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India’s hunger problem: Why the Global Hunger Index, FAO data aren’t to blame

India’s ranking results from the use of the Indian government’s official statistics, the National Family Health Survey, which reveals disconcertingly high rates of child mortality and chronic malnutrition in India, despite clear progress in the past few years. The Global Hunger Index was informed by the same official source.

The most recent food consumption data available for India is from 2011, when the results of the 68th round of the NSS were released. (File Photo)

This refers to the article, ‘Trivialising hunger‘ (IE, November 10). The article is spurred by the Global Hunger Index 2022, which ranks India 107th out of the 121 countries monitored in 2021. The report is published by Concern Worldwide, an international NGO, using one of FAO’s statistics, among others, to compute its index. While we agree with the seriousness of hunger and the importance of rigorous monitoring to inform policy, the article contains several serious errors.

FAO is committed to valid and reliable food security measures. Food security exists when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. It is only by identifying those who are food insecure that effective policies can be designed to address the root causes of the problem.

The article attempts to undermine technical aspects of the way FAO measures food security to argue that the report’s ranking doesn’t reflect the reality and that food insecurity is not a problem in India. The fact: India’s ranking results from the use of the Indian government’s official statistics, the National Family Health Survey, which reveals the rates of acute malnutrition in children under the age of five to be among the highest in the world. The same official data source also confirms that disconcertingly high rates of child mortality and chronic malnutrition persist in India, despite clear progress in the past few years. The Global Hunger Index was informed by the same official data source.

“Is an increase in child stunting and child wasting necessarily bad?”, the article asks. The stunted and wasted children are those who would have died, it contends, had it not been for the decline in child mortality rates. We argue that falling child mortality rates are not a consolation for the fact that a large proportion of children still suffer from the devastating consequences of acute and chronic malnutrition. The article also criticises an indicator FAO uses to measure food security, the prevalence of undernourishment. This indicator was scrutinised and approved by countries through the UN Statistical Commission and the UN Economic and Social Council in 2015 to monitor the UN’s SDGs.

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The article makes two fundamental mistakes. First, it wrongly assumes that the prevalence of undernourishment is simply based on survey data collected by FAO using the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES). The fact is, it is computed using data on national food balances and consumption at the household level. The most recent food consumption data available for India is from 2011, when the results of the 68th round of the NSS were released. Regrettably, FAO does not have access to more updated data, including the results from the 75th round of the same survey on consumer expenditures conducted in 2017-2018, which is not publicly available. The second mistake is a lack of understanding regarding how FAO’s FIES data are processed to ensure valid, reliable measures of the severity of food insecurity across countries. In 2013, FAO started the “Voices of the Hungry” project, engaging global academic and political communities, because the international community didn’t have a way to identify and monitor food insecure households and individuals in a comparable manner across countries.

This effort resulted in the development of statistical protocols that ensure the different translations, adaptations and nuanced interpretations of the FIES survey questions in 180 languages — such as the difference between “running out of food” and “having less food,” which the article mentions — do not affect the information obtained.

All of the methodological details regarding the way FAO measures food security are public knowledge and explained every year in the technical notes of the UN’s annual food security and nutrition report and FAO’s data and statistics website. Moreover, for the last four years, FAO has been actively collaborating with the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation to include FIES data into official national data collection initiatives and to align the national SDG indicators to the global SDG monitoring framework. We stand ready to continue working with the government of India to strengthen food security statistics and achieve the common mission of a sustainable and food secure world for all.

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Cafiero is team leader of Food Security Statistics, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

First published on: 03-12-2022 at 07:17 IST
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