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Number of hungry people to swell to record 1 billion

Surinder Sud  |  New Delhi 

A United Nations agency has cautioned that the population of hungry people in the world will reach an all-time high in 2009, largely because of the ongoing global economic crisis.

The latest estimates of global hunger, released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), have projected the number of people going hungry every day to swell to the historic high of 1.02 billion in 2009. Almost all of them, barring a small fraction, will be in the developing countries.

Over half of the world’s hungry, about 642 million, will be in Asia and the Pacific, while around 265 million others will be in the Sub-Saharan Africa. The developed countries will be home to only around 15 million underfed people.

“The most recent increase in hunger is not the consequence of poor global harvests but is caused by the world economic crisis that has resulted in lower incomes and increased unemployment. This has reduced access to food by the poor,” the UN agency has stated.

This year alone, the number of hungry people is expected to grow by about 11 per cent mainly due to the shocks of economic crisis combined with high national food prices.

“The urban poor will probably face the most severe problems in coping with the global recession because lower export demand and reduced foreign direct investment are more likely to hit urban jobs harder. But rural areas will not be spared. Millions of urban migrants will have to return to the countryside, forcing the rural poor to share the burden in many cases,” the FAO has pointed out.

Some developing countries have been adversely affected also by the substantial decline in money transfer (remittances) from migrants back to their homes this year, causing the loss of foreign exchange and household incomes.

“Reduced remittances and projected decline in official development assistance will further limit the ability of countries to access capital for sustaining production and creating safety nets and social protection schemes for the poor,” it has said.

Elaborating on the causes of rise in hunger, the FAO has pointed out that the current economic crisis has come on the heels of the food and fuel crisis that plagued the world between 2006 and 2008. Though the food prices in the international market have softened in the past few months, domestic food prices in the developing countries have remained firm or fell rather slowly.

These prices ruled, on an average, 24 per cent higher in real terms by the end of 2008 compared with those in 2006. For the poor consumers, who spend up to 60 per cent of their incomes on staple foods, this amounts to a substantial reduction in their effective purchasing power.

It should also be noted that despite the decline, the international food prices, too, remain about 24 per cent higher than that in 2006 and 33 per cent higher than in 2005.

Going into the historic poverty trends, the report recalls that though good progress was made in reducing chronic hunger in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, but the trend had, subsequently, changed and the hunger had been slowly and steadily on the rise for the past decade or so.

Consequently, the number of hungry people increased between 1995-97 and 2004-06 in all regions of world, barring Latin America and the Caribbean. “But even in this region, the gains of the hunger reduction have been reversed as a result of high food prices and the current global economic downturn,” the report says.

The FAO has also pointed out that, unlike the previous crises, the developing countries this time had less room to adjust to the deteriorating economic conditions because the turmoil was affecting practically all parts of the world, more or less simultaneously.

The scope for remedial mechanisms, including exchange-rate depreciation and borrowing from the international capital markets to adjust to macro economic shocks is rather limited in such a global crisis.

First Published: Mon, July 27 2009. 00:18 IST