Poverty, conflict and political instability caused some billion people to go hungry this year, many of them children in Africa and Asia, according to the Global Hunger Index report released Monday.
Out of 122 countries included in the annual report, 25 have “alarming” levels of hunger and four countries in Africa have “extremely alarming” hunger, said the report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe.
The results did not surprise researchers, who pointed to data by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that found the overall number of hungry people surpassed one billion in 2009, even though it decreased to 925 million in 2010.
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The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) fared the worst in the hunger index, which is based on data from 2003-2008.
“Protracted civil conflict since the late 1990s led to an economic collapse, massive displacements of people and a chronic state of food insecurity” in the DRC, the report said.
“Food availability and access deteriorated as food production levels dropped, and remote areas became even more isolated as a consequence of very poor infrastructure.”
Three quarters of the population in the vast central African country is under-nourished, and the DRC also has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world.
The proportion of undernourished people and the child mortality rate in each country studied were among two of the three factors used to compile the index.
The third, the prevalence of underweight children, is the most important to address when trying to wrestle down hunger in a country because it accounts for nearly half the global hunger score, said report co-author Marie Ruel, director of IFPRI’s Poverty, Health and Nutrition division.
“In order to improve their hunger index, countries have to accelerate efforts to reduce child under-nutrition,” with a particular focus on the 1,000 days from conception to the age of two, Ruel told reporters.
“Those 1,000 days… are a key time because damage done by under-nutrition in early life is largely irreversible.”
Tom Arnold, CEO of Concern Worldwide, noted that if a child is not properly nourished during that period, there is “absolutely cast-iron, empirical proof” it will have “profound” long-term consequences.
“That is ultimately going to have an impact on a country’s capacity to grow economically and socially in the future,” he added.
The index ranked countries on a 100-point scale, with zero being the best score — no hunger — and 100 being the worst. A score higher than 20 indicated “alarming” levels of hunger and above 30, “extremely alarming” hunger.
The DRC was the only country in this year’s index with a score above 40.
The other three countries with extremely alarming hunger levels were Burundi, Eritrea and Chad. All have been involved in simmering or open conflict for many years.
With the exception of Haiti and Yemen, all 25 countries with “alarming” levels of hunger were in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia.
Ranked from least to greatest levels of hunger, they included: Nepal, Tanzania, Cambodia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, Rwanda, Djibouti, Mozambique, India, Bangladesh, Liberia, Zambia, Timor-Leste, Niger, Angola, Yemen, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, the Comoros, Haiti, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia.
Hunger mitigation programs that failed to focus on children under two helped land India in the “alarming” hunger index despite its relatively high gross domestic product per capita, said Ruel.
Yet progress was found elsewhere, especially in southeast Asia and Latin America, which both slashed their hunger indices by more than 40 percent since 1990.
A handful of African countries also substantially reduced hunger — Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana and Mozambique — but in most of sub-Saharan Africa, the problem worsened or remained stagnant.
Eight of the nine countries in which the hunger index went up between 1990 and 2010 were in sub-Saharan Africa. The ninth was North Korea.
“There is poor governance and lack of political interest in nutrition, and stimulating demand could result in problems” because many African countries do not have the necessary infrastructure to meet increased demand for health care and other services that go hand-in-hand with anti-hunger programs, said Ruel.