Improving our understanding of world hunger

International policy is a hard thing to change. The norms and ideas that inform policy at the global level change only very slowly, and due to various influences. When research, critiques, and discussions make contributions to official policy dialogues, it’s a huge success.

Research done by Waterloo's Jennifer Clapp, a highly regarded expert in food politics, has done just that. Professor Clapp works with a team of researchers, led by internationally known world hunger expert Frances Moore Lappé, to critique the mainstream measures of hunger, such as the Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU). The PoU indicator is used by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) to determine the number of hungry people in the world. According to Clapp and her team, it falls short in many ways.

The critical research done by this team aims to show that perhaps we are counting too narrowly, and not capturing the full range of people who do not receive an adequate diet. “Our critique was based on the FAO's 2012 State of Food Insecurity report, where the FAO featured revised methods for counting the number of hungry people. The new FAO estimates were much lower than the number of hungry people it reported just a few years earlier, and the report also revealed just how narrowly focused its primary hunger indicator is,” says Clapp.

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The problem with a narrow measure is that it risks undercounting the number of people who experience hunger. Without a realistic tally, under- and mal-nourished people across the world could be falling through the cracks and missing out on much needed assistance and more supportive policy. “Adopting a wider set of tools for measuring the various dimensions of hunger will ward against any over-simplification of hunger, its causes, and the most promising policies for addressing it,” says Clapp.

Clapp and her team published their critique and talked with key FAO staff to voice their concerns. “Our discussion focused on how the FAO hunger indicators could better capture the reality of hunger,” she explains.

After presenting their research to the FAO, members of the group were pleased to see that in the 2013 State of Food Insecurity report, the FAO engaged with this critique, and the critiques of others, of its indicator. “The FAO has widened the range of indicators it reports,” says Clapp. She adds that the group received a letter from the agency noting that its work had been “useful in revising the published report.”

“Our concerns about the narrow nature of the hunger measure, and those raised by others, have made a difference,” says Clapp.

Professor Clapp takes an interdisciplinary approach to her research, combining insights from political science, international relations, economics, environmental studies, and food studies.

She is the Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability and in October 2013 was recognized by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation with a prestigious Trudeau fellowship.