A Billion Hungry People?

Chapter 2 in Poor Economics analyzes the announcement made in June 2009 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that there are a billion hungry people in the world, and the institutional association of poverty and hunger.  In short, it stated that a poverty trap arises from the inability of poor people to feed themselves.  Implicit in this definition is the critical assumption that the poor eat as much as possible. There is clearly evidence to the contrary because “when people get a chance to spend a little bit more on food, they don’t put everything into getting more calories” (23); more decadent foods are substituted for nutritious foods.  Furthermore, food consumption ranges from only 50-75% of consumption of the extremely poor.  Banerjee and Duflo go on to suggest that a hunger-based poverty trap may not exist at all; FAO estimates put food production at “at least 2,700 calories per person per day” (25), over double the daily caloric intake of  the semi-starvation diet.  And while food distribution is inequitable, many poor people reported having enough food to eat.  The authors show that while malnourishment is prevalent, it is inexpensive to treat and yields high returns.  Banerjee and Duflo posit that nutrition, not hunger, is the real cause of the poverty trap.  Information failures and preference for taste over nourishment explain why malnourishment persists.  Furthermore, the poor choose to spend money on festivals, rituals and entertainment rather than food.  Simply put, “there are more things to buy” (35) than just food.  Thus while many poor are outside of the poverty trap zone in terms of hunger, they are still not getting the nutrition they need to be productive.  The key to improving nutrition is making quality food high by packing foods that people like eating with micronutrients a priority, and introducing flavorful, nutritious and hardy crops.  These must be addressed with the same attention that is devoted to increasing productivity.  There are strong incentives for investing in child and mother nutrition, due to the fact that “the social returns of directly investing in children and pregnant mother nutrition are tremendous” (40).

Banerjee and Duflo point out on page 26 that only 2% of respondents in an Indian survey said they did not have enough food in 2004, a 15% drop from 1983.  They introduce this statistic by discussing how affordable a nutritional diet can be and how this infers a small proportion of people who “cannot earn enough to be functional” (26).  This is reflected in the decline of people who responded that they were hungry.  The authors then explore possible explanations for this observation, such as leaking fewer calories to fight disease due to better healthcare and lower levels of physical work.  If people think they are eating enough, they will allot more of their consumption for alternate uses hence the low level of consumption devoted to food.  This drop in reported hunger seemingly reinforces the thesis posited in the chapter that a poverty trap based on hunger is illusory.  However, there are several important issues to consider.  First, this data represents only a fraction of the world’s poor.  People in sub-Saharan Africa may believe they are not getting enough food at a much higher rate than the Indian surveys.  We cannot blindly apply this statistic to all the world’s poor.  The qualitative nature of the questions in the survey is also troublesome.  What counts as two square meals, or enough food on a daily basis, will differ between households, perhaps widely.  And because 2% is only a percentage, we cannot tell how many hungry people there actually are.

The thesis of this chapter is that there is enough food being produced to feed everyone in the world on a daily basis; a poverty trap based on hunger is illusionary.  Nutrition is the real culprit.  As the Indian surveys show, the number of people who consider themselves hungry has significantly decreased over time.  However, malnourishment remains a serious problem.  Poor people do not get enough micronutrients such as iodine and are reluctant to adopt a healthier diet and thus remain unproductive.  The root cause of the poverty trap is not quantity but rather quality.


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