|The Hunger Trap (WFP)|
Hunger causes poverty by denying its victims opportunities to
enhance their lives. It debilitates people physically, physiologically and
psychologically. Those who are weakened by hunger find themselves trapped in a
vicious cycle of hunger-poverty-hunger.
Once a household falls into the hunger trap, escape is difficult
even if an improved overall economic environment offers new opportunities.
Hunger and poverty are thus assured for future generations.
The world's hungry poor need help to break out of this vicious
cycle and enter main- stream development for self-reliant growth. For many, this
help is most useful when it comes in the form of well-targeted food assistance.
Such assistance is an investment in the future.
The relationship between hunger and poverty is often
First, there is the notion that hunger is only a
result of poverty. This notion ignores the reality that for most of the hungry
poor, hunger itself is a cause of poverty. Hunger is a constraint to
their economic and social development. Hunger and poverty have a two-way
relationship. They feed off each other. Ignoring this relationship can lead to
inappropriate or inadequate policy responses to the problems of hunger and
Second, it is often said that the most abundant asset the
poor have is their labour, which they can use to earn a living. However, if
hunger means that their potential labour power is ineffective, the poor do not
really have an asset and will thus remain trapped in hunger and poverty.
Third, assistance to the hungry is often viewed, wrongly,
as a mere consumption expenditure. If hunger is a constraint to the development
of the poor, its removal is certainly an investment in building self-reliance.
For the abjectly poor, the daily struggle of finding food for the family pushes
aside any consideration of long-term development. Food assistance can provide a
minimum level of short-term food security that is an essential first step to
move the hungry poor onto paths of self-reliance. Hunger is the first
threshold to cross on the way out of poverty.
Fourth, economic growth that provides lasting benefits to
the poor is the surest path to sustainable poverty alleviation. However, for a
large number of the hungry poor, there can be no growth without first overcoming
today's hunger. These people cannot wait until nutritional benefits trickle down
from tomorrow's macro-economic growth. And even if economies grow, the hungry
poor are the worst-placed to take advantage of it.
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.
Do the hungry poor have any other developmental chance, say, by
acquiring skills for self-employment or working for a salary in jobs that do not
demand strenuous physical labour?
Gaining new skills or enhancing existing skills improves the
prospects for increasing incomes whether the skills are in the farm sector or
non-farm sector: skilled labour is paid more than unskilled labour and
additionally, skills make self-employment possible. When small farmers have to
adopt new technology to increase crop productivity, those with some education
will be among the first to do so. Many migrate to cities to escape from rural
poverty; of these, those with some education and skills are likely to have
better chances of improving their economic condition.
Hunger obstructs education
Learning new skills or improving existing skills becomes easier
with basic education. There are clear demonstrations that providing education is
one of the surest ways of relieving poverty. A major multinational study
estimated the private returns to primary and secondary education to be 49
percent and 27 percent, respectively. These investments were valuable for the
society as well as the individuals. They returned 27 percent on primary
education and about 17 percent on secondary education to the society through
increases in productivity. 
But can the hungry poor benefit from education programmes?
Little girls, who must contribute to the struggle to provide food
for the family, do not go to school, and hungry listless children do not learn
well even if they do go to school. Hungry children cannot concentrate and
assimilate knowledge. Thus, hunger robs children of the benefits of education.
It seals their poverty well into adulthood and beyond.
 Tilak, J.B.G. 1989. Education and its relation to economic
growth, poverty and income distribution. World Bank Discussion Paper Number
46. World Bank. Washington D.C.
Hunger denies women empowerment
Seven out of ten of the world's poor are women or girls, so a
focus on women is essentially a focus on the poorest. Moreover, there is strong
evidence that empowering women is the surest way to rapid poverty reduction.
Research has shown that increasing women's education and skills and improving
their nutritional level lead to higher incomes and greater food security for
their households. 
Many countries now have programmes especially geared to the
empowerment of women. These include literacy programmes as well as programmes
for providing skills and training and social group formation. To make use of
these, however, the poor have to invest their time.
The hungry poor cannot afford to invest their time with the hope
of having better future incomes. They put almost all of their household labour
and time into activities that earn their daily bread. Poor women play key roles
in all aspects of food security, food production, and nutritional security. For
example, rural women in Nepal spend between eight and 10 hours per day
supporting agricultural production , collecting fuel, leaf fodder, grass and
water, and processing and cooking food.  The situation is the same or even
worse in the case of rural women in most parts of Africa.
Women from hungry households simply cannot participate in
empowerment programmes. Hunger robs them of their opportunities to move away
 Quisumbing, A.R., L.R.Brown, H.S.Feldstein, L.Haddad and C.Pena 1995.
Women: The Key to Food Security. Food Policy Report. International Food
Policy Research Institute. Washington D.C.
 Kumar, S.K. ibid.
In households facing continuing hunger, babies in mothers'wombs,
the newborn and young children do not receive adequate nutrition. This results
in inadequate development of physical and mental capacities of the new
A physically and mentally weak new generation is doomed to
continue being hungry. It will have no chance of escaping from poverty. Poverty
stays because hunger has made it dynastic.
