How to dramatically reduce hunger - even in very poor countries

Wednesday, 20 August 2014 13:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Keys include political commitment, social protection and helping small-scale farmers

Some 60 developing countries have reduced the proportion of their populations experiencing chronic hunger by half or brought it to under 5 percent, meeting or exceeding international goals. Based on this evidence, there is a growing consensus that, with better food security and nutrition governance and comprehensive approaches, hunger can be dramatically reduced – even in very poor countries.

Great care must be taken in drawing lessons from different countries, but experience shows that three types of political initiatives have been crucial to sustain progress on food security and nutrition.


First, political commitment at the highest level is the necessary condition for successful national initiatives to reduce hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. It is needed to make the issue a government-wide priority and to address governance bottlenecks inhibiting progress. This effort can be further supported by legally establishing a right to food.

Second, broad social participation is the amalgam that sustains these efforts, even in the face of changes of government, limited budget and socio-economic and climatic shocks. It ensures the hungry themselves are heard when programs are designed and put into motion; it enhances accountability; and it distributes the burden of implementation. Institutional mechanisms involving civil society and the private sector can make this social participation happen.

Third, ending hunger and malnutrition requires a large-scale, comprehensive approach, linking macro-economic, social, health, sanitation, environmental, agricultural and education policies. Investing in food security is a small price to pay for something that not only is an ethical imperative but also brings benefits to society as a whole in the form of healthier, more productive citizens and by triggering other development dynamics.

Looking at how different countries are responding to the food security challenges they face, three main areas of action emerge: social protection; raising productivity and net incomes of small-scale agricultural producers; and using special instruments to address nutritional deficiencies in mothers and children under five years old.


Social protection measures for the poor are key. When integrated with rural and agricultural development policies as well as special nutrition initiatives, impressive results often follow.

It is important to remember that three quarters of the world’s very poor live in rural areas, and many are themselves producers of food.

Boosting the productivity and incomes of small-scale farmers, herders and fisher folk, while promoting diversification and more sustainable practices, can reduce rural malnutrition in two ways: by improving the local availability and nutritional quality of food, and also by raising rural producers’ purchasing power and supporting livelihoods. To do so requires public and private investments to increase producers’ access to land, finance, productive assets and technology, as well as input and output markets adding value, both nutritional as well monetary, all along the food chain. These and other support measures do more than “protect” smallholders, a majority of whom are women; they empower them as citizens and economic agents.

Other nutrition-enhancing programmes and interventions may be required, including judicious nutrient supplementation and improvements in sanitation, hygiene, nutrition information and education, and access to health care. To prevent stunting and other forms of severe undernutrition, it is necessary to focus on measures to address nutrition deficiencies afflicting nutritionally vulnerable households and particularly the mothers and children less than five years of age to break the vicious circle that perpetuates extreme poverty and hunger across generations.


These types of interventions are most powerful when used in combination. For example, school meal programmes can be designed to procure safe and nutritious food from smallholder farmer cooperatives. This, in turn, raises producer incomes while stimulating the local supply of more diverse, nutritious and safe foods by small farmers.

Cash and in-kind transfers and other forms of social protection that raise incomes and improve diets also have positive spill-over effects, such as increasing local wages, and can enhance small producers’ accumulation of productive resources, thereby stimulating production and productivity increases, both on- and off-farm.

Experiences in Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Ghana, Thailand and Vietnam, to name only a few, demonstrate that the most effective approaches to ending hunger have included most, if not all, of the measures listed above. When combined with appropriate public investments, they have yielded spectacular results for the undernourished, and for all of society.


The international community has an important role to play in enabling and supporting national efforts – in the identification and evaluation of policy options, in the design of effective social protection, trade policy assessment and vulnerability and resilience analysis, as well as in developing measures to improve agricultural productivity and sustainability. This seems like a demanding agenda, but as country after country has demonstrated, ending hunger in our lifetimes is no longer a dream, but a feasible objective for all countries.

And one thing is certain: as we redouble our efforts to end hunger we must also tackle all forms of malnutrition – from hunger to micronutrient deficiencies to obesity. What are the main challenges to improving diets and raising levels of nutrition? How can we improve food security and nutrition governance? How can more effective international cooperation contribute to reaching these goals? These are all questions we need to ask and answer.

 They will be at the center of the debates at the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), jointly organised by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), held in Rome from 19-21 November 2014.

We can end hunger for all. And because we can end hunger for all, we must end hunger for all.

José Graziano da Silva is director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.