When the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization released new world hunger estimates
earlier this month, which showed a drop in the number of malnourished, at least one person took issue with the stats. William Easterly, NYU economics professor and author of White Man’s Burden
, wrote a rather pointed post on aidwatchers.com
that implied that the numbers were “made-up”:
“The FAO reports that the number of hungry people fell from 1.02 billion in 2008 to 925 million in 2009. That’s very good news, unless it didn’t happen. … How did the FAO come up with a number for 2009, when the World Development Indicators (WDI) of the World Bank are only reporting malnutrition numbers up through 2008? … Is there any possibility that political pressure surrounding the hunger Millennium Development Goal (MDG) led to the creation of numbers based on the alternative methodology known as ‘wild guesses’?”
Ouch. Easterly ends by saying, “Perhaps the FAO has very good answers for these questions,” but you get the feeling that he doesn’t expect the FAO to respond.
“Dear Professor Easterly,
“I am a leader of the technical team in FAO responsible for publication of the State of Food Insecurity in the World, which reports FAO’s estimates of undernourishment every year. I would like to clarify the methodology behind the recently reported estimates of undernourishment …”
Dawe’s letter goes on to do just that, convincingly. And in case any readers missed the masterful way in which he dismantled Easterly’s suggestive questions, Dawe concludes by politely thanking Easterly, as if he were a petulant freshman asking questions out of his depth. Then Dawe writes: “In addition, I will invite you to present a seminar at FAO so that we can benefit from your insights on this issue.”
Anybody want to place bets on whether Easterly will show?
While the estimated number of hungry worldwide in 2006 hovered near the 1970 level of about 875,000 people (there was a significant dip from the 1970 to the mid-1990s, but then a rebound), the number of hungry has skyrocketed in recent years to more than 1 billion, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
While the absolute numbers of hungry fluctuated a bit over the past few decades, the percentage of people who are undernourished has consistently declined since 1970. Until now. In 1970, the rate stood at about 24 percent of total world population, according to the FAO; by 2006, that number had fallen to about 13 percent. But by 2009 the estimated percentage had risen for the first time in decades to about 15 percent.
The reason for this uptick? Again according to the FAO, rising commodity and food prices between 2006 and 2008 that resulted in food crises in several developing countries, followed closely by the global economic meltdown.
Will these numbers continue to rise? What events–drought, flooding, etc.–have influenced commodity food prices this year?
**Side note for future discussion: What is the difference between “chronically hungry,” “malnourished” and “undernourished”? The FAO seems to use them all interchangeably, in a report about that claims to look at “food insecurity.”