks are far more effective at
anticipating hunger problems than annual nutrition surveys.
For the past year, the aid group has been piloting a food
security surveillance system in Kenya's arid northeast, based on household
questionnaires conducted every three months.
And in Uganda, after a similar two-year project, it is
developing national guidelines to monitor food security with the health
Funding is an obstacle. Shifting to a more responsive system
will require political commitment and long-term financial resources, but rich
governments and UN agencies tend to offer money on a short timeframe.
"As long as something like this is donor-driven, the
sustainability becomes questionable," Nyasani said.
Ultimately, however, it is not data, but action, that makes
Saul Guerrero, evaluations adviser with Action Against Hunger,
said aid workers detected warning signs months before the onset of last year's
severe hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa, where some 13 million people needed
food aid because of a regional drought and conflict in Somalia.
"Whoever tells you the data let us down doesn't know
what they are talking about," he said. "It was the final bit that
didn't work - turning data into policy.
"This is the question no one has the full answer