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close this bookFood and Nutrition Bulletin Volume 07, Number 1, 1985 (UNU, 1985, 80 pages)
close this folderRealistic approaches to world hunger
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View the documentRealistic approaches to world hunger: How can they be sustained?
View the documentRealistic approaches to world hunger: Public health measures
View the documentRealistic approaches to world hunger: Policy considerations

(introductory text...)

Realistic approaches to world hunger: How can they be sustained?
Realistic approaches to world hunger: Public health measures
Realistic approaches to world hunger: Policy considerations


The three papers that follow were presented as the opening lectures of a symposium held at Harvard University in the spring of 1984, sponsored jointly by the Overseas Development Network, Inc. (ODD), and its Harvard affiliate chapter, the Harvard-Radcliffe International Development Forum. Entitled "Realistic Approaches to World Hunger,'' the symposium brought together more than 20 speakers and 300 participants to discuss a wide range of development issues.

ODN is a collaborative network of student groups and concerned citizens who are interested in responding constructively to the problems of world hunger and poverty. Its three main programmes focus on linking campus groups with development projects overseas, educating people in the United States about international development, and acting as a clearinghouse for development opportunities in the United States and abroad.

ODN is unique in that it uses the energy and commitment of students to educate the broader public, as well as the students themselves, about the complexities and challenges facing developing countries.

For more information, write to ODN, PO Box 1430, Cambridge, Mass. 02138 USA.

Realistic approaches to world hunger: How can they be sustained?

C. Peter Timmer
Harvard Business School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

We are searching for realistic approaches to solving the problems of poverty and hunger. What can an economist contribute to this search? Economists are, by their very nature and training, interested in incremental change-not in revolutionary or even structural change. There are two elements to realistic approaches. The first might be called "hunger action." What can we do now? We know the food is available. The world's farmers produce enough food, if evenly distributed, to provide 3,500 calories per capita per day throughout the world. Yet hundreds of millions of people do not get enough to eat. The estimates vary from 400 million to 1,200 million, but no matter what, the number is large.

How is a connection established between food availability and productivity of the globe and hundreds of millions of the hungry? It is certainly understandable that many people concerned about hunger become frustrated with trying to affect these problems at the level of government policy where programmes are developed that work through an economic structure that seems to do little to remove the inequalities in the system. The temptation is to turn to the local level and intervene where there may be an impact.

While there can be an impact at the local level, there is, however, a second aspect to realistic approaches to world hunger-the sustainability of the issue. If progress is made at the individual level, at the village level, in reaching people to generate social mobilization and cause the ferment at the local level, how do the problems stay solved? Several societies have, in effect, opened the granary and turned the food over to the poor, only to discover that they did not have the capacity to refill the granary. How does one build the productive base in the economy to continue to provide jobs, incomes, and enough food to refill the granaries?

Most governments must deal with significant tension between how these problems are solved in the short run and how the solution can be sustained. Only if those tensions are understood can they be resolved.

It is also necessary to distinguish between what is feasible in an ideal world and what is sustainable in the world in which we actually live. Should we be devoting our attentions to changing the world, to making it a more desirable and equitable place in which to live, or should we be devoting our energies to solving the problems in the world as it exists? Bertrand Russell said that all sane people adapt to the realities of the world. Only insane people try to change the world. So all improvements for mankind come from insane people.

I hope Russell's dictum is not true, because the approach I am about to present is one that takes the world as it is and strives for incremental change-to chip away at these problems at the margin. It is, if you like, the approach of a neoclassical economist to the problem of world hunger. I want to focus on changes in government policy that are complementary to the more local and individual-oriented approaches.

It is well recognized that the problem of hunger cannot be solved without solving the problem of poverty, and it is only in the context of government policy that we can solve the problem of poverty. There are major difficulties in designing policy so that it facilitates the more direct efforts at the local level to deal with the problem of hunger. But one approach is to focus the government's efforts on its food policy. The only sustainable solution to hunger is to eliminate poverty, and the historical record shows that the only way to do this is to have a healthy and dynamic food economy.

The problem of poverty and hunger will not be solved in any country by redistributing the existing resources. That might be a temporary fix, but it is not a long term solution. Two countries-China and Sri Lanka-are very clear examples of this point. Both discovered that their short-run policies that made food free or readily available to everybody succeeded in reducing infant mortality, increasing life expectancy, and achieving the most equitable distribution of food resources of any two low-income countries in the world. But both countries discovered that they could not sustain massive subsidies on the basis of an economy that was stagnating. When 30 per cent of the national budget is devoted to food subsidies-an amount larger than education, defence, and health combined-it points to major problems that the government is having in devising appropriate policies for its food sector.

To relieve the strain on the government budget, each country has introduced massive changes in the structure of the economy, changes that have recreated significant problems of equitable access to food As China and Sri Lanka show, these problems cannot be solved only by short-term measures. They come back to haunt.

Resources must be put into the food sector. It must be made to grow, in an equitable fashion, and rapid overall economic growth must be fostered. The production side of the food equation cannot be ignored, partly because of population growth and partly because diets will change if poverty is successfully eliminated. Higher incomes bring improved quality of diets, particularly more meat in the diet, which requires far more grain. A healthier food production sector is also needed because that is where much of the world's poverty is. It is where most of the world's productive jobs can be created in the next 10, 20, or 30 years. If agriculture is neglected, so is poverty.

Why is the food economy so important to the elimination of poverty? Because pumping purchasing power into the rural economy is the best and fastest way to redress some of the important inequities in income distribution around the world. But food production does not need to be increased by 10 per cent for rural incomes to rise by 10 per cent. Governments can do it much more quickly and maybe even more efficiently than that, given the characteristic biases that exist around the world against the rural sector. Raise the prices, pay the farmers more, and pay them what their production is worth in terms of the opportunity costs of the resources that it takes to produce it. But what will happen to the 10 million people in 20 different cities in the world cited by Joseph [in the following article] who depend on cheap food if farmers are paid what food is really worth? They will be in nutritional trouble, and that is why targeted food subsidies must also be designed to reach poor consumers. Food subsidies must be targeted by using food stamps or ration shops because food cannot be subsidized for the entire economy or the nation will go bankrupt, which will certainly not solve the problem of poverty.

