Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Hunger and Poverty: Still Core to the MDG Agenda

April 09, 2013

Last week saw two key events related to the Millennium Development Goals: the kickoff on April 5 of an ambitious global campaign focused on accelerating progress over the last 1000 days before the 2015 deadline and a critical meeting on April 4 in Madrid to assess how hunger, food security and nutrition should be tackled in any post-2015 framework. 

We are big supporters of the MDGs as a robust tool that has successfully helped focus attention and resources on the needs of the poorest and helped drive unprecedented progress even in many of the very poorest countries over the past twelve years.   MDG 1 – which is aimed at halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty and hunger --  is in many ways an overarching goal that underpins progress in other areas like health and education. But the reality is, progress in defeating hunger has lagged that in reducing income poverty, especially in rural areas.   There are still close to a billion people worldwide, the majority in Sub Saharan Africa and South Asia, affected by severe hunger.   

As I explained in a statement we shared in Madrid –-- three-quarters of the world’s poorest people still get their food and income from farming small plots of land, increasingly in the face of serious environmental degradation. A majority of those small farmers are women. To feed a growing global population and to nourish their own families, these farmers will have to do more with less: grow more food with less land and less water, and in sustainable ways which do not damage the environment and the natural resources on which their own livelihoods and the world’s food supply depends.

The participants in the Madrid conference correctly emphasized the clear links between agriculture, food production and nutrition in making a real difference to the lives of the poorest. At the foundation, we also believe that we should hold ourselves as a global community to account, through the MDG process, to ensure both that there is enough food for all, and that all have enough to eat. 

With the world’s population set to increase by a billion people between now and 2030, global food production needs to increase by at least a third just to keep up. Greater agricultural productivity is essential to ensure this, and we believe the MDGs should have an explicit target on productivity, with a strong focus on small-holder farmers and on environmental sustainability.  

The MDGs have worked best when they have had clear, and ‘ambitious but achievable’ targets. On agriculture, we think a good global target would be doubling the rate of sustainable productivity growth by 2030.  For some regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, we might need to be even more ambitious and set a goal of tripling the rate instead.  This is one way in which the next set of MDGs can be more effective: they can set broad global goals and targets, but allow for countries and regions to scale up or down depending on their own needs. It’s important to note that any such growth must be sustainable: today’s high yields cannot come at the expense of tomorrow’s famers by depleting the soil, for example, and they must result in social benefits like better income or nutrition for the poorest families.

When farmers can grow more food and earn more income, they are better able to feed their children and send them to school, provide for their family’s health, and invest in their farms and futures. Today, too many families cannot do that: 165 million children worldwide are so malnourished that they are physically stunted in their growth and development, which sets them back in their mental and cognitive development for a lifetime.

Stunting is perhaps the most powerful sign of the severe and inequitable effects of poverty and malnutrition on our world’s youngest citizens, starting right at birth. We believe childhood stunting is the most obvious place to focus global efforts on improved nutrition: our recommendation is for the MDGs to aim for a 40 percent reduction in the number of stunted children by 2030. 

As the world rallies behind the next set of MDGs, whatever shape they take, it’s important to stay focused on the best investments we can collectively make to ensure a better chance at a productive life for as many of the world’s citizens as possible.  If the experience of the past two decades and the commitment of the leaders in the Madrid conference are any indication, there is much to be optimistic about.

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