Miscounting the hungry

Every year, around this time, the F.A.O. (the Food and Agriculture Organisation, an agency of the United Nations) publishes its report on hunger — or, as it is now called, “food insecurity.” What most people remember are the numbers: whether hunger went up or down, and by how much. But hunger statistics are confusing. It is very hard to calculate with precision how many men and women do not eat enough.

The F.A.O. makes an effort: by studying agricultural inventories; food imports and exports; the local uses of food; economic hardship and social inequality. From there it determines the estimated availability of food per capita. The difference between required and available calories gives the F.A.O. its number of undernourished people. This sounds like a sensible method, but it is entirely malleable. And so its results can be adjusted according to the needs of the moment.

It’s a long story. At the World Food Conference in Rome, in 1974, when Henry A. Kissinger famously stated that “within a decade, no child will go to bed hungry,” F.A.O. experts estimated that the number of hungry people in developing regions was close to 460 million… In a 1992 report, the F.A.O. stated that there were 786 million hungry people in 1988-90. It was a dramatic increase, a serious blow.

In that report, the F.A.O. revised its previous calculations, saying that its statistical method had been wrong. Now, the F.A.O.’s experts said, they believed that in 1970 there weren’t 460 million hungry people in the developing world, but more than twice that number, 941 million. This, in turn, allowed them to say that the 1989 figure of 786 million did not represent a dramatic increase but, in fact, a decrease of 155 million: quite an achievement.

The changes kept coming…

We know that there is nothing more variable than the past, but it is unusual to watch it changing so fast, so visibly. You could say they are just numbers, abstractions; they wouldn’t really matter much if they were just bad propaganda figures. The problem is that they are, in fact, canonical figures: the kind that are used to determine funds and priorities.

This is not conscious corruption. It’s a symptom of an institutional culture that has to prove it is achieving important progress. The 1990 change justifies the United Nations’ efforts and jobs, as much as it quiets our consciences.

– Excerpted from the article Counting the hungry by Martín Caparrós.