|The Hunger Trap (WFP)|
The 1996 World Food Summit considered it intolerable that more
than 800 million people do not have enough food to meet their nutritional needs.
 In local economies in which wealth and status come from the land, the
disadvantaged households are typically land poor or landless.  A study by the
International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) indicates that there are
more than 324 million landless people in 64 developing countries; the
"near-landless", who in most countries far outnumber the landless, are
not included in this estimate.  In fact, the bulk of today's poor consists of
landless and near-landless people.
The landless and near-landless have to sell their labour to earn a
living. The amount of work they can do and how much they produce determine their
standard of living.
Often, employers prefer not to employ the undernourished. Those
who do not find work or have to work for meagre wages become hungrier, which
makes it more difficult for them to find work at a later time. This is how
hunger lays a poverty trap.  And this trap can be cruel: hungry today,
hungrier tomorrow, hungry forever.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 1996.
The World Food Summit: Rome Declaration on World Food Security and World
Food Summit Plan of Action . Rome.
 World Bank 1990. World Development Report.
 Jazairy, I, M. Alamjir and T. Panuccio 1992. The State of World Rural Poverty: An Inquiry into its Causes and Consequences. International Fund for Agricultural Development, New York University Press.
 See, Partha Dasgupta 1995. Nutritional Status, the Capacity to Work and Poverty Traps . Mimeograph. University of Cambridge.
Hunger stifles work capacity
From a nutritional perspective, physical work capacity can be
defined as the maximum work per unit of time someone is capable of doing. People
who are undernourished -- as reflected by inadequate physical growth in both
height and weight -- tend to suffer from depressed levels of maximal oxygen
uptake  and, hence, depressed levels of ability to perform physical
activity.  In addition, hunger has psychological effects: it takes away
motivation and breeds hopelessness. The net impact of these effects is low work
capacity and low productivity.
The relationship between nutritional status and physical work
capacity is valid within any community or ethnic group. The relevant question is
whether a well-nourished person in a given community has greater work
capacity than an undernourished counterpart in the same community. This is a key
developmental question because of the observation that adults and children from
disadvantaged areas of developing countries are considerably smaller than
upper-class adults and children from the same countries. 
 See, Dasgupta, ibid . There are several technical ways of
measuring a person's physical work capacity. The most compelling indirect
measure is a person's maximal oxygen uptake, usually denoted as VO 2
max. VO 2 max measures cardio-respiratory fitness; the higher its
value, the greater is the capacity of the body to convert energy in the tissues
into work. This capacity depends on the (metabolically) active tissue mass,
which is very nearly the same as muscle cell mass. Of two people with the same
body mass index, the taller person typically possesses greater muscle cell mass;
so his VO 2 max is higher. Broadly then, taller and heavier,
non-obese people have greater physical work capacity.
Spurr, G.B. 1990. The impact of chronic undernutrition on
physical work capacity and daily energy expenditure. In G.A.Harrison and
J.C.Waterlow (eds) Diet and Disease in Traditional and Developing Countries.
Cambridge University press. Cambridge.
 Martorell., R. 1985. Child retardation: a discussion of its causes and its relationship to health. In K.Blaxter and J.C.Waterlow (eds) Nutritional Adaptation in Man . John Libbey. London.
Low nutrition, low incomes
Many studies have examined how physical productivity of labour
and, thereby, incomes are related to nutritional status. For example,
significant determinants of the tonnage of sugarcane delivered by Colombian
sugarcane cutters were workers'height, weight and lean body mass.  The
stature of Guatemalan labourers appears to influence the amount of coffee beans
picked per day, the amount of sugarcane cut and loaded, and the time taken to
weed a given area. 
Since the well-nourished tend to be more productive, they also
tend to receive a better income for their work. Among Brazilian workers, a
strong correlation has been observed between their height and the wages they
received.  Similarly, in a southern Philippine province, taller agricultural
workers were found to earn higher wages.  These observations on the link
between height and wages are very important because for adults height is a given
condition. Insufficient growth in height (stunting) is a reflection of
past undernutrition; hunger (and infections) in early childhood result in
stunting, which in adulthood often brings about substantial income losses.
Current nutritional status (as reflected in the weight of a
person) is also important for productivity and wages. Among factory workers in
India and agricultural workers in South India,  weight-for-height was
found to be an important indicator of productivity and wages. In rural Sri
Lanka, workers with higher calorie consumption tended to receive higher wages.
 These findings are highly compatible with the technical relationship
between nutrition and physical productivity established in nutritional science.
