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Trends and Current Status of Malnutrition in the World

In the developing world, 17% of the population were undernourished during 1997-1999, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  Astonishingly, this translates into 777.2 million individuals who did not have enough food to meet their daily energy needs.  On the positive side, this is a decline from 816.3 million, or 20% of the population, who were undernourished from 1990-1992.  These numbers, however, are heavily influenced by China, which makes up a little more than 25 percent of the developing world’s population, and which decreased its proportion of undernourished by 7 percentage points between 1990-92 and 1997-99.  Therefore, excluding China, the number of undernourished in the developing world actually increased from 1990-92 to 1997-99 from 623.7 million to 660.9 million.  There is still a decrease in the proportion of undernourished when China is excluded, from 22 to 20 percent.  (See Table 1.) 

While there is some good news in these numbers, there is concern about reaching the 1996 World Food Summit’s goal of halving the number of undernourished people in the developing world to approximately 400 million by 2015.  If the decline continues at the current rate of 6 million per year, the goal will not be met.  At this point, the rate would need to increase to 22 million a year to reach the Summit’s goal.  An additional concern is that only 31 of the 97 countries included in these figures (excluding China) experienced a decrease in the number of undernourished in their population, revealing that many countries are struggling with how to feed their growing populations.

Regions and Countries

 At the regional level, Sub-Saharan Africa had the highest proportion of undernourished from 1997-1999 at 34%.  Asia and the Pacific follows at 20% (excluding China), then Latin America and the Caribbean with 11%, and the Near East and North Africa region at 9%.  Between the two time periods, 1990-1992 and 1997-1999, the Near East and North Africa region performed the worst among the regions, increasing its proportion of undernourished by one percentage point.  Sub-Saharan Africa decreased its prevalence by only one percentage point, followed closely by Latin America and the Caribbean with a decrease of two points.  The Asia and the Pacific region (excluding China) was the best performer, decreasing its prevalence by 3 points.

Taking a longer view, table 2 provides FAO data for developing regions with two Asia sub-regions for the percentage of undernourished for 1969-71, 1979-81, 1990-92 and 1996-98.  The best performer was East and South Asia, decreasing 30 percentage points from 43 to 13 percent over the time periods, although these data do include China.  Both South Asia and the Near East and North Africa decreased their incidence of undernourished by 15 percentage points for the entire period.  South Asia began at a high 38 percent, and did not decrease its proportion of undernourished until the 1990-92 time period when it dropped 12 percentage points.  Interestingly, the Near East and North Africa region had its greatest decline between 1969-71 and 1979-81, decreasing from 25 to 9 percent, but then experienced a slight increase from 1990-92 to 1996-98 by 2 percentage points.  Latin America and the Caribbean experienced a total decline of 8 percentage points, dropping from 19 to 13 percent from 1969-71 and 1979-81, and then staying at 13 percent until a drop to 11 percent in 1996-98.  Sub-Saharan Africa remained remarkably consistent, beginning and ending the time periods at 34 percent, with some slight increases in the early 1980s and 1990s. 

Among the sub-regions, Central Africa currently ranks highest with 51% of its population undernourished, followed by East Africa and Southern Africa, both at 43%, from 1997-99.  The next ranking sub-regions are the Caribbean (28%), Oceania (26%) and South Asia (24%), with the remaining sub-regions falling below 20% prevalence.

At the country level, there are eight countries that have 1997-99 prevalence rates of undernourished over 50%, three of which are in East Africa, two in Southern Africa, one in Central Africa, one in the Near East, and one in the Caribbean.   They include: Somalia (75%), Burundi (66%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (64%), Afghanistan (58%), Eritrea (57%), Haiti (56%), Mozambique (54%) and Angola (51%).

According to the FAO, 35 countries faced food emergencies in March of 2001.  Table 2 lists the countries and the principal reasons for the food emergencies, including natural disasters, adverse weather conditions, and civil strife.  Hardest hit was Africa with 18 countries affected, followed by 11 countries in the Asia and Near East region, 4 countries in Latin America and 2 in Eastern Europe.

Annex 1 provides poverty data for 57 of the 98 countries listed.  The World Bank’s data on the percentage of a country’s population living on less than $1 a day is provided along with the FAO’s percentage of undernourished.  While no direct link can be made with these data, it is known that the poor spend most of their income on food, and a dollar a day does not provide for a healthy diet.  Poverty data can therefore provide further insight into which countries are in need of food assistance.  Further analysis would require research into details such as food access, which are not reflected in poverty data.

Regional Descriptions

Sub-Saharan Africa clearly is in need of high levels of food security assistance, ranking highest in the proportion of undernourished at the region, sub-region and country levels from 1997-1999, and experiencing little improvement since 1990-1992, and no improvement looking back to 1969-71.  Among its sub-regions, Central Africa is the worst off, however some of the worst performing countries are also in East and Southern Africa, as described above.  West Africa as a sub-region performs well, but it does have several countries with undernourishment rates of over 40% (Liberia, Niger and Sierra Leone).

 In the Asia and the Pacific region, Oceania, which consists of Papua New Guinea, ranks the highest with 26% undernourished in 1997-1999, followed closely by South Asia with 24% undernourished.  Within South Asia, Bangladesh has the highest proportion undernourished at 33% in 1997-1999, followed by 23% for India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

The Latin America and the Caribbean region experienced the highest levels of undernourishment in the Caribbean (28%) and Central America (19%).  This is evidenced at the country level with Haiti having the highest rate in the region of 56%, followed by Nicaragua at 29% and the Dominican Republic at 25%.  Over time, Cuba had the poorest performance with 17% undernourished in 1997-1999, up from a low 5% in 1990-1992.  Guatemala also had an alarming increase from 14% to 22% from 1990-92 to 1997-1999.Within the Near East and North Africa region, the Near East has more than twice the prevalence of undernourished than North Africa, at 11% for 1997-1999 and 10% for 1990-1992, and North Africa remaining consistent at 4%. Within the Near East there are high rates of 58% undernourished in Afghanistan and 34% in Yemen for the 1997-1999 time period.



Table 3. Countries Facing Food Emergencies in Early 2001 and Principal Reasons

(Source: FAO. 2001. Assessment of the World Food Security Situation)



Angola: Civil strife, population displacement

Burundi: Civil strife and insecurity

Democratic Republic of Congo: Civil strife, internally displaced persons and refugees

Republic of Congo: Past civil strife

Eritrea: Internally displaced persons, returnees and drought

Ethiopia: Drought, internally displaced persons

Guinea: Civil strife, population displacement

Kenya: Drought

Liberia: Past civil strife, shortage of inputs

Madagascar: Drought/cyclones

Malawi: Floods

Mozambique: Floods

Rwanda: Drought in parts

Sierra Leone: Civil strife, population displacement

Somalia: Drought, civil strife

Sudan: Civil strife in the south, drought

Tanzania: Food deficits in several regions

Uganda: Civil strife in parts, drought

Asia/Near East

Afghanistan: Drought, civil strife

Armenia: Drought, economic constraints

Azerbaijan: Drought, economic constraints

Cambodia: Floods

Georgia: Drought, economic constraints

Iraq: Sanctions, drought

Jordan: Drought

Korea, DPR: Adverse weather, economic problems

Mongolia: Economic problems, harsh winter

Tajikistan: Drought

Uzbekistan: Drought in Karakalpakstan


Latin America

Haiti: Structural economic problems

Honduras: Past adverse weather

Nicaragua: Past adverse weather

El Salvador: Earthquakes


Russian Federation: Civil strife in Chechnya and vulnerable groups

Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: Vulnerable groups and refugees


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