The food sector must be seriously considered because of its links to economic development. Economic history records no examples of countries that have grown and become rich that did not undergo a revolution in agriculture that made fundamental changes in the productivity of their agricultural sectors. The ultimate success of agricultural development is a shrinking agricultural sector. This involves a structural transformation of the economy that reduces agriculture to a smaller share of economic activity. But a country cannot leap-frog economic history and reduce agriculture to a diminished share by neglecting it and declaring that the country is modern, prosperous, and rich. It simply does not work that way. It must be done the hard way.

What are the elements of a healthy food economy? Initiatives to assure adequate food consumption are a start. Agricultural development strategies in the past 20 years have neglected the consequences of those strategies for food consumption. Agricultural development is by its nature a long-term process. It takes at least 10 years to develop the research base. It takes 20 years to develop an agriculture where farmers respond quickly to both price signals and new opportunities and invest in productive inputs. In the interim, hunger remains a problem that can only be dealt with through sensible and affordable food subsidies.

Second, a production strategy is essential. The farm sector cannot be ignored because there is plenty of PL 480 food grain available {US Public Law 480, Title II, the "Food for Peace" programme). Food aid has served as a significant disincentive to many Third World countries to structure their priorities for the rural sector. The ready availability of food aid takes the heat off. The possibilities of massive new food aid initiatives is worrisome. All of the very painful lessons learned in the mid-1970s may be undone: the rural sector must not be neglected.

The third element in a healthy food economy is attention to the marketing system. Markets in socialist and capitalist countries alike play critical roles. Markets provide the most efficient vehicle for conveying signals to farmers and consumers. From a market perspective, high prices for food are good. Why? Because they indicate that a deficit exists; they provide a signal to the farmer to produce more and a signal to the consumer to restrict and substitute something else. By the same token, low prices reflect a surplus; they are good because they say the commodity is available in abundance. They indicate that society should not be putting its scarce resources into expanded production, and that it is fine for consumers to use more of it. Agriculture is one of the least stable industries in the entire economy, with frequent swings from surplus to deficit. The marketing system provides both the signals that adjustments are needed and the channels for finding substitute end uses or commodities.

But when prices rise or fall, where is the burden of adjustment? Who adjusts? At an individual level, it is the poor in a free market economy who have to pay the price of adjustment. Rich people do not change their food consumption patterns when prices change. It is the poor who are forced to adjust. At the international level, it is the poor countries that must adjust when there is global scarcity or surplus. Japan and the European Community are two of the most irresponsible in the world food system. Why? Because they do not adjust. The amount of their imports remains just about the same, no matter what the world price or global availabilities. They continue to export no matter whether the world is in surplus or deficit.

The burden of adjustment is on consumers in poor countries and in the United States, which still more or less operates a free price system. Adjustments to market signals are important because the instability is real. The policy question is: Who has to pay the burden of that adjustment? It is much better to have rich US consumers adjusting through their meat consumption than it is to have consumers in Bangladesh forced to adjust their caloric intake when grain supplies are scarce. It would be even better if rich consumers in Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union were also adjusting.

The fourth element of a healthy food economy is the macro-economic setting. There are almost no success stories in rural development in the context of a hostile macro-economic environment. It is not the Minister of Agriculture who determines whether agricultural development is successful. The Minister of Finance and the Chairman of the Central Bank have the responsibility for foreign exchange rates, interest rates, minimum wage policies, the elements of macro-economic policy, budget allocations, and inflation. Those are the keys to rapid growth in agriculture because such growth happens only in a commercial environment-the marketing links between the macro-economy and the rural community are very powerful.

At one level we need to understand, from the history of development, some of the things that do and do not work in food policy. Not enough is known about household decision-making. Most countries do not trust the millions of farmers and the millions of consumers to make decisions in their own best interests. Government officials of most countries-including the United States, European countries, Japan, certainly the Soviet Union and China, and most of the Third World - want to tell their citizens what to grow and how to grow it, what to eat and when, and where to get it. They would like to command the economy to the extent possible because then they would be able to know the outcome. To rely on the results of choices made by tens of millions of individual decision-makers appears risky. All those people cannot be trusted to behave appropriately unless the government has a clear under standing of how farmers and consumers react to changes in prices, taxes, or subsidies, to new technology, or to a new feeding programme at the local school. If how people will respond can be predicted, policies can reach millions. Otherwise, regulation must be at the local level, and that is both inefficient and counter productive.

At another level, the failures and successes of our own policy experiments must be understood-an inherently analytical task. Why did a project work in Sri Lanka when it did not work in the Gambia? Why did Indonesia's macropolicy have a rural orientation when Kenya's did not? It is especially important to an economist to analyse the successes and the failures, because many of us still believe in Adam Smith and the invisible hand guiding individual decision-makers to social welfare. But there is no such invisible hand leading policy-makers to find right policies. If anything, the odds are against finding a good policy unless the analysis has been done to evaluate past policies to determine what is going to work.

The many "ideal" solutions are not appropriate for this paper. The most realistic answers are not new. Ways must be found to create productive jobs. Ways must be found to create price incentives for food production by farmers. Governments need to change priorities for public investment in agricultural productivity-all the way from local research stations and irrigation networks to roads and communications and markets. This requires discerning how to implement and target food subsidies for the poor and being prepared to maintain these food interventions for the long term, not just for a short period. We have learned from economic history that even rich countries have hungry people and that they need food interventions to reach them.

In a Third World context, a policy debate must focus on food prices because food prices are simultaneously the incentives to farmers and the cost to consumers. These countries directly face the dilemma between keeping prices low for poor consumers and keeping them high to increase the incomes of farmers and generate employment and industry in rural areas. That dilemma is difficult to reconcile, but learning how to resolve it involves a debate about food prices. Putting food prices on the policy agenda is the critical issue.

Food aid is a real economic resource, and countries need real economic resources in order to grow. They need capital investment and the jobs and the infrastructure that flow from it. But what is unique about the food in food aid, apart from its dollar value? Most of the benefit of food aid comes from the transfer of financial resources, not because of the food component in food aid.

