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A humanitarian paradox: Hunger is a pretty simple feeling to understand, but it’s also an incredibly complex concept. You may know that nearly one out of every 10 people are living at some level of food insecurity. But what is food insecurity? Is that the same as malnutrition? When is a famine a famine? Are we actually ending hunger? (Can we actually end hunger?)
Published annually by Concern and Welthungerhilfe, the Global Hunger Index (GHI) gives us both a snapshot of current world hunger facts and figures, as well as a historical look on how progress has (and hasn’t) been made. Here’s what you need to know in 2023.
World hunger facts for 2023 (and 2024)
From the 2023 Global Hunger Index, here are six things you need to know about world hunger as we enter 2024.
1. Progress on ending hunger has stalled — and in some cases reversed — since 2015
Although some countries have made significant headway, this year’s Global Hunger Index shows little progress has been made towards reducing hunger on a global scale since 2015. The 2023 GHI score for the world is 18.3, which is considered moderate (for context, the world’s 2015 GHI score was 19.1).
Since 2017, the prevalence of undernourishment has been on the rise. The number of undernourished people has climbed from 572 million then to about 735 million today.
2. Hunger levels are highest in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa
The GHI ranks hunger on four levels: Low, Moderate, Serious, Alarming, and Extremely Alarming. In this year’s report, nine countries rank with Alarming levels of hunger, including Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Somalia, and South Sudan. Hunger levels are Serious in an additional 34 countries. In 18 of these countries, hunger levels are increasing versus decreasing.
3. Overlapping crises are working together to increase hunger
Right now, we’re facing a triple threat of conflict, climate change, and the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which have worsened global hunger levels without an end in sight.
These crises come on top of other key underlying causes of hunger, including poverty, inequality, inadequate governance, poor infrastructure, and low agricultural productivity.
Given that the world is expected to see even more shocks in future years, particularly as a result of climate change, the effectiveness of disaster preparedness and response is likely to become increasingly central to the outlook on food security.
4. We aren’t on track to reach Zero Hunger by 2030 — but there is reason to hope
Given the current pace of progress, reaching Zero Hunger by 2030 is a likely impossibility. In fact, 58 countries won’t even reach Low hunger levels by then.
However, many countries are also making progress. Seven countries whose 2000 GHI scores indicated Extremely Alarming hunger levels (Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Zambia) have all reduced their hunger scores in the intervening 23 years. Moreover, seven countries have reduced their GHI scores by five points or more between 2015 and 2023 (Bangladesh, Chad, Djibouti, Laos, Mozambique, Nepal, and Timor-Leste).
5. Young people need to play a major role in transforming food systems
Youth and adolescents are reaching adulthood against a backdrop of unequal and unsustainable food systems. These systems are failing to deliver food and nutrition security and are highly vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation.
Despite this, the number of young people participating in the decisions that will affect their futures is limited. The pursuit of food sovereignty — the right to healthy and culturally-appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods — is an opportunity for the younger generations to transform failing food systems into systems that are more sustainable, just, and able to meet the needs of the world. It’s critical to invest in young people’s capacities to become leaders in food systems transformation. This means investing in their education and skills development, as well as their health and nutrition.
6. Solutions to hunger have to look past 2030
We may not reach Zero Hunger by 2030, but that doesn’t mean we can give up entirely. Current food systems, policies and investments are failing to address the intergenerational cycle of hunger in many parts of the world. Solutions must embrace a long-term perspective beyond 2030 and reflect young people’s livelihoods, options, and choices.
The right to food must be central to food systems policies, programmes, and governance processes, and people must be able to realise their right to food in ways that are socially, culturally, and ecologically appropriate for their own local context.
World hunger facts: What else do you need to know?
Beyond the trends in global hunger in 2023-2024, here are a few key things to know about how we define, measure, and fight hunger.
How we measure hunger
A complex issue requires more than one figure. In compiling the Global Hunger Index every year, we look at four key indicators:
The percentage of undernourished people
AKA, people with an insufficient daily caloric intake
The percentage of children (under the age of 5) who suffer from wasting
That is, children with a low weight for their height. This is a sign of acute malnutrition.
