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World hunger is on the rise, and better data on agriculture could fix that

In 2017, there were nearly 40 million more people living in hunger than there were in 2015, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)—a number that sets global progress against undernutrition back nearly a decade, despite a global, UN-led commitment to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030.

The increase isn’t just in absolute terms—percentage-wise more people starve today than they have since the early 2000s—10.9% globally, and 20.4% in Africa.


Experts point to several potential reasons behind this rise, chiefly an increase in conflict and the dramatic impact of climate change. The latter is especially devastating for agriculture, particularly rural farming, upon which 2 billion people in the world rely for sustenance.

 
In Africa, for instance, where the percentage of undernourished population is highest—particularly in Sub-saharan Africa, where 20.4% people are hungry, and Eastern Africa, where 31.4% are—about two thirds of the population relies on rural farming. And yet, explained Roger Voorhies, who leads the agriculture development efforts of the Gates Foundation, only two of sub-Saharan Africa’s 46 countries have reliable data on agriculture. This means they can’t make informed decisions on the types of crops that are better suited for a season, for instance, or predict famine.

This is not unusual: The shortage of data is mind boggling to the point that it seems fair to question how progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) the UN has set for itself to achieve by 2030 can be properly measured. There are, Voorhies noted, at least 78 countries that lack the data to know where they stand on the SDGs—thus failing to provide a benchmark, and effectively measure progress. Many other countries, too, don’t collect data across all indicators, adding a lot of guesswork to development assessment and strategies.

This has led a coalition of organizations—including FAO, the UN’s World Food Program, the World Bank, Australian Aid and the Gates Foundation—to launch a new initiative, named 50 x 2030, during an UNGA side event held yesterday (Sept. 24). The project, backed by an initial grant of $12 million from the Gates Foundation and 1.5 million Australian dollars from Australian Aid, aims to conduct regular surveys of farming households in at least 50 low- and middle-income countries by 2030. Participating countries are expected to contribute about $200 million over time to the initiative, with financing from the World Bank.

To get a sense of the importance of rural agriculture data, consider Ghana: Currently, 6% of its population, or about 1.5 million people, lives in hunger. That’s an impressive reduction from the over 7 million who suffered from malnutrition in the 1990s. Being able to double the agricultural output of the country (one of the SDGs) would cut hunger by another 3 percentage points, yet, this cannot be done without putting in place predictive analytics that can, for instance, give information on seasonal yield for a certain crop in certain weather conditions.

 
To do that, Ghana needs data, and as president Nana Akufo-Ado said in a note read at the event, “for many of our countries, data are a very expensive undertaking.” Without the initial international support in data collection, he explained, most low- and middle-income countries would not be able to dedicate any resources to data collection, because there are even more essential investments (sanitation, for instance, or health) that take priority.

Gilbert Houngbo, who leads the International Fund for Agriculture Development, also underlined the impact of data poverty in low-income countries, far beyond rural agriculture. During his time as prime minister of Togo, he remembered, Houngbo had to deal with a global company over a license to exploit some of Togo’s natural resources, and realized the corporation had better information about resources in Togo than the country’s government. “If we don’t have enough data, how can we drive [effective] negotiations?” he asked.

Correction: The World Bank won’t support the initiative through donations, but through coordinating the participating countries’ contributions to the project. Quartz


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