Other forms of financial assistance can also be a valuable resource to developing countries-loans through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other development agencies. But these loans often come with conditions attached-the lenders do want their money back, usually with interest. The conditions of the loans usually address economic policy and management issues that lie at the core of national sovereignty. One of the reasons countries so fervently resist the conditions imposed on them by donors is that donors frequently do not understand the actual impact those policies will have in the particular circumstances of the country under consideration. Conditionally urging countries to adopt "sensible" policies is not new; it is not a product of the 1980s. It has been with us for at least two decades. It is a bit sobering to realize that what were thought to be the right answers for these countries 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and 5 years ago are now on the scrap heap of intellectual ideas about development. Consequently, the demands placed on the countries that are receiving assistance should be modest. What is needed is understanding of the individual circumstances and what the actual impact of a policy change will be. In almost no countries in the future will financial aid be large enough or important enough for a country to change its own priorities about what counts in development. That is not the same thing as saying that they should not listen to the World Bank or other agencies about the kinds of policies that might help, because comparative perspective and good analysis are essential.

In addition to productive jobs, rural price incentives, and financial resources, international trade is extremely important for providing the economic base for eliminating poverty. International trade provides signals to the domestic economy, and for the long term it provides comparative advantage-the opportunity to specialize. An economy that is not able to produce something cheaply enough to be competitive in world markets cannot grow because it cannot raise labour productivity. The only way to raise labour productivity is through specialization in trade, and very few countries are big enough not to have that trade cross the borders. To trade across borders a country must be competitive. A country cannot subsidize its foreign trade over the long run, and thus it has to find ways of trading efficiently.

Foreign assistance in building analytical capacity is important because helping countries understand the nature of their own problems is absolutely critical. Universities are crucial to this process, but not all the learning can take place in classrooms. This approach rejects ideology and tries to find things that will really make a difference through direct individual involvement and commitment by working at the grass roots. That is what most of us can do: work at the grass roots. If by doing so we can help a village to grow and reach up to that food system that is reaching down towards it, then something real will have been accomplished. It is establishing that link between the rural economy, the village economy, and the households that is important. If a policy environment that fosters that link is not established, then grass roots efforts will produce only local and isolated successes. A sustainable solution to hunger requires both.

Realistic approaches to world hunger: Public health measures

Stephen C. Joseph
Special Co-ordinator, Child Health and Survival, UNICEF, United Nations, New York

In addressing the topic "Realistic Approaches to World Hunger," I will begin with a brief assessment of "hunger," or rather estimates of world-wide malnutrition as it currently exists, attempt some perspective regarding the major determinants that will influence the prevalence of malnutrition over the next 15 to 20 years, and then outline a series of actions to mitigate the situation, actions that I believe are within the grasp of the world community. I choose the word "mitigate" quite deliberately. In attempting this perspective of realism I do not believe that we will see an end to high-prevalence, endemic malnutrition in the foreseeable future, certainly not by the end of this century. Somewhat to the contrary, I believe that we must mount major efforts so that we do not see an increase in both chronic and acute malnutrition, especially in Africa and parts of South Asia.

The global estimates of malnutrition among the most vulnerable groups, children under five years of age and women, are numbers so large as to be more numbing than sobering:

- About 40 per cent of all children under five in developing countries, some 125 million children, are stunted from chronic protein-energy malnutrition.

- About 12 per cent, some 40 million children, are wasted from acute protein-energy malnutrition.

- Over 20 per cent of all infants born in developing countries, some 17 million annually, are low-birth-weight infants, most of whom reflect inadequate maternal nutrition and health.

- Half of all women of child-bearing age in developing countries, some 220 million, have nutritional anaemias.

- Little is known in detail about the prevalence and consequences of chronic undernutrition of women and mothers in developing countries, but the prevalence of mild to moderate malnutrition among these women may be nearly as high as among their infants. As argued in a US National Academy of Sciences report of 1983, research into the epidemiology, effects, and means of combating malnutrition among these women and mothers ought to have a very high priority on our international research agenda.

Related synergistically to these figures are the estimates of prevalence of infectious diseases, for it is the vicious combinations of repeated infections (Particularly gastrointestinal, respiratory, and, especially in Africa, malarial) that exacerbate, and are in turn exacerbated by, malnutrition. I will discuss this in more detail later.

Without question, the common root cause of malnutrition is poverty: poverty associated with inequity in land tenure and rural credit; poverty associated with urban unemployment; poverty associated with rural isolation; poverty associated with denial of economic and educational opportunities for women; poverty associated with ignorance and lack of education regarding optimal use of available food resources. {However, we should be careful about too easily "blaming the victims" for their lack of education. It is not often the rich or the powerful who are hungry).

While acute crop failures or massive natural or man-made disasters can spread hunger and malnutrition widely across class and income lines, the problem of endemic hunger and malnutrition, which most concerns us here, is one inextricably linked to the seamless web of rural and urban poverty in the Third World. Thus, in any examination of the prospects for reducing endemic malnutrition, we must ask, "What are the prospects for reducing endemic poverty?"

Especially when we leave the somewhat artificial global scale and move down through regions, countries, and the communities where people actually live, the prospects for reducing poverty seem decidedly mixed. Some areas and countries of Asia and South and Central America have shown significant progress, even though there are major discrepancies and large pockets of poverty within most of these countries. Along with increased purchasing power or alternative forms of equity, major advances in agricultural production, and improved transportation and communications systems, nutritional status has improved significantly in recent decades in a number of these countries. Examples include South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, Cuba, and of course China.

In the decade 1970-1980, per capita food production in the developing countries rose approximately 0.5 per cent, as it had in the preceding decade. But this figure was an amalgam of a 0.9 per cent rise in middle-income countries (in many cases accompanied by somewhat improved distribution within countries) and a negative trend, a decrease of 0 3 per cent in low-income countries. In Africa, low agricultural productivity and high rates of population growth yielded a per capita decrease in food production of more than 1 per cent. The vast masses of South Asia, including many millions of landless labourers, saw no per capita food production increase in the last decade, and, l suspect, very little or no actual per capita consumption increase, certainly not among the poorest, such as the landless laborers of Bangladesh and the urban masses in Karachi or Calcutta.

