The Global Hunger Index

October 27, 2012 7:00 AM

The International Food Policy Research Institute has long been a leading organization in tracking innovations in agriculture and food security issues. One of its flagship publications is The Global Hunger Index, which comes in report form and in a useful online interactive edition.

The index—which theoretically runs from 0-100 but in fact has a range of roughly 5-40--has the advantage of simplicity, based on three core indicators:

  • Undernourishment: the proportion of undernourished people as a percentage of the population (reflecting the share of the population with insufficient caloric intake)
  • Child underweight: the proportion of children younger than age five who are underweight (that is, have low weight for their age, reflect- ing wasting, stunted growth, or both), which is one indicator of child undernutrition
  • Child mortality: the mortality rate of children younger than age five (partially reflecting the fatal synergy of inadequate caloric intake and unhealthy environments)

Higher values of the index signal more unfavorable circumstances.

The project operates under a well-known data constraint: those countries that are likely to have the worst performance are also those in which the data is least likely to be up to date. Nonetheless, the research team has made estimates where recent data is not available and has updated past rankings based on ongoing work by UNICEF, the FAO, and the WHO. The index provides a useful summary stock-taking and also permits cross-country and over-time comparisons; the index has been issued for 1990, 1996, 2001 and now 2012.

In terms of long-run developments, North Korea is one of only five countries to have seen a deterioration in its GHI score from the first to the most recent survey (the others are Burundi, Swaziland, Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire and—to our surprise—Botswana. When ranked against other Asian countries, North Korea’s performance is particularly striking. While some countries in Asia have higher scores—including Bangladesh, India and Nepal—virtually all other countries in the region have seen dramatic reductions in their GHI scores, including Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The report throws out countries with scores under 5, as they tend to converge at that level, and ranks 79 other developing countries. At the top of the list are those converging toward a score of 5: Azerbaijan, China, Malaysia, Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago. North Korea is not at the bottom of the list; those positions are held by Haiti and a number of African countries experiencing severe distress at the moment: Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Burundi.

But a list of North Korea’s company is revealing of its "hunger neighborhood":

50. Guinea-Bissau

51. Liberia

52. DPRK tied with Togo

54. Kenya and Tanzania

56. Cambodia

57. Laos, Pakistan and Rwanda

60. Nepal.

It is also worth mentioning what the report does not say.  In a widely circulated piece, Yonhap states that the report argues than conditions now are worse than in 1997, during the famine.  This statement is clearly false; the report says no such thing.  Yonhap seems to have gotten the years 1990 and 1997 confused.  Given how much play their story has received, we would have expected them to issue a correction.  This has not happened, as far as we know.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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