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Most Countries Making Slow Progress Resolving World Hunger Crisis


Two new surveys reflect the state of global poverty and suggest steps to alleviate the burden of hunger and malnutrition in the developing world, where the problems are most acute. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.

One in seven people in the world go to bed hungry according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

That's 854 million people around the globe, including 150 million children under the age of five.

In 2000, leaders from 189 countries adopted a United Nations plan to cut extreme poverty and hunger. The U.N. Millennium Development goals aimed, by 2015, to cut hunger in half and child mortality by two-thirds.

To assess progress in this quest, the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute [IFPRI] uses a measure it calls the Global Hunger Index. It was developed by IFPRI researcher Doris Wiesmann, who says the Index shows that Latin America, the Caribbean and East Asia are on track toward reaching the U.N.'s hunger and child mortality goals. "We see Cuba on the top of the list. Of course we should not forget [that] in the early 1990s this country plunged into a crisis after the Soviet Union subsidies were withdrawn, but subsequently recovered."

Uruguay, Peru and the Fiji Islands have also done relatively well, but according to the Index most countries will not reach the U.N. Millennium targets if progress continues at current rates. Nine of the ten countries with the highest levels of hunger are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi have experienced the greatest setbacks followed by Swaziland, Liberia and North Korea. "We know these countries have been heavily involved in conflict for most of this time, which contributes to malnourishment."

Other factors like poverty complicate the picture. Wiesmann says breaking that cycle requires investments in agriculture and education, economic empowerment and available health care services for women. "For example, if mothers are undernourished and suffer from anemia," she notes, "it is likely that children (will be) born with low birth weights and have a bad start in life."

Wiesmann hopes the Global Hunger Index will help wealthy countries design more targeted foreign aid programs. She says the measure can also be a tool for government decision-makers and local community activists. "In Malawi, the journalists have interviewed ministers of agriculture and economic planning referring to the fact that Malawi didn't rank very well. So they were asking the government what they intended to do to improve the situation."

The impact of wealthy nations' policies on the world's poor is evident in another important measure called the Commitment to Development Index, published by the Center for Global Development, a Washington-based think tank. On policies ranging from foreign aid, immigration, investment, and trade to the environment, security and technology, the annual survey ranks 21 rich nations on how their policies impact poor countries.

David Roodman developed the survey. He says scoring adjusts for size, leveling the playing field for large and small nations. "The Netherlands comes in first and close behind are Denmark, Finland and Sweden. These Nordics [northern European countries] all do well in no small part because they give a lot of aid for their size."

The United States ranked 14th, in part because U.S. foreign aid totals are low as a percentage of the nation's budget. On environmental development, Roodman says, the index puts the U.S. in last place. "The United States is one of the largest emitters per person of greenhouse gases in the world." But he adds, "It is places like Bangladesh, Egypt and Vietnam that will suffer if sea level rises because millions and millions of people could be flooded out of their homes in low lying areas." He says, "Agricultural output in Indian could go down by 40 percent because of the combination of higher temperatures and lower rainfall creating essentially a dust bowl in the southern part of the country."

Roodman says there is ample room for improvement even among those at the top of the list. "The Netherlands is only about average in four of the seven policy areas that we look at." This he says is an important reminder. "Even the best could do a lot better and of course that means that all the countries could do a lot better."

Roodman hopes the Commitment to Development Index will generate increased awareness among decision-makers and the public in wealthy countries that their policies have a direct impact on the world's poor.