Surely there are reasonable prospects for second- and even third-generation "Green Revolutions" to increase agricultural production possibilities on a large scale. But before we view new varieties of genetically engineered food crops as a panacea for world hunger, we had best, this time, cast a careful eye on the equity and distribution possibilities, and the effects on the rural agricultural labour force and the urban poor.

At this point, I must at least mention the effects of continued high rates of population growth on the food production-food consumption-malnutrition equation. The world is on its way to a population of some 6,000 million in the year 2000, from 2,500 million in 1950 and some 4,500 million today. The projected world population by the year 2100 is 11,000 million. If we disaggregate these figures, some 5,000 million of the 6,000 million global inhabitants of the year 2000 will be in the developing countries, and over 2,000 million of these in the low-income developing countries [excluding another 1,000 million in China).

Looked at in other ways, Bangladesh, which had an area population of 40 million in 1950, has more than 90 million today and will have a population of over 150 million in the year 2000. Kenya, with a current annual population growth rate of almost 3.5 per cent, and a current population of 17 million, would have an ultimate steady-state population of 54 million even if-and this seems a rather unlikely "if"-replacement-level fertility is achieved in the year 2000. What are the prospects for increased equity and distribution in countries such as Bangladesh and Kenya under these conditions of population pressure?

The urban areas of developing countries, even in Africa, are now beginning to account for a greater share of population growth than the rural areas. Governments, for their own survival, have to feed these urban populations, and have often done so to date by agricultural and food-pricing policies that decrease incentives for the rural small-holder What will the equity and employment patterns be in the 20 or so Third World cities that will each have populations of more than 10 million inhabitants by the year 2000, and the scores of other cities of more than a million population?

I will end this rather gloomy assessment concerning medium-term future prospects for easing world hunger via improved equity, and thus via decreasing poverty, by sketching two other factors.

The first has to do with disasters and food crisis situations. It is true that the world community, and the internal infrastructure of many countries, have evolved monitoring and response capabilities so that food disasters, especially those based on crop failures, are less likely to occur, and can be better contained and dealt with when they do occur. But disasters, both natural and man-made, will continue to arise, especially in Africa-as witness the current acute food crisis in a score of countries in western and southern Africa and in the Horn. Furthermore, these crises are likely to occur in the very countries least able to cope with them and most difficult to reach with effective and absorbable external assistance. Moreover, these crises are increasingly likely to be not only "natural" in origin and course, but to be mired in local and international economic, political, and military struggles. Though my major topic relates to endemic and long-term themes, any "realistic" approach to world hunger must make allowance for the sure-to-arise disaster and food crisis food situations. Again, these will be an especially important feature of the African hunger context over the coming years.

Up to this point, I have hardly mentioned bilateral or multilateral external assistance, food aid, economic development assistance, and the like. I am sure that, over the next 20 years, more effective means of external assistance will be devised-whether food transfers, monetization of food aid, or other forms of food entitlement. These will, no doubt, be useful in combating world hunger. But on the major question, the use of external bilateral and multilateral instruments to build a global economic order of significantly greater equity (within as well as among countries), l am rather pessimistic, at least as far into the next 15 to 20 years as I can see. A realistic approach to world hunger will use external assistance creatively for what progress it can offer, but will need to place its major emphasis somewhere else.

It is on this "somewhere else" that I will spend the rest of this presentation. In contrast to the pessimistic tone of the foregoing assessment, l believe that there are two major trends under way, the accentuation of which gives us the possibility of mitigating, but not eliminating, the worst effects of endemic malnutrition.

Both of these trends are more about people, families, and communities than they are about governments, international organizations, and institutions. Both are really more about ideas than about things, though they rely on things and institutions for their actualization. These two trends are closely interrelated. I have in mind, of course, the global trend towards increased economic and social mobility of women and the global prospects for rapid and major reduction of infant and early childhood mortality. In my view, the existing and accelerating changes in the roles and status of women, a trend taking place on a global basis but at varying rates in different societies, offer one of the most direct and powerful approaches to improved child health and to improved child nutrition.

Virtually every study that has examined variables associated with improvements in child health, and (not coincidentally) with reductions in high fertility rates, has found female literacy to be at or near the top of the list of associated factors Female literacy is itself a surrogate for a host of other social and economic variables that together can powerfully influence the quality of nurturing available to the dependent infant and young child.

It is important to stress that improvements in the social and educational status of women are, by themselves, only partial measures. Attention to increased economic opportunity, especially in the modern sector, forms the other vital part. Greater control over personal and household finances is as important in societies where women have traditionally had cloistered roles as it is in those societies such as in much of sub-Saharan Africa where women have major responsibilities as primary agricultural producers In the latter setting, working with local women's farm cooperatives and making improved credit and relevant agricultural extension support available can have significant direct and indirect benefits for the health and nutritional status of the entire family, and most importantly the woman and her children.

Meaningful income-generating activities and literacy would seem to be among the most powerful levers for social change, and doubly so when combined. A major problem does arise here, especially in urban areas in the Third World, where women are moving increasingly into the cash economy and yet living in poverty in unsanitary environments and in settings of high risks of infectious disease. How, in these settings, can women increase their social and economic mobility while continuing to provide critical protection and nurturing functions for their children? This is particularly so where traditional extended family structures are no longer available. This dilemma, difficult enough for the working mother in an affluent country, is often of life and death significance in Third World settings. Beyond the comments that I will make later concerning public policy support for working mothers, I have few detailed solutions to offer on this point, which seems to be one of the most pressing problems in social development.

Women's health and nutrition and children's health and nutrition in the Third World are very closely related. Mothers could significantly improve their own nutritional status and that of their children, even without a major increase in the total amounts of food available in most communities or most countries, if they had three factors: (al improved literacy rates, (b) increased income-generating and income-controlling capacity, and (c) increased confidence in their own abilities to deal with external events and processes. The third factor is, of course, highly dependent on the first two. I shall return to this important factor of confidence at the end of this paper, as I suspect it may be the most important of all.

What can we do to assist this trend of increased social and economic mobility of women? In addition to adherence to the concept, I would suggest four lines of action for international and local organizations:

The first is to fill in the many blanks in our knowledge. For example, how are decisions made at the household level in a given society-decisions that affect the health and nutritional status of those most at risk? What are the positive and negative beliefs and practices that determine the quality of nurturing? If we understood better, society by society, the factors that cause some families to function effectively with regard to health and nutrition, often in spite of quite limited resources, we would understand better how to avert and to redress the situation where families, and particularly mothers, are unable to maintain adequate family health and nutrition.

