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FAO senior economist responds on “made-up world hunger numbers”

We received this comment this morning from David Dawe, senior economist at FAO, in response to Wednesday’s post
Spot the made-up world hunger numbers. Kudos for the prompt reply and the willingness to engage in discussion.

Dear Professor Easterly,

I am a leader of the technical team in FAO responsible for publication of the State of Food Insecurity in the World, which reports FAO’s estimates of undernourishment every year. I would like to clarify the methodology behind the recently reported estimates of undernourishment for 2005/07 and 2010. FAO attempts to measure the number of people in the entire population (i.e. of all ages) for whom caloric intake is below a threshold, what we call the minimum dietary energy requirement. This is a different way to measure hunger than the anthropometric estimates published in World Development Indicators, which measure the nutritional situation of children under 5 years of age.

There is no need to summarize FAO’s methodology here – a brief summary of it is publicly available here , as noted in the blog post by Richard King. A more detailed discussion (411 pages) of FAO’s methodology and related measurement issues can be found here, which reports the results of an international scientific symposium held in 2002 on the measurement and assessment of food deprivation and undernutrition. In addition, the data for reproducing FAO’s country estimates for 2005-07 are publicly available here.

As noted by Richard King in his blog post, lags in data collection prevent FAO from using this same method to construct undernourishment estimates for 2009 and 2010. Instead, we have to use models to get estimates for more recent years. Therefore, to get the number of undernourished people for 2009 and 2010, we applied estimates of percentage increases in undernourishment from the USDA Food Security Assessment model to our own estimates of the level in the previous year. A short summary of the USDA model was provided on pages 22-26 in the State of Food Insecurity 2009. A longer publication (from USDA) that describes the model in more detail and its estimates is also available.  Referring again to Richard King’s blog post, he provides an excellent summary of the shortcomings of applying the USDA model to our own estimates, so there is no need to repeat them here. In addition, note that our model-based estimates do not take into account the floods in Pakistan or recent increases in wheat and maize prices on world markets.

As with any methodology for constructing global estimates of socioeconomic variables, it is subject to many valid criticisms, and some of these criticisms are available in the published literature (e.g. Peter Svedberg, 1999, 841 million undernourished?, World Development 27 (12): 2081-98). Some of the criticisms suggest that FAO overestimates the extent of under-nutrition, while others suggest that our estimates are too low. A recent World Bank Working Paper provides estimates of the impact of the crisis that are roughly similar to ours (Sailesh Tiwari and Hassan Zaman, 2010, The impact of economic shocks on undernourishment, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 5215). Whatever the estimate may be, FAO welcomes such criticisms and alternate methodologies so that the world has a better quantitative understanding of the extent of this problem.

While we stand by our current estimates, we also recognize that improvements to our methodology are possible. Thus, FAO is currently investing financial and human resources to improve our estimates of the number of undernourished people in the world. Constructive contributions to this effort are welcome.

I am happy that you have brought these issues to the attention of your many readers, because it focuses attention on the problem of hunger and will help us to improve the quality of our estimates. In that regard, we encourage you and all those who are reading this blog to sign the online petition at to help put pressure on politicians to end hunger. In addition, I will invite you to present a seminar at FAO so that we can benefit from your insights on this issue.


David Dawe

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  1. David Zetland wrote:

    I also applaud engagement.

    (1) Who’s jobs depends on these numbers?
    (2) Do they do anything to help hungry people?
    (3) Can the people in (1) do something different to affect (2).
    (4) Would they?

    Posted September 18, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  2. Stan Geller wrote:
    Posted September 19, 2010 at 3:31 am | Permalink
  3. All class. Nice work, FAO.

    Posted September 27, 2010 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  4. Ammad Bahalim wrote:

    Prof. Svedberg recently revisited the issue here –

    Posted September 28, 2010 at 4:03 am | Permalink
  5. Folks, please check out table 5.1 on p45 of this IFPRI publication. It is a careful study comparing hunger estimates from household surveys and FAO data for a dozen African countries.

    Some of the mismatches are breathtaking, e.g. Ghana, 51% hungry from survey, 15% from FAO estimates.

    I don’t know why IFPRI did not make more of it!

    The world deserves better estimates of hunger–both from a level and a distribution point of view. And from an ethical point of view (the surveys look like they give higher numbers).

    Lawrence Haddad, IDS

    Posted September 29, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

4 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Miguel Martínez Díaz, Conduit Journal. Conduit Journal said: FAO senior economist responds on “made-up world hunger numbers” […]

  2. […] How many hungry people are there? A lazy and supercilious attack on the latest FAO numbers by Bill Easterly is politely but comprehensively trashed by the FAO’s David Dawe, supported by our very own Richard King (but at least Aid Watch had the decency to publish the responses on their blog). […]

  3. By Links for Thought 2 | Ipeanddevelopment's Blog on September 29, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    […] FAO senior economist responds on “made-up world hunger numbers” (by Bill Easterly/Aid Watchers). This is one of the rare occasions that I’ll post a link from the anti-aid but pro-neo-liberal Bill Easterly. You can read the background to the response letter but as Oxfam’s Duncan Green puts it, “[It's a] lazy and supercilious attack on the latest FAO numbers by Bill Easterly is politely but [is] comprehensively trashed by the FAO’s David Dawe, supported by our very own [Oxfam's] Richard King”. […]

  4. By “Proofiness:” Trashing back on FAO Hunger Numbers on September 30, 2010 at 12:02 am

    […] the FAO’s documents, along with information provided by smart Aid Watch commenters as well as the FAO’s own senior economist David Dawe validates, rather than “trashes,” many of the concerns Aid Watch […]

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