Which governments are best/worst at ending hunger?

November 13, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

League tables are a powerful weapon in the armoury of NGO advocacy. Politicians in the country that ends up in the top slot feel like they are getting some fleeting recognition for their efforts, while those at the bottom are annoyed and hopefully prodded into action. Newspapers love them too as they reduce a complex issue to a nice simple ‘heroes and zeroes’ story.

But doing them well is hard work, so hats off to ActionAid, who have published a ‘HungerFREE Scorecard’ in the run up to next week’s World Summit on Food Security (Copenhagen isn’t the only important international summit between now and Christmas).

The Scorecard ranks 29 developing countries according to 14 indicators across four issue clusters: hunger, the legal framework, sustainable agriculture and social protection. (It tries to do something similar for developed countries, but I found that exercise much less convincing.)

ActionAid Hunger Scorecard

What are the policy conclusions?

‘Ability and commitment to fight hunger does not depend on wealth. Some relatively poor countries have made striking progress. On the other hand, some middle income countries have allowed rural misery to deepen in the midst of growing wealth. Pakistan, for instance, is performing no better than desperately poor and conflict-torn countries such as Sierra Leone, despite having a per capita income over two and half times higher. India ranks below Ethiopia and Cambodia.

Brazil tops our league table, showing what can be achieved when the state has both resources and political will to tackle hunger. President Lula da Silva has made it his objective to eradicate hunger. Within six years, the program Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) has introduced food banks, community kitchens and locally procured school meals along with simultaneous support for smallholder family farmers and land reform settlers. The result: child malnutrition has fallen by 73 percent and child deaths by 45 percent.

China (2nd place), through heavy investment in supporting its poor farmers and a relatively equitable distribution of land, has reduced the number of undernourished people by 58 million between 1990 and 2001. Now less than 9 percent of the population goes hungry.

Ghana (3rd place) has made food security a national priority and backed this with consistent support to smallholder farmers and democratic, stable governance. Ghana has made remarkable strides in reducing hunger – especially for a low income country.

Vietnam (4th place) pursued equitable land reform and investment in smallholders, and with relatively strong social policies has made unprecedented progress, reducing poverty by half in the decade of the nineties, with comparatively low levels of inequality.

Even Malawi (5th place), one of the poorest countries in the world, and burdened with a devastating HIV epidemic to boot – has reaped rich results within three short years. Through a massive boost of investment to small scale farmers, it has trebled production to halt a famine that threatened to leave nearly a third of its population hungry.

In line with their different circumstances, our top five countries have followed different paths. However, they have some interesting things in common.

• Rejecting the conventional wisdom of the free-market era, all retained – or reclaimed – a central role for the state in agriculture, and especially in developing and supporting poor farmers (whether through credit, research and extension, technology, income or price supports, input subsidies or a combination of these, targeted on smallholders).

• While these countries have also invested in commercial agriculture for export, they have maintained or introduced specific policies to ensure that production of staple foods for domestic markets continues to thrive.

• They either already had a relatively equitable distribution of land or introduced land reforms (although land reform in Brazil needs to go much further).

• Finally, all have introduced basic social protection measures (although in Malawi and Ghana, which endured donor-imposed cuts in social spending in the 1990s, these are still at an early stage). ‘

And if you want to dig down a bit, each of the 29 countries gets its own scorecard.

November 13, 2009
Duncan Green