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World Hunger on the Rise Again

More crises and fewer donations from wealthy nations have combined to erase gains made in the 1990s, the United Nations reports.

October 16, 2002|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS -- Every year, about 6 million children under the age of 5 die as a result of hunger and malnutrition, says a U.N. study released Tuesday. That's as if all of California's children in that age group -- more than twice over -- starved to death.

The 2002 report on world hunger by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization says progress in slowing starvation has ground to a halt in many parts of the world. Military conflicts, droughts, floods and poverty, combined with a shortfall in donations from wealthy nations, all contribute to the increase in hunger.

Another U.N. agency that supplies emergency food aid, the World Food Program, reported last week that it is struggling because of a sudden increase in crises and a lack of contributions. The WFP has been forced to halt grain rations to North Korea and will only be able to meet 60% of needs in Afghanistan this year. A spokeswoman said the agency is unprepared for any new disasters -- such as a major rebuilding effort after a war in Iraq, which is already dependent on U.N. food aid.

"WFP is sounding the alarm. Never has our organization been confronted with such a great number of crises in the world with insufficient contributions from donor states to face them," said Christiane Berthiaume, the spokeswoman. "Other crises could come along. Iraq is a huge unknown."

While the WFP deals with food emergencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization tries to prevent them by creating programs for sustainable development. But disasters, both human-made and natural, have worked against their efforts in recent years. About 30 countries are facing exceptional crises, the FAO reports. The agency is appealing for an increase in contributions to its anti-hunger program, which stands at $24 billion a year, to meet the U.N. goal of halving world hunger by 2015.

"The question is not whether we can afford to invest the resources, the energy and political commitment required to fight hunger," wrote FAO Director General Jacques Diouf in the report. "Rather we must ask whether we can afford not to do so. The answer is we cannot."

The FAO's latest estimate from 1998 to 2000 put the number of undernourished people at 840 million -- roughly 15% of the world's people. After some progress in the 1990s, the rate has returned to levels of a decade ago.

About 799 million of those suffering from undernourishment live in developing countries. In the worst-affected nations, a newborn child can only expect to live until 38, compared with an average life expectancy of 70 years in the wealthiest countries.

Malnourishment makes children more susceptible to common illnesses that can quickly become killers. The four biggest causes of death among hungry children in developing countries are diarrhea, acute respiratory illness, malaria and measles, the report says.

While there have been some gains, most of them come from strong improvement in a handful of countries. In China, for instance, the number of people suffering from undernourishment declined by 74 million, said Charles Riemenschneider, the FAO's director for North America.

"The rest of the developing world, unfortunately, has seen an increase in the number of hungry people by about 50 million" since world leaders pledged at the World Food Summit six years ago to cut hunger in half by 2015, he said.

Sub-Saharan Africa continues to have both the greatest number of undernourished people and the largest increase in malnourishment, the report says. Most of the increase took place in Central Africa, mainly in war-torn Congo, where the number of undernourished people has tripled.

To more effectively reduce hunger, the FAO has outlined a program that would require a public investment of $24 billion a year, splitting the cost between industrialized and developing countries. The agency recommends combining sustainable development programs in rural areas with ways to improve access to food. FAO officials urged donors to think of contributions not as charity but as a long-term investment with a real payoff.

"Cutting the number of hungry people by half is not only a moral obligation, it is a good investment that will have solid economic returns for both the poor and rich," Riemenschneider said.

FAO estimates show that the global economic benefits of reducing hunger by half would amount to $120 billion a year as people have longer and more productive lives.

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