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Hungry for headlines

By Peter Hulm

The BBC's Ruth Alexander, who last year did a takedown on the $1 a day poverty line promoted by the World Bank*, has now taken aim at the G8 campaigners claiming that a child dies every 10 seconds from hunger.

In the runup to what has been billed as the G8 food summit in Northern Ireland, campaigners have been taking their figures from The Lancet on 6 June 2013. This estimates 3.1 million children under five died of undernutrition in 2011. The total comes out to one child dying every 10 seconds.

In the BBC Magazine, as well as on the BBC World Service/BBC 4 Ways and Means programme, Alexander has pointed out that these children don't die from starvation for the most part. They usually die from diseases they cannot resist as a result of poor nutrition in their earliest months.

It means most of the children dying are not in countries suffering famine or conflict. Instead, think India or Nigeria.

There's also inevitably some double-counting. The figures for children dying of water-borne diseases or poverty are among the 3.1 million.

Wrong breast-feeding leads to one in four deaths

Because of the problems with such statistics, the World Food Programme, to its credit, stopped using the child-deaths per minute figure in 2008.

As many as 25% of the deaths could result from inadequate breast-feeding, one expert calculates. Women tend to get worse food than men, leading to undernourished babies. In India, families sometimes avoid meat and milk for cultural reasons. The importance of fruit and vegetables may not be recognized.

Poor diet remains a major problem. The three million represent 45% of child deaths, says The Lancet article. "Only collective action will end undernutrition," argue the authors of a major Lancet article.

Nevertheless, the campaigners are sticking by their claims that three million children are dying of hunger, because it makes for more understandable headlines.

Tough to find details

Don't expect to find the info easily. Typing "hunger children deaths" into the Safari search engine brought up only the variety of Web sites promoting the campaigners' headlines and no sign of Alexander's deconstructive piece.

I had to search via google.com/ncr (i.e. the U.S. search engine rather than the Swiss one) in order to bring the BBC report into prominence.

You may still end up feeling confused ("I can't believe it's that simple!"). The Hunger Project makes a valiant effort to sort out what other organizations have said about hunger and mortality, but then blandly repeats the declaration from the Millennium Development Goals Report (2010): "Every five seconds, a child dies from hunger-related diseases."

We need nutrition education not food aid

It may be true, but experts believe the emphasis should be on nutrition education rather than food aid. Much less sexy to politicians who are likely to be out of office before the impact is measurable.

* Alexander's piece on the $1-a-day formula observes that it should now be $1.25 a day. But by sticking to $1 the World Bank can claim the international community has achieved the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty, which would make it fall short of the target.

And a former WB economist has criticized the yardstick for encouraging donors to put the emphasis on emergency measures rather than the much more difficult and less media-friendly task of development.

There's a cluster of countries with average purchasing power at just over $1 a day, and we might be shocked to learn how many families live on less than $10 a day, she notes.

Sources

Does a child die of hunger every 10 seconds? BBC Magazine. 18 June 2013

Dollar benchmark: The rise of the $1-a-day statistic. BBC Magazine. 9 March 2012

Only collective action will end undernutrition. The Lancet. 6 June 2013.

Know Your World: Facts about Hunger and Poverty. The Hunger Project

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