What progress has been made in tackling world hunger?

16 October 2015

The millennium development goal (MDG) commitment to halve the percentage of hungry people in the world, from 24% in 1990 to 12% in 2015, has very nearly been achieved. But the World Food Summit goal of halving the number of undernourished people globally, from one billion in 1990 to 500 million in 2015, has not been met. Around 800 million people remain undernourished. At national level, 72 of 129 countries monitored have reached the MDG target, but only 29 have also reached the more ambitious WFS goal.

Social protection

This partial success has coincided with the period when social protection arrived as an innovative addition to the development policy agenda. Chosen by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as this year’s theme for World Food Day, there is a growing consensus that social protection has to be at the heart of any efforts to reduce rural poverty and ensure access to food, or the means to buy food.

Social protection is a collection of policies and programmes designed to reduce poverty and vulnerability. Some interventions are essentially social safety nets, such as child benefits, pensions and disability grants. In South Africa, for instance, more than 11 million children in poor households receive a Child Support Grant equivalent to £16 a month. But social protection also includes support to small farmers, such as seasonal public employment schemes. In Ethiopia, 6-8 million food insecure people receive cash or food transfers for six months every year, mostly as wages for working on community infrastructure projects, but for free if they are unable to work.

Cash transfers such as South Africa’s Child Support Grant are given with no strings attached. But in many countries, especially in Latin America, they are often given with conditions. Conditional cash transfer programmes require children in poor households to attend school and health clinics before receiving the cash. Sometimes parents or caregivers are also required to attend nutrition education classes. The intention is to improve education, health and food security outcomes simultaneously for poor families.

Research across many countries has shown that cash transfers can have positive impacts on children’s nutrition, and that these impacts are most pronounced in disadvantaged areas. However, the findings are mixed. Many programmes record improvements in food security in terms of how many meals per day are consumed, but not always in nutritional status. One reason is that the causes of malnutrition are complex, and cash transfers delivered to poor households are small and are put to many uses, of which purchasing additional food is only one.

Scaling up social protection

The scale and coverage of social protection remains limited. Despite the increase of conditional and unconditional cash transfer programmes since 2000, the ILO estimates that only one-quarter of the world’s population currently has access to comprehensive social protection. Even large-scale programmes reach only a minority of the population in most countries, and the transfers delivered are often too small to meet even a family’s subsistence food needs.

It is significant, therefore, that unlike the MDGs, the sustainable development goals include social protection among their targets. They call explicitly for countries to implement social protection systems that reach and protect the poorest and most vulnerable individuals and communities by 2030. Some countries, such as Brazil, Indonesia and Mozambique, have promulgated social protection laws to make social protection comprehensive and rights-based. But most low-income countries only have fragmented projects that urgently need to be scaled up and coordinated into coherent national social protection systems.

Human rights have to underpin social protection

Food security cannot be guaranteed by cash transfers alone, but income security is one prerequisite for food security, and the mandate of social protection is to deliver income security for all. Well-designed social protection programmes, that are based on human rights, complemented by effective food security programmes (pdf), can make a powerful contribution towards realising the right to adequate food for all.

The SDGs and others need to aim for ‘inclusive social protection’, which is based on two principles: include everyone in social protection systems; and include rights in social protection systems. Bringing together the right to social protection with the right to food makes the effective eradication of hunger within the SDG era an achievable reality, for the first time in human history.

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