 Spur, G.B. 1990. The impact of chronic undernutrition on
physical work capacity and daily energy expenditure. In G.A. Harrison and
J.C. Waterlow (eds). Diet and disease in traditional and developing
countries. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
 Immink, M.D.C. and F.E.Viterie 1981. Energy intake and
productivity of Guatemalan sugarcane cutter: an empirical test of the efficiency
wage hypothesis , Parts I and II. Journal of Development Economics
 Strauss, J. and D.Thomas 1955. Food, nutrition and
economic development . Mimeograph. Department of Economics. Michigan State
 Haddard, L.J. and H.E.Bouis 1991. The Impact of
Nutritional Status on Agricultural Productivity: Wage Evidence from the
Philippines. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics . Vol.53, No 1.
 Satyanarayana , K. et al. 1977. Body size and work
output. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition No.30.
 Deolalikar, A.B.1988. Nutrition and labour productivity in
agriculture: estimates for rural South India. In Review of Economics and
Statistics. No 70.
 Sahn, D. and H.Alderman 1988. The effects of human capital
on wages, and the determination of labour supply in a developing country.
Journal of Development Economics 29 157-183. North Holland.
With surplus labour - hunger denies employment
Do the hungry have a chance of being employed if labour markets
are functioning well? When there is surplus labour in a competitive market, wage
rates may go down, allowing more labour to be employed. However, wage reductions
do not go on indefinitely. There may be an "efficiency wage" below
which wages may not drop.  This is the wage level that will help workers to
get an amount of food that will give them enough energy to produce the output
expected by employers. In jobs where physical energy is important, the likely
persons to be excluded are the already undernourished poor. They will not be
able to provide the quality of labour required at the going wage rates.
Those who cannot find wage employment in regular labour markets do
not perish. They somehow survive, and that is one reason why their hunger
problems do not receive sufficient attention. The poor try in many ways to
assure their survival -- living off the ""commons", such as
forests in rural areas, depending on friends and relations, or even resorting to
begging. Their nutritional situation continues to deteriorate, however, removing
even the slightest chances of their entering a competitive labour market. Hunger
has trapped them, perhaps, forever.
Are the poor lazy? A combination of long-standing factors --
low-energy intake, undernourishment and also behavioural adaptations to conserve
energy -- result in lethargy, which is often misunderstood as laziness.
This relationship between hunger, lethargy and poverty is not just
a theoretical construct. History provides evidence of its existence. Nobel
laureate Robert W. Fogel, in his trail-blazing analysis of economic history,
estimated that at about the time of the Industrial Revolution, the poorest 20
percent of the population of England and France subsisted on diets of such
low-energy content that they were effectively excluded from the labour force.
Many of them lacked the energy even for a few hours of strolling. And this
appeared to be the principal factor explaining why beggars constituted as much
as a fifth of the population. 
 Several have proposed or tested this concept. See Rogers, G.
1975. Nutritionally based wage determination in the low-income labour market.
Oxford Economic Papers 27, 61-81; Mirrlees, J.A. 1975. A pure theory of
underdevelopd economies. In L.Reynolds (ed ) Agriculture in development
theory. Yale University Press. New Haven; Stiglitz, J.E. 1976. The
efficiency-wage hypothesis, surplus labour and the distribution of incomes in
LDCs. In Oxford Economic Papers 28, 185-207 ; Bliss, C.J. and
N.H.Stern 1978 . Productivity, wages and nutrition: theory and observations.
In Journal of Development Economics 5, 331-98; Dasgupta, P. and
D.Ray 1986 . Inequality as a determinant of malnutrition and unemployment:
theory. In Economic Journal 96, 1011-34 ; Dasgupta,P and D.Ray
1987 . Inequality as a determinant of malnutrition and unemployment: policy.
In Economic Journal 97, 177-88.
 Fogel, R.W. 1994. Economic growth, population theory, and
physiology: the bearing of long-term processes on the making of economic policy.
American Economic Review 95, 369-95.
With scarce labour - hunger denies employment
The link between hunger, productivity, and poverty is relevant not only in labour-surplus poor countries, such as those in Asia. It is also relevant in labour-scarce poor countries, such as those in Africa.
In most of rural Africa, agriculture is the main source of both
the supply of and the demand for food. Seasonal food shortages are a common
phenomenon, especially in areas with unimodal rainfall and little or no dry
season cultivation. A key question arises: do seasonal food shortages constrain
agricultural production by limiting the quantity and quality of labour input in
The answer to this question unfortunately appears to be
The links between labour, hunger, and employment make a strong case for targeted food assistance to help the poor achieve food security and self-reliance.
 Kumar, S.K. 1988. Effect of seasonal food shortages on
agricultural production in Zambia. World Development. Volume 16 Number 9,
 Simmons, E.B. 1981. A case study in food production, sale
and distribution. In Robert Chambers et al. (eds), Seasonal Dimensions
to Rural Poverty . Frances Pinter: London.
 Kumar, S.K. 1988. Consequences of deforestation for women
s time allocation, agricultural production, and nutrition in hill areas of
Nepal. International Food Policy Research Institute. Research Report No.
69. Washington D.C.