Second is to provide direct programme support to activities designed to improve the economic and social status of women, giving special emphasis to combined efforts that might offer synergistic benefits.

Third is to explore all avenues of public policy that bear on the question. For example, it does little good to exhort working mothers to breast-feed, even if family and health advisers are supportive, if employment and maternity leave legislation, availability of child care, adequate transportation for mother and child, and other similar factors all work against the ability of the mother who has made the choice to actually carry it out.

Fourth, national and international agencies should attempt to increase the number of women in positions of professional, managerial, and political responsibility at all levels from local to global.

I turn now to the issue of infant and early childhood infectious disease mortality and morbidity and its relationship to malnutrition. In the practice of paediatrics and public health in a developing country, the first thing to do is let go of one of the basic precepts taught in the Western medical curriculum: the one that seeks a single, unifying diagnosis for all of a patient's symptoms. Patients, especially children, in the Third World have multiple, repeated illness of diverse aetiologies, and chief among them are the repeated infections that grind down a child's nutritional status in the first two years of life.

A typical child in a developing country may well have five or more significant bouts of diarrhoea per year, often beginning at about six months of age (earlier if the infant is not breast-fed), and a similar number of significant respiratory infections, not including the major threats of whooping cough (its incidence is difficult to define, but case fatality rates probably approach 2 per cent), and measles (with a virtually 100 per cent incidence in unimmunized children, and a case fatality rate that may be as high as 5 per cent and has even been over 20 per cent in local studies of epidemics and in acute malnutrition settings).

The above list of obstacles to survival does not include neonatal tetanus, which accounts for 1 to 1.5 million deaths per year in developing countries, nor the ravages of malaria - another 1 to 2 million early childhood deaths annually, especially, but not exclusively, among African children.

The most important feature of this pattern-particularly the diarrhoea and respiratory infections-is that the infections occur in relentless repetition in the first two years of life, most often in children whose protein and energy intakes are inadequate or barely adequate for normal growth, and most often during the period when children are nutritionally most vulnerable. The infections create a further nutritional drain, and the downward spiral of nutritional status leaves the child less able to defend against the next round of infection.

Thus, while we say that 15 to 20 million children under five years of age die each year in developing countries and estimate that five million of them die "from" diarrhoea and a roughly equivalent number "from" respiratory infections, the majority of these children actually succumb to a progression of infection and malnutrition that is synergistic, cumulative, and in many cases entirely preventable.

My own most vivid memory of this was an 11-month-old boy who was a measles patient on my hospital ward in Cameroon. Apart from his measles, he appeared to be in reasonable shape, the usual low haemoglobin, chronic malaria, and intestinal parasites excepted. He survived his measles pneumonia, and we discharged him. Less than three weeks later he was back, with full-blown kwashiorkor and a week's history of diarrhoea. He did not survive that second hospitalization. What did he die of? Measles? Diarrhoea? Malnutrition?

One recent study in the Gambia described a measles epidemic with a case-fatality rate of about 5 per cent. But in the nine months following "recovery" from their measles, another 10 per cent of the children died, compared to a death rate of only 1 per cent among children who had not had measles.

There are a series of relatively low-cost, mass-scale health measures that not only can prevent most of these deaths, but also have a major impact on malnutrition-both directly and indirectly. Immunization can prevent death, disability, and nutritional drain from measles and whooping cough, as well as avert death and disability from tetanus, diphtheria, polio, and tuberculosis. Immunization protection against these six diseases for all children (and, in the case of tetanus, their mothers) would cost about US$3-5 per child, with the cost of the vaccines themselves being less than US$1.

Oral rehydration to combat the dehydration of diarrhoea, whether through a pre-packaged sugar-salt solution or by a "home brew" that mothers can be taught to make using commonly available materials, is appropriate and adequate therapy for 80 to 90 per cent of cases of diarrhoea and also can intervene in the downward spiral of infection and malnutrition. It costs less than 25 cents to treat an episode of infant diarrhoea with the packaged mix.

Breast-feeding, safe and nutritious weaning practices, and growth monitoring as an early-warning system that alerts mothers and health workers to growth faltering have obvious direct potential for improving the nutritional status of children, in addition to the anti-infective and child-spacing properties of breast-feeding. A growth chart that the mother can keep at home, and that will serve as a health record for the child for five years, costs less than 10 cents. Safe and nutritious weaning foods can be produced locally out of materials available in the village.

These relatively simple, appropriate technologies exist, and UNICEF is doing its best, along with WHO and many others, to spread their application. We estimate that, if very broadly applied throughout the developing world, these measures could save up to one-half of the annual infant and early childhood deaths. In addition, they would have a very major impact on the nutritional status of those children who survived-an impact quite possibly greater than that currently achieved by those more direct nutrition and food transfer mechanisms now within our power.

But these technologies, by themselves, are not likely to reach and affect the hundreds of millions of children in need. Primary health care infrastructures need to be expanded, or brought into being in those many areas where they do not now exist, to help carry and spread these efforts. Reliance on the health system-even a more relevant health system-will not, in the foreseeable future, be able to do the job. It is clear that we must use all available channels, well beyond the traditional reach of the government service organizations, if these efforts to improve child survival and nutritional status are to have anywhere near maximum possible effect.

The keys to developing and utilizing these multiple channels are two: mass communications and social mobilization. Through the use of traditional and contemporary forms of local communication and mass media, parents can become active in using or seeking the kinds of measures discussed above. Social mobilization at the community, national, and even international level can increase awareness of available services, improve the relevance and quality of those services, and advocate their extension and further development. Perhaps not least, social mobilization has a confidence-building effect.

Through the application of these low-cost relevant technologies by emphasizing mass communications and social mobilization, especially if combined with efforts to improve female literacy and to enhance family planning demand and supply, we at UNICEF believe that a major reduction in infant and early childhood mortality and morbidity-directly linked to nutritional status-should be rapidly brought about. The confidence gained by parents in seeing their children survive and thrive as a result of their efforts is likely to be the most persuasive incentive for, and in many societies a necessary prerequisite to, widespread choices for family planning and reduction of fertility rates.

