Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 4 February 2016

The long walk to end hunger

By Marco Cavalcante

Abdalla lives in the state of Kassala in eastern Sudan and does not really know what happens in the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, thousands of kilometers away. He is not only geographically distant; his very reality is of another world. How could anything debated and decided over there – no matter how good- can be relevant to him and his family? His main worry is to make sure his family, especially the youngest two of his five children, have enough to eat. He is concerned about them having a chance to go to school, having enough money to pay for their medicine when they are sick, to eventually find a job when – and even if - they become adults… in a few words: to have a life and a range of opportunities that he never had.

But what happened in that far away room in New York last September is actually very much about Abdalla and his family. The countries of the World, encouraged by satisfying the performance of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), have decided to be even more ambitious. For the first time, the world has set as its collective objective to totally eliminate poverty and hunger. Not to reduce them, but to zero them. That is why this is relevant to everyone, especially to Abdalla.

But were the MDG results so encouraging to make it realistic to set these new lofty targets? The fact is that, worldwide, we have indeed obtained some important results. The percentage of people living under the poverty threshold in developing countries decreased from 47% in 1990 to 14% in 2015. And, the percentage of people suffering hunger decreased from 23% in 1990 to around 13% in 2015. Unfortunately these successes have not been equally achieved worldwide: Asia, the protagonist of unprecedented economic growth, performed better than other continents. In addition, even within successful countries, important segments of the population remain excluded from the economic development dividend. These communities continue to suffer increasing hunger and poverty furthering the economic and social divide between the rich and the poor.

Now is the time to look at people and communities that have been excluded from this growth. That is why 193 nations decided to set the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, to be reached by 2030. People will say: “are they realistic?” or “why do we set ourselves up for failure?”. Let’s not forget that there was a similar reaction when the MDGs were set. It is a fact that globally we do have sufficient resources and knowledge to achieve these goals, guaranteeing the world and its people a future free from both poverty and hunger. A combination of investments in social protection and in the agricultural sector has proven to be a successful receipt in the countries that were able to achieve the poverty and hunger goals of the MDGs.

We shouldn’t be concerned about being too optimistic or even realistic, our only commitment should be to try. Because certainly, if we don’t, we will not achieve them. And if in January 2031, the nations of the world meet again and see that there are still poor or hungry people, it will not mean that we failed, but only that there will still be better work to do.

In Sudan the scope of work is enormous: 46.5% of people live under the poverty line, while 38% of the children are suffering from stunting (too short for their age, a form of chronic malnutrition) and 16% from wasting (too thin for their age, a form of acute malnutrition). These percentage means millions of people have to be reached with assistance in the next fifteen years.

In the meantime, Abdalla is talking about the drought, what the “experts” call El Nino. His harvest is not nearly as good as last year’s. He is seriously thinking of selling his livestock in order to cope with the difficulties that he will face. This is where we will start 2016 and this journey towards reaching the SDGs, with Abdalla’s family and all the other families that commenced this New Year with little to celebrate and much to worry. It is going to be a long and hard walk but we will get there. If by 2030 or later, it really does not matter too much. But together, we will get there.

Marco Cavalcante works as Head of Programme for the United Nations World Food Programme. This article was written in his personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the United Nations World Food Programme.