Hungry mother, hungry child
A hungry mother is the first link. What maternal malnutrition can
do to a child is devastating. It is a virtual guarantee of low birthweight,
stunted growth, susceptibility to disease, and, too often, intellectual
impairment. Mothers with small physical stature, who themselves have been
victims of hunger and poverty, tend to give birth to small babies. Why this
happens may be due to nutritional reasons (insufficient nutrition to the foetus)
or physiological reasons (growth potential of a foetus may be constrained in a
small woman). Whatever the reason, the relationship between maternal size and
birth-weight is strong and consistent. 
Low-birthweight babies begin life disadvantaged. The potential
damage from being born undernourished is compounded when further
undernourishment occurs during infancy and early childhood. The first taste of
poverty for a newborn is the scanty milk that comes from a malnourished mother.
An anaemic mother has neither the quality nor the quantity of breast milk needed
to help a low-birthweight baby. Early weaning is the usual way out but this puts
the child at severe risk of infections and disease.  Without breastmilk, an
infant's immune system does not develop properly. The infant becomes prone to
such diseases as malaria, respiratory tract infections and pneumonia. A hungry
mother means not just a hungry child but a sick and hungry child.
 Martorell, R. 1995. Promoting Healthy Growth: Rationale
and Benefits. In Per Pinstrup Andersen et al (eds). Child Growth and
Nutrition in Developing Countries. Priorities for Action. Cornell
University Press. New York. Ch. 2, 15-31.
 Mahalanabis, D. 1991. Breast-feeding and Vitamin A
deficiency among children attending diarrhoea treatment centre in Bangladesh.
British Medical Journal 303:493-96; Worthington-Roberts, B. 1990.
Maternal iron deficiency and pregnancy outcomes. In C.O. Enwonmu (ed
) The Functional Significance of Iron Deficiency. Meharry College .
Nashville, TN: 45-70.
Hungry child, hungry adult
Protein-energy malnutrition during the early stages of a child's
life can lead to permanent impairment of central nervous system functions.
Iodine deficiency in utero and iron deficiency during infancy may even
also cause permanent neurological damage. 
A person's physical work capacity is determined by his entire
nutritional history. Early nutrition and the extent of freedom from infections
leave a deep imprint. Resources permitting, some catch-up growth may occur
during later childhood or adolescence, but this process is slow and often
How an adult recognizes, thinks about and reacts, both mentally
and physically, to situations is primarily fashioned by the degree of childhood
development of cognitive and motor capacity. Such development is seriously
affected by undernutrition, both of energy and nutrients. Studies from
developing countries and developed countries as well have shown that treating
undernutrition during early stages of life can enhance motor and mental
development.  Such treatment would also reduce the differences in cognitive
development due to high and low socio-economic class. Malnutrition and
infections also do not allow proper school achievement by children; they affect
cognitive processes such as attention and concentration. There is evidence that
children who suffer from nutritional deficiencies and infections perform badly
in aptitude tests. 
Undernourished children adopt behavioural patterns to conserve
energy. These leave an imprint on the capacity to work in adulthood. Reduced
physical activity is a first natural response to low energy intake. If small
children are inactive and slow-moving, sleeping or lying down most of the time,
these are not demonstrations of ""laziness" but reflections of
behavioural adaptation to hunger. Inactive children with retarded growth do not
make productive adults.
The price that undernourished children will have to pay is low
productivity and low earning ability as adults. Almost always, this price is
 Fogel, R.W. 1992. Second thoughts on the European escape
from hunger: famines, chronic malnutrition and mortality. In S.Osmani (ed)
Poverty, Undernutrition and Living Standards . Oxford University Press.
 Pollit, E. et al. 1993. Early supplementary feeding and cognition: effects over two decades . In Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development . No 235. 58 (7).
 Pollit, E. 1990. Malnutrition and Infection in the Classroom . UNESCO. Paris.
Hungry households, hungry children
For children and mothers, the impact of inadequate food at the
household level is compounded by intra-household inequities in food
distribution. Often their food requirements receive a lower priority relative to
the food needs of the more physically productive adults. Adults in assetless
households, who seek wage employment, cannot find work easily unless they have
enough nutrition to perform satisfactorily for employers. Hence, unequal food
distribution in the household becomes a necessary evil.
A study of poor households in the Central Province of Sri Lanka
observed that infants and children began receiving their required amounts of
food only after the total food availability in the household was sufficient to
ensure a minimum of 1800 calories per day per working adult.  Without a
preference for the breadwinners, the very survival of poor households may be at
 Edirisinghe, N. 1986. The Food Stamp Scheme in Sri Lanka: Costs,
Benefits, and Options for Modification. International Food Policy Research
Institute. Research Report No. 58. Washington D.C.
Hunger has a long arm that reaches from childhood to adult life and even to
the generations that follow.
What can be done?
Food aid is a key instrument that can help remove the poverty
traps that hunger causes. The World Food Programme (WFP), the food aid arm of
the United Nations system, focuses on hungry poor households for whom food aid
is an effective means of assuring both relief from their present hunger and help
in their efforts to move out of poverty.
WFP helps build assets and promotes self-reliance of poor people.
WFP also supports human resource development.
WFP works to prevent the transfer of poverty to future
The poor deserve a developmental chance; the first step is to relieve them of their hunger .