How does this all sum up? My emphasis has been on those things that depend very much on what people can do for themselves. There is no doubt that world hunger is a fundamentally structural issue with deep roots in the international political and economic orders. Of course, attention to restructuring these orders, and attention to large-scale questions of food assistance, increased agricultural production, and economic development is required if we are to see an end to endemic hunger and malnutrition.

This paper is not an attempt at a technological "quick fix." Quite to the contrary, the approach is really centred on ideas, on the empowerment of people to believe that they actually can do better by and for themselves and their children. This comes back to the confidence factor mentioned earlier. This is, perhaps, the factor currently most lacking on all sides of the development equation. Some may say, "You cannot eat confidence," and that is undoubtedly true. My response is that both local and global structural changes are unlikely to be brought into being without there first being that elusive confidence quotient. What I have tried to describe are ways that people can see that they can alter the nutritional and survival prospects of their children, by their own efforts, using relatively simple means that could actually be at their own disposal with, as they say, "a little help from their friends."

Realistic approaches to world hunger: Policy considerations

Nevin S. Scrimshaw
Institute Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

By World Bank estimates there are at least 800 million persons in developing countries whose dietary energy intake limits their physical activity (1), and by WHO estimates an additional 300 million children whose growth and development are retarded and who are at risk of increased morbidity and mortality (2). It is common for those concerned with agricultural research to suggest that the application of even existing knowledge to the production of greater amounts of food will eliminate food shortages and thereby hunger. Those responsible for food aid seem to believe that the answer to the chronic hunger of the lower income populations of developing countries is to supply food.

A realistic approach to world hunger requires first a realistic appraisal of its causes. No approach based on increasing the availability of food alone will be more than marginally effective. While important to relieve genuine food emergencies associated with the effects of war, civil disturbances, and natural disasters, food aid may be counterproductive when used as a substitute for national efforts to improve food production and distribution.

Poor people are hungry or malnourished either because they are not able to obtain sufficient food of the right kind or because they are not sufficiently knowledgeable as to the nature and importance of an adequate diet. If malnutrition is to be corrected, it must ultimately be through measures affecting these two factors. There are of course a variety of social, economic, and demographic determinants that function as intervening variables. The multiplicity of these ensures that no single programme or intervention will by itself eliminate hunger and malnutrition. To do this requires concurrently an adequate food supply, sufficient means for those in need to acquire it, appropriate intra-household distribution and utilization of food resources, and, because of their adverse effects on nutritional status, prevention of those infectious diseases that can be controlled.

This paper will try to identify feasible, cost-effective measures that will help to achieve these goals. Those interventions associated with nutrition and health activities, with food and agricultural measures, and with political and social actions will be considered in turn. First, however, the nature of the nutrition problems to be overcome should be clearly identified.

Nature of the Nutrition Problems to Be Addressed

Although the causes are multiple and complex, the final nutritional consequences are easy to identify and, from a public health point of view, limited in number. They are as follows.

Protein-Calorie Malnutrition in Young Children

Among the lower-income populations of developing countries, children tend to be born at a low birth weight and with reduced nutrient reserves because their mothers are poorly nourished. Nearly all are breast-fed and do well during the first few months, but by four to six months of age breast milk is no longer sufficient and growth begins to falter. Concurrently, resistance to infection is reduced by malnutrition and the child is increasingly exposed to diarrhoeal and other infectious diseases that further worsen nutritional status. If timely and appropriate complementary feeding is not introduced, morbidity and mortality are high. Failure to correct this early malnutrition can have permanently adverse consequences for both physical and mental development. As judged by early growth failure, nearly two-thirds of the children in many developing country populations suffer some degree of protein-calorie malnutrition.

In some populations, particularly in urban areas, the need of the mother to work, imitation of the more affluent, misguided advice from health workers, and commercial promotion of bottle-feeding have reduced the duration and even frequency of breast-feeding, with highly adverse health consequences. When breast-feeding is abandoned early and the food given is grossly inadequate, the result is nutritional marasmus, a form of slow starvation. Another complication when the supplementary food is mainly carbohydrate and infection is superimposed is kwashiorkor.

Chronic Energy Deficiency

The significance of the low per capita caloric intake of most developing country populations has only recently been fully appreciated. In order to survive, individuals in such populations must reduce their discretionary activities, including those important to family welfare and community development, and/or the energy expended on work. For children, reduced physical activity means less of the stimulation necessary for normal cognitive development.

Iron Deficiency

It is now recognized that iron deficiency is the most widespread nutrient deficiency in the world, affecting about two-thirds of the populations of most developing countries, with about one-third of these manifesting iron deficiency anaemia. Because there are functionally important iron-dependent compounds in the reticuloendothelial system, brain, and muscle, the consequences are reduced resistance to infection, increased morbidity and mortality, impairment of some cognitive functions, reduced physical capacity, and diminished work performance.

Iodine Deficiency Diseases (IDD)

Iodine deficiency, manifested by thyroid enlargement or endemic goitre, is still widespread in many countries. While it is responsible for only a small number of cases of cretinism, characterized by dwarfism and feeblemindedness, it causes lesser amounts of damage, including deaf-mutism and various degrees of mental impairment, in a much larger number of persons.

Vitamin Deficiencies

The only vitamin deficiency that is still of major public health importance is avitaminosis-A. In some developing countries it is responsible for dryness of the conjunctive (xerophthalmia), softening of the cornea (keratomalacia), and blindness. Fortunately, the classic vitamin deficiency diseases of beriberi, pellagra, and scurvy have virtually disappeared, and anaemia due to folic acid deficiency is of minor significance compared with that caused by iron deficiency.

Food and Agricultural Measures

In general, food is available to meet effective demand, i.e., the food that someone will pay for. Apart from disasters, food shortages occur when there are no funds to pay for more food if it is produced or when prices are so naturally or artificially depressed by government policies that producing more food is not profitable. Poor price policies can negate the benefits of land reform.

