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Global Hunger Estimates ‘Are Not Infallible’

“While the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) estimated figures on global hunger often grab headlines, the uncertainty surrounding the numbers receives relatively little media attention,” Guardian reporter Claire Provost writes in the newspaper’s “Poverty Matters Blog.” In 2009, the FAO responded to a demand for global hunger figures with the projections that “by the end of the year … world hunger was likely to reach a ‘historic high,’ with 1.02 billion people going hungry every day,” Provost writes, adding, “Almost immediately, these figures seemed to take on a life of their own. References to the global hunger crisis affecting ‘one billion people’ or ‘one-sixth of humanity’ began appearing in speeches, media reports, and advocacy campaigns around the world.”

She asks “where did these numbers come from?” and notes, “Now that data is finally becoming available for that period, it is ‘contradicting’ the projections made in 2009, according to FAO statistician Carlo Cafiero.” Provost concludes, “With famine in Somalia, severe food shortages in the Sahel, and seemingly endless anxiety about high and volatile food prices, the demand for up-to-date estimates of global hunger is set to continue. While new figures are unlikely to come out of the FAO before October, there is at least one immediate lesson: perhaps it is time to stop expecting so much of a single set of numbers. And more broadly, the story of global hunger estimates — among the development sector’s best-known and most-quoted numbers — is a study in how figures are not infallible, and should never be taken at face value” (1/26).

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.