The percentage of children (under 5) who suffer from stunting
That is, low height for their age. This is a sign of chronic malnutrition.
The mortality rate for children under 5
This is usually linked to malnutrition or other issues resulting from hunger.
Combined, this set of indicators gives us a more three-dimensional sense of hunger. They reflect calorie deficiencies, as well as poor nutrition. They reflect adult as well as child populations — children being especially important here as they are more vulnerable to the effects of a lack of dietary energy, protein, and micronutrients.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, food security exists when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
» Explainer: What is food security?
Hunger vs. famine
“Famine” is a word that is often used (and misused) for emotional or metaphoric effect to describe food crises of varying size and scope. In our work, however, there are clear-set guidelines around what constitutes a famine. A famine is declared when:
- 20% of a population are suffering extreme food shortages
- 30% of children under the age of five are suffering acute malnutrition
- The death rate of an area has doubled, or two people (or four children) out of every 10,000 people die each day
» Explainer: What (and when) is a famine?
Other words for hunger
Around the same time that some defining contours were placed around famine, the FAO published the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). The IPC breaks down five phases of food security:
Phase 1. Generally Food Secure
Communities usually have a reliable source of food with low-to-moderate risks for crisis-level food insecurity (Phases 3, 4, and 5)
Phase 2. Moderately Food Insecure
Communities have a borderline reliable source of food, and have a recurring high risk for food insecurity (due to a combination of vulnerability to risk and possible hazards like a natural disaster or conflict).
Phase 3. Acute Food and Livelihood Crisis
Happens when a community is highly stressed due to any number of causes, which result in a critical lack of food access that results in higher-than-normal levels of malnutrition and loss of livelihoods. If these circumstances continue, the crisis will become an emergency or famine.
Phase 4. Humanitarian Emergency
Declared when there is a severe lack of food access with higher than average levels of mortality, malnutrition, and loss of livelihoods that the FAO would term “irreversible.”
Phase 5. Famine/Humanitarian Catastrophe
This is also a situation that the FAO links to forced migration and social upheaval.
All of these terms seem a little clinical…
Short answer: Yes.
But these terms are just one way of looking at global hunger. While global hunger levels have overall gone down since 1980, 1 in 10 people still move between Phases 3, 4, and 5 of food security. This gives us a way of understanding the most severe emergencies and focusing global health efforts accordingly. It’s helpful to think of these terms as diagnoses: They don’t define a person, just their current circumstances.
One of the most consistent forms of food insecurity is known as the hunger season or hungry season. This is a time of year between planting and harvest when a family’s food supplies will run out, and it can last for months. Hungry seasons can be longer or more severe in cases like climate change or natural disaster.
Hunger vs. malnutrition
Hunger is when we go without food. Malnutrition is what happens when we go without food for a certain amount of time, or in certain critical life stages (like infancy).
Sometimes, malnutrition centres around deficiency of one specific nutrient or a few key nutrients (these are usually referred to as micronutrient deficiencies). There are three main types of malnutrition that result from the deficiency of all nutrients:
- Moderate acute malnutrition
- Severe acute malnutrition
- Chronic malnutrition
The intersectionalities of hunger
Concern’s current nutrition strategy looks at some of the intersectionalities of hunger and designs programmes that respond to those intersections. There are four areas that, when addressed with nutrition in mind, can have major impact:
Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)
Ensuring that communities have access to clean water and hygiene services not only means that they can keep their crops and livestock well-maintained, but also that they will be less susceptible to waterborne illnesses that may prevent them from absorbing those nutrients.
Maternal and Child Health
Hunger affects maternal health (and vice versa). Ensuring that children have the right nutrients and calories to develop — especially from in utero through to their second birthday — can dramatically improve their chances of living a more fulfilling and creative life.
We’ve mentioned earlier that agriculture plays a key role in ending world hunger, especially in countries where it makes up a large portion of livelihoods. This means not only increasing the quantity of harvests, but also the quality by planting more nutrient-dense, climate-resistant crops.
Livelihoods and Cash Transfers
Concern has established programmes like Graduation and ReGRADE specifically to help with the business side of agriculture in the communities where we work, linking food security to financial empowerment. Cash grants and transfers help ensure that temporary losses don’t carry permanent effects.