ActionAid’s report reveals that hunger is costing poor nations US$450 billion a year – more than ten times the amount needed to halve hunger by 2015 and meet Millennium Development Goal One.

Fighting hunger is in other words ten times cheaper than ignoring it.

Even before the food and financial crises pushed hunger to unprecedented highs, malnutrition was the underlying cause of nearly 4.5 million child deaths every year. An extra 1.2 million children could die unnecessarily between now and 2015, partly as a result of setbacks in tackling hunger. Large as it is, the loss of life caused by hunger is dwarfed by the invisible and permanent loss of human potential. Childhood hunger causes irreversible damage to mental and physical capacity, cutting a person’s lifetime earnings by as much as 20 per cent and reducing overall economic output.

The report reveals that 20 out of 28 poor nations are off track to halving hunger by 2015 and 12 of these are going backwards. The hunger goal is going backwards globally largely because of a lack of aid to agriculture and rural development, few legal rights to food in poor nations and little or no support services to help farming communities when harvests fail.

The two regions which are home to the largest numbers of hungry people, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, have lost the most ground in the wake of the food and financial crises. Nearly half of South Asian children remain malnourished, a situation little changed from 1990 – indefensible considering the region’s per capita income has tripled in the same period. In Sub-Saharan Africa, just under a third of the total population was chronically hungry by 2009 – up by two percentage points, from 30 per cent in 2006. Worst of all, food security is predicted to deteriorate further in Africa, to the point that nearly 50 per cent of Africans could be going without enough food by 2020.

But the report also found that global hunger can be reduced, with Brazil, China, Ghana, Malawi and Vietnam slashing hunger by dramatically scaling-up investment in small farms and introducing social protection schemes such as public works employment, cash transfers, food rations, and free school meals. Malawi has reduced the number of people living on food hand outs from 1.5 million to 150,000 in just five years while Brazil has halved the number of underweight children in less than 10.

How have some governments, including some in very poor countries of the world, managed to tackle hunger and poverty so effectively, whereas others have failed? And why are some governments and the world not doing more?

By investing more in local agriculture, governments can feed their people and also regenerate rural economies. Recent research has pointed to the vital role that agriculture played in China’s initial take-off. Agriculture was estimated to have contributed to poverty reduction four times more than growth in manufacturing or service sectors. As China’s story demonstrates, the biggest impact on reducing hunger and poverty is achieved when governments focus on supporting the small-scale farmers who grow the majority of staple foods consumed locally. There are particularly massive gains to be reaped from investing in women farmers, who currently receive hardly any credit or extension advice and seldom enjoy secure rights over land.

Safety nets are also important to help small farmers keep planting and harvesting through tough times, avoiding the distress sales of livestock and land that so often push vulnerable families over the brink into chronic hunger and destitution.

Brazil has expanded welfare coverage dramatically in recent years. Increases in the minimum wage and a national cash transfer program have been introduced alongside subsidised credit and procurement programs that support smallholder farmers. Taken together, these measures are widely recognised as having a phenomenal impact on reducing Brazil’s once infamous inequalities – with child hunger rates slashed by over 50 per cent in little over 10 years.

Rich countries need to live up to their many promises to increase financing for agriculture in the developing world. Australia performs poorly by international standards, providing less than one third of its fair share of overseas aid to agriculture and food security.

The report further ranks Australia amongst the worst developed countries on climate change policy. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that climate change will put 50 million extra people at risk of hunger by 2020 and an additional 266 million by 2080. Rich countries need to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, and provide the minimum US$200 billion needed annually to enable poor countries to adapt to climate change.

Australia also remains one of a number of developed countries yet to agree to the MDG target of committing 0.7 per cent of GNI to overseas development.

To meet the MDG1 goal of halving hunger, the Australian government and other world leaders meeting in New York this September must:

1. Invest in farmers:

  • by agreeing to national plans to halve hunger by 2015, backed by costed, time-bound actions and firm financing commitments by both governments and donors;
  • the UN estimates that at least US$40 billion in additional funding will be required annually to halve hunger by 2015; donors should set out a timetable and mechanism to meet their part of the need and guarantee that no country with a good plan for achieving the hunger goal is thwarted for lack of resources;
  • national plans should focus on supporting poor farmers, particularly women, in order to maximise poverty and hunger reduction impacts and should expand social protection programmes to ensure that households don’t fall into hunger when prices rise or harvests fail.

2. Act on climate change:

  • commit to a reduction of at least 40 per cent of developed country emissions by 2020 in order to keep temperatures below the danger zone of a 1.5C increase in temperatures;
  • increase their climate financing pledges to cover the minimum US$200 billion needed annually in developing countries, ensure their funding is new money i.e. additional to the aid budget.