Agricultural research and extension help by making it possible to produce food more efficiently. They can help the economic status of farmers who accept improved agricultural technologies, but they cannot overcome the problem of lack of purchasing power of the remainder of the population. This will require measures that are beyond the role of the agricultural sector per se, ones that will improve land distribution and tenure, reduce social inequities, and alleviate poverty. They will be discussed below.

Nutritional and Health Measures

WHO and UNICEF have identified a package of activities that are affordable and of demonstrated effectiveness in preventing most malnutrition and its consequences in young children. These include the use of growth charts and measures to control infection.

Growth Charts

The best way of detecting when breast milk must be complemented by other foods and when the weaning diet is inadequate is periodic weighing of the young child and use of a growth chart. Experience has shown that even illiterate mothers can understand the significance of an increase or decrease in weight from one weighing to the next. If falloff in growth is detected early, only minor adjustment in the distribution of the family diet is needed to halt it and prevent its consequences. Weighing programmes conducted within the home or village should be the cornerstone of any programme to reduce childhood malnutrition. They are worthless, however, if not accompanied by their effective use to indicate to the mother when the child must be given more or better food or brought to the health centre because of infection. This requires the capacity to carry nutrition and health education directly to mothers.

Control of Infection

Infections worsen nutritional status by causing reduced nutrient intake and absorption and increasing both external and internal metabolic losses. Conversely, even moderate degrees of malnutrition reduce resistance to infection. The interaction is mutually reinforcing and is responsible not only for most clinic malnutrition but also for most of the excessive infant and preschool mortality in developing countries, whether ascribed to nutritional or to infectious disease. There are a number of specific measures that, by reducing infectious disease, will reduce malnutrition.

Since the most common infection among young children is diarrhoeal disease, the promotion of ample water supplies and measures to improve environmental and personal hygiene become measures to combat malnutrition. So is immunization against the common communicable diseases of childhood, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, and poliomyelitis.

Measures to Increase Social Equity

It is increasingly evident that the key to improved nutritional and health status of populations is greater social equity that leads to greater ability to obtain food. This may be achieved in a number of ways:

Access to Agricultural Land and Services

A family that has access to land can grow all or part of its own food. As populations increase, plots may become too small to divide further. The result is an increase in landless labourers and migration to urban areas. The former may mean only seasonal employment and the latter chronic underemployment, with the result in either case, undernutrition.

In some developing countries the land tenure system is so inequitable as to guarantee a permanent underprivileged and undernourished class. With 2 per cent of the population controlling 80 per cent of the agricultural land, El Salvador has had the largest proportion of landless agricultural labourers of any country in the world, and yet the forces dominating successive governments have been totally resistant to any kind of land reform, including the most recent US-backed land reform effort that is stalled with little progress. The situation is little better in neighbouring Guatemala. Yet other countries, such as Egypt, Peru, and Taiwan and, much earlier, Mexico, have managed to carry out far-reaching programmes to increase small farm holdings and limit the size of large farms. It is generally agreed that elimination of rural poverty and hunger will require overcoming the extreme inequities in land distribution that characterize many developing countries.

Increased Income for Food Purchases

For those without land, government actions are required that will improve their purchasing power, such as minimum wage laws and price controls targeted to the poor. Other measures, such as import and export policies and industrial development policies, can have a profound effect on local employment prospects and income available for food purchases.


The concept is that everyone is entitled to food and shelter, and those who are too poor to achieve this should be helped. The two principal ways of doing so are food subsidies and income supplements. In Egypt subsidized bread is a major factor in preventing severe undernutrition. Subsidies are of value if they can be targeted to those who are most needy. Fair-price shops in the Asian subcontinent have been moderately successful in doing this. Food stamps, as income supplements, can be effective if the logistic and administrative problems can be overcome, although this is a large "if" for most developing countries.

Is It Realistic to Believe That Hunger Can Be Eliminated from Developing Countries by the Year 2000?

It is realistic to state that hunger can be eliminated by the year 2000 but not that it will be eliminated. There is ample evidence that it can be done. Some developing countries in extremely unfavourable situations have made notable progress in applying the needed measures and in eliminating hunger and malnutrition as public health problems.

China, with a cultivatable land area no greater than that of India, has managed successfully to feed a population nearly half again as large and extend health services to them. Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore are doing well; and a number of other countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, and Peru, are making good, if somewhat uneven, progress. Egypt, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, despite recent setbacks in several of these countries, are fully capable of achieving the Alma Ata goals for primary health care, including the elimination of hunger and malnutrition by the year 2000.

Recognition should be given to the success of both Cuba and Costa Rica in correcting long-standing inequities and achieving enviable nutritional and health records. Data for the latter are given in table 1. In the early 1950s infant and preschool mortalities were high in Costa Rica, the degree of growth retardation of preschool children was the same as in the highlands of Guatemala, and both kwashiorkor and marasmus were hyperendemic. As recently as 1966, 14 per cent of the preschool children experienced second- and third- degree malnutrition by the Gomez classification. By 1982 it was less than 5 per cent, and both infant morbidity and mortality in one- to four-year-old children had dropped to the same range as in Europe and North America, with avitaminosis-A and endemic goitre eliminated as public health problems. Yet this occurred with economic resources proportionately less than in the other Central American countries where infant and preschool mortality rates have remained high and even increased. Land tenure inequities remain a problem, but the consequences are mitigated by the other social policies.

The difference in every one of these examples was political commitment, a government that, regardless of its ideological base, cared about its people and gave a high budget priority to education and health, particularly that of mothers and young children. It was government policies that targeted goods and services including health, nutrition, housing, environmental sanitation, education, and welfare activities, to the most deprived population groups. The provision of such social services became part of a dynamic process of redistribution of national income. These policies also encouraged the small farmer with agricultural extension, credits, and access to the necessary inputs of seed, fertilizer, and pesticides. With political will dramatic changes can be brought about in only a few years.

It is noteworthy that Chile and Cuba, with governments that are now poles apart, both have excellent systems of primary health care and good vital statistics. Nicaragua is placing the same emphasis on social services as Costa Rica despite the differences in form of government. China can be considered the political opposite of Taiwan and Singapore, yet with comparable health records. Turning from the successes to the failures, we find a similar diversity of political systems, with one common characteristic - protection of the status quo for the elite or the vigorous pursuit of becoming a new elite, i.e., the acquisition of economic and social privilege without regard for the welfare of the whole population. There is no question that at the present time hunger and malnutrition, poverty and social inequity, land distribution, and food availability are becoming worse in a number of countries as the direct result of the ineptness, corruption, or policies in support of an elite minority. In these countries the policies of national and multinational companies often contribute to the problems.

