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Thursday, October 14, 1999 Published at 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK


World drags feet on tackling hunger

The number of hungry children is increasing in many African countries

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Progress in tackling world hunger is too slow to save hundreds of millions of people from stunted lives and premature deaths, according to a United Nations report.

The report, from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), says many countries are making significant progress.

But those gains are outweighed by a worsening conditions elsewhere, and extra births, coupled with wars, economic turmoil and natural disasters, mean the number of hungry people is coming down too slowly.

The report, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 1999, says the overall picture is relatively encouraging:

  • in 1979/81, there were almost 920 million undernourished people, about 30% of the developing world's total population
  • by 1990/92, there were 830-840 million
  • by 1995/97 the number had fallen to about 790 million

But the World Food Summit in 1996 set the goal of halving the number of people suffering chronic hunger by 2015.

To achieve that, the report says, the world needs to cut the number by at least 20 million a year. And the average reduction at the moment is around 8 million annually.

Most of that was achieved by a fairly small group of countries, which together cut the global total by 100 million people. "Across the rest of the developing world, the number of hungry people actually increased by almost 60 million."

Rich countries' problems

The report, the first in what is intended to be an annual series, says there are also an estimated 34 million undernourished people in developed countries, 26 million of them in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

It found "severe hunger" in 800,000 US households, with 4.2 million suffering "from some hunger for at least part of the year".

The report found marked differences between comparable countries.

[ image: Cubans still grow sugar - but many are hungry]
Cubans still grow sugar - but many are hungry
Eight countries in west Africa, for example, managed to reduce hunger significantly between 1980 and 1996 - among them one of the world's poorest countries, Burkina Faso.

But in central, east and southern Africa "the proportions and numbers of undernourished people generally increased".

Cuba, Afghanistan and North Korea all showed large increases in the proportion of undernourished people.

In rich countries, the report says, the challenge is to find ways of helping the most destitute. "They can only be reached by carefully targeted poverty alleviation programmes, supported by the judicious use of social safety nets."

And it emphasises the plight of children, who often suffer most from hunger. "Investments in children are known to produce the highest returns over time in both economic and humanitarian terms."

In many African countries the number of undernourished children is increasing.

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