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close this bookThe Hunger Trap (WFP)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentUnderstanding hunger
View the documentHunger sets poverty traps
View the documentNo skills, no future
View the documentHunger makes poverty intergenerational
View the documentThe response of the World Food Programme

Hunger sets poverty traps

The 1996 World Food Summit considered it intolerable that more than 800 million people do not have enough food to meet their nutritional needs. [1] In local economies in which wealth and status come from the land, the disadvantaged households are typically land poor or landless. [2] 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. [3] 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. [4] And this trap can be cruel: hungry today, hungrier tomorrow, hungry forever.

[1] 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.
[2] World Bank 1990. World Development Report.
[3] 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.
[4] 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 [5] and, hence, depressed levels of ability to perform physical activity. [6] 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. [7]

[5] 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.

[6]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.

[7] 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. [8] 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. [9]

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. [10] Similarly, in a southern Philippine province, taller agricultural workers were found to earn higher wages. [11] 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 [12]and agricultural workers in South India, [13] 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. [14] These findings are highly compatible with the technical relationship between nutrition and physical productivity established in nutritional science.

[8] 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.

[9] 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 9, 251-87.

[10] Strauss, J. and D.Thomas 1955. Food, nutrition and economic development . Mimeograph. Department of Economics. Michigan State University.

[11] 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.

[12] Satyanarayana , K. et al. 1977. Body size and work output. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition No.30.

[13] Deolalikar, A.B.1988. Nutrition and labour productivity in agriculture: estimates for rural South India. In Review of Economics and Statistics. No 70.

[14] 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. [15] 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. [16]

[15] 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.

[16] 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 agriculture?

The answer to this question unfortunately appears to be "yes".

  • During the months of peak agricultural activity in a grain-surplus province in Zambia, the nutritional status of more than half of the adults declined to a level at which work capacity may have been impaired. Nearly all were from households whose food stocks finished early in the planting season. [17]

  • In the Zaria region in Nigeria, some households managed to increase their food consumption but not to a degree to meet the nutritional requirements of the peak workload. [18]

  • In Zambia, it was also found that non-availability of food stocks seriously limited the hiring of labour because food was a common mode of wage payment. Insufficient labour use curtailed both the extent of area planted to crops and the productivity that can be expected from a given area. If a 10 percent increase in food stocks were possible during peak labour demand, it may have resulted in a 3.5 percent increase in the aggregate output. [19]

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.

[17] Kumar, S.K. 1988. Effect of seasonal food shortages on agricultural production in Zambia. World Development. Volume 16 Number 9, 1051-65.

[18] 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.

[19] 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.