Many of the countries of Africa are in this sad situation as well as several in Latin America. Without a change in government policies nutrition and health in these countries will not improve and may even grow worse.

TABLE 1. Changes in Some Maternal and Infant Indicators in Costa Rica


% Change

  1960 1970 1980 1960-1970 1970-1980
Literacy, % 84.4 88.4 90.1 +5 +2
Attending school, 18-23 years, % 4.0 11.0 21.0 +175 +91
Birth rate per 1,000 48.3 33.2 31.2 -31 -6
Global fecundity, children 7.3 4.9 3.7 -33 -24
Newborns < 2.5 kg, % 12.5 9.1 7.0 - 27 - 23
Deliveries in hospitals, % 50.0 71.2 90.7 +42 +27
Mortality per 1,000
maternal* 1.4 1.1 0.3 -21 -72
infant 68.6 61.5 19.1 - 10 -69
neonatal 23.3 25.2 11.2 +8 -55

* Pregnancy, delivery, postpartum.

What Industrialized Countries Can Do

The criterion should be only convincing and continuing evidence that their assistance will benefit the population as a whole. One way to free such US assistance from national politics and selfish interests is to offer it through international channels. WHO and UNICEF are, in general, effective agencies for improving the nutrition and health of populations with concern for national policies but not politics. The World Bank and its associated international lending agencies have the greatest leverage in persuading governments to adopt sound economic policies that will benefit their populations. The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme are also directly concerned with alleviating food problems, and the education programmes of Unesco make a contribution.

The United Nations University is strengthening the capacity of institutions in developing countries to provide needed research, advanced training, and advisory services in food and nutrition. It does this through provision of fellowships for advanced training and supporting applied research.

A number of other effective activities of the UN system are beyond the scope of this discussion. Currently, some of the best assistance in agricultural research and its application is coming from the international agricultural research institutes organized under the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. These are located in the Philippines, India, Peru, Syria, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mexico, and Colombia. Each institute specializes in a different combination of crops and ecological conditions. The Institute for Food Policy Research in Washington, D.C., is also part of this system. The Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center in Taiwan contributes in a similar manner.

For health, the Institute for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh is an international institution making important contributions, as is the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP) in Guatemala.

There are also a number of non-governmental organizations that are making important contributions. Through their demonstration projects that place emphasis on community participation and community development, they often have an influence on government policy and the thinking of government officials out of proportion to the modest scope of their projects and resources. Oxfam and the Save-the-Children Fund are two that have focused effectively on self-help activities and health. So have some of the activities of the Catholic Relief Services, the Friends Service Committee, and the Unitarian Service Committee.

The largest part of US government assistance over the years has been provided as food aid. The original Food for Peace Program had as its primary purpose the disposal of troublesome food surpluses in a way that was politically attractive within the United States. Only gradually has the altruistic component of US food aid received genuine, as distinguished from rhetorical, attention. This came about as food surpluses decreased and decisions to continue food aid required a different rationale. During much of the period the largest proportion of food aid has been allotted on the basis of "strategic considerations" rather than need.

The problem with food aid is not only that it tends to be shaped to the political and economic interests of the donor country, but also that the foreign exchange support it generates is all too often used for inequitable urban-based development strategies and for the purchase of armaments. The long-term result is a deleterious impact on the nutrition of the poor.

The availability of massive amounts of subsidized grain from the United States in the 1960s enabled India to neglect its rural sector in favour of heavy industry and urban development. When relationships between India and the United States changed and India began to pay attention to its rural sector, its subsequent ability to meet its food needs and to establish adequate reserves within only a few years seemed miraculous. Bangladesh, dismissed as a "basket case" in the 1960s and early 1970s, achieved remarkable progress in domestic food production with a change in government policy in the late 1970s. The conclusion is that food aid should be limited to genuine short-term emergencies, to improvement of agricultural infrastructure and production, and to strengthening health services for mothers and young children.

Apart from temporary relief of populations suffering from natural or man-made disasters, the objective of all assistance for overcoming hunger and malnutrition should be to improve both the degree of self-sufficiency of a country in food production and the equity of its food distribution. We have seen an evolution in concepts because so much of development assistance has not achieved the expected benefits for the lower socio-economic groups of developing countries.

It became evident that the benefits of economic development will not "trickle down" to the masses sufficiently to prevent growing hardship and unrest. Hope was then placed on measures to create a so-called "new economic and social order." it became the position of the majority of developing countries that massive transfers of resources from the industrialized countries to the developing ones must take place along with major economic concessions. There seems little merit in debating this issue here because it is simply not going to occur on a scale sufficient to change the nature of developing country problems. Instead, it is increasingly recognized that the countries must help themselves through people-oriented development.

As indicated above, it is the countries that are prepared to undertake such development that can be helped and that should receive generous support from the United States and other industrialized countries and the international system. Governments unwilling or unable to make a commitment of this kind should not be given external financial support. However, such countries should not be written off. They can still be helped on a project-by-project basis, particularly with those projects that are at the community level. In fact, such assistance can often provide examples and improve the climate for needed changes in government policies. In this kind of assistance, the international and voluntary agencies can be highly effective and deserve strong support.


It is realistic to contemplate the elimination of hunger and malnutrition if and when governments adopt social, economic, agricultural, educational, and health policies that have enabled countries with a wide range of political systems to achieve this goal in a surprisingly short time. It can be anticipated that an increasing number of countries will adopt this course so that both the proportion and absolute number of hungry and malnourished people will be reduced by the end of the century. The encouragement and assistance that international, bilateral, and voluntary agencies can provide will make a critical difference.


1. S. Reutlinger and H. Alderman, "The Prevalence of Calorie-Deficient Diets in Developing Countries," World Bank Staff Working Paper No. 374, (World Bank, Washington, D.C., 1980).

2. "Infant and Young Child Nutrition," report by the Director General of WHO to the World Health Assembly (Document WHA36/1983/7, 15 March 1983).