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Spot the made-up world hunger numbers

Today’s exercise, dear readers, is to spot made up numbers in major news stories.

Leading newspapers today report on FAO’s new world hunger numbers (see FT and NYT). The FAO reports that the number of hungry people fell from 1.02 billion in 2008 to 925 million in 2009. That’s very good news, unless it didn’t happen.

Inquiring minds want to know:

(1) how did the FAO come up with a number for 2009, when the World Development Indicators (WDI) of the World Bank are only reporting malnutrition numbers up through 2008?

(2) how did the the FAO even come up with a number for 2008, when the current WDI reports malnutriton indicators (either height for age or weight for age for children under 5 ) for only 4 countries?

(3) the FAO says that two-thirds of the hungry are concentrated in seven countries: (in order of number, with WDI latest year of data between 2005 and 2008 reported in parentheses): China (none), India (2006), the Democratic Republic of Congo (2007), Bangladesh (2007), Indonesia (2007), Ethiopia (2005), and Pakistan (none). So how did they arrive at numbers for these countries for both 2008 and 2009?

(4)  is there any possibility that political pressure surrounding the hunger Millennium Development Goal (MDG) led to the creation of numbers based on the alternative methodology known as “wild guesses”? If so please explain why we cannot talk about the tragedy of world hunger without making up numbers?

(5) a good test of how serious is the UN about the hunger MDG is that it would have devoted a lot of effort to improving the data on hunger. Does the UN pass this test?

Perhaps the FAO has very good answers for these questions.  I am asking you to do some of the work here, dear readers, and investigate the mystery of the missing hunger indicators underlying non-missing precise world hunger data. I will write a follow up post as you and others respond.

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  1. Nick wrote:

    I think the WDI numbers are sourced from FAO. At least for (1), my guess is that the WDI gets the data on a lag from FAO, and should be up in coming weeks. As for (2), I think the hunger numbers come from undernutrition statistics, which themselves are only available for Africa in 1992, 1997, 2002, and 2006 in WDI. There aren’t answers, but clarifications.

    Posted September 15, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  2. World Hunger org reported, “The FAO estimate is based on statistical aggregates. It looks at a country’s income level and income distribution and uses this information to estimate how many people receive such a low level of income that they are malnourished. It is not an estimate based on seeing to what extent actual people are malnourished and projecting from there (as would be done by survey sampling). [It has been argued that the FAO approach is not sufficient to give accurate estimates of malnutrition (Poverty and Undernutrition p. 298 by Peter Svedberg).] ”

    It reminds me of the MDG 5A number which for the 2005 report did not use data for over 60 countries but rather used regression models. This year Murray et al put out an excellent piece and the UN just released data today that should be better (haven’t read it yet).

    Posted September 15, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  3. Curious wrote:

    I was thinking to myself when i saw that: “how can world hunger be lower when food prices are still soaring?”….thanks for the answer!

    Posted September 15, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  4. Juan Pablo Tagle wrote:

    How many times have we heard this quote by International Institution officers “… that nearly … people remained hungry … pointed to structural problems that “gravely threatens” the ability to achieve goals on hunger reduction”. “In order to tackle the root causes of hunger, governments should encourage increased investment in agriculture, expand safety nets and social assistance programmes, and enhance income-generating activities,”.
    It is all of the same recipe: money from donors in rich countries going to corrupt governments in poor countries wich are unaccountable to invest … expand … and enhance … At this point these words sound meaningless.

    Posted September 15, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  5. Jacob wrote:

    I went to the FAO site. The press release doesn’t link to any study or report that might shed light on their methodology. It does link to a “fact sheet,” however, which lacks even a single source, citation, reference, or what have you. So I still can’t answer your question, but I’m going to keep trying.

    BTW, I will be at the Millennium Campus Conference this weekend. I will bring up this issue of data if I can find a productive and relevant way to do so.

    Posted September 16, 2010 at 12:54 am | Permalink
  6. Jacob wrote:

    I’m surfing around the FAOSTAT page now, but so far haven’t found any data more recent than 2007. I also emailed their office with your questions. Still searching, though…

    Posted September 16, 2010 at 1:12 am | Permalink
  7. Richard King wrote:

    The more interesting question is how did the previous 1.02 billion figure ever gain credibility?

    To take your questions in turn:

    1) WDI figures are always sourced from the lead UN / IFI body in a thematic area, so it’s not surprising that WDI figures lag behind FAO ones.

    2) FAO hunger numbers are based on undernutrition (insufficient calorific intake, rather than malnutrition as you say the WDI reports. But how they came up with this undernutrition number is interesting. To estimate the number of hungry people, FAO usually collect three sets of data at the national level (

    “1. Data on production, imports and exports of all food commodities, along with the calorie content of each food. These data are used to calculate total availability of calories in the country.
    2. Data on population structure in terms of age and sex, since different age and sex groups have different minimum caloric requirements. Using these data, one can estimate the total caloric requirements for the entire population as an aggregate. This varies from country to country because of different population structures.
    3. Household survey data. These are used to estimate the country-specific distribution of calories. Some countries may have more equal distributions of calories than other countries, which, other things being equal, would lead to fewer people being undernourished. A log normal distribution of caloric intake is assumed.
    From the total calories available, total calories needed for a given population, and the distribution of calories, one can calculate the number of people who are below the minimum energy requirement, and this is the number of undernourished people. This number is then summed for all countries in the world. Thus, no account is taken of protein, vitamin or mineral intake.”

    Because collecting and aggregating such data is a protracted process, global estimates of hunger are produced periodically rather than annually, with each estimate typically representing a two-year time frame – the last of which was 2005-7. But, presumably due to the political pressures of the food price crises and economic crisis, FAO has released global estimates of hunger for 2008 and 2009 without releasing corresponding national estimates. For 2009, at least, this necessitated a departure from the standard estimation process.

    To produce the 2009 value, FAO used a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service model to estimate how changes in capital flows, exports and commodity prices would affect the ability of countries to purchase food. The USDA food security model projects food consumption and access in 70 low-income developing countries by dividing the population of each country into quintiles according to per capita income. Based on the food consumption of each quintile and the total population, the model estimates the number of people who are unable to meet their nutritional requirements. FAO then used the percentage changes in hunger projected by USDA and applied those changes to FAO estimates of the number of hungry. They projected that the number of food insecure people would increase by about 9.2 percent in 2009, which comes on top of a projected baseline increase of 2 percent for 2009 even in the absence of economic crisis. When applied to the revised FAO undernourishment estimates, these projections imply that the number of undernourished in the world will have risen to 1.02 billion people during 2009.

    There are several issues with this approach:

    -First, because the USDA model focuses on low-income countries, it excludes several large developing countries (e.g. Argentina, Brazil, China, Mexico, South Africa). I assume this is why FAO adopted the proportional changes estimated by USDA rather than the absolute numbers of hungry people. However, it’s questionable whether proportional changes in low-income countries can be extrapolated to cover the rest of the world, since many larger developing countries have quite different economic profiles and had different exposures to the economic crisis than smaller low-income countries.

    -Second, USDA has a different definition of hunger to FAO, recognizing hunger as consumption of less than a rigid 2100 kcal per day, whereas FAO has a more flexible definition.

    -Third, the 9.2 per cent increase (above the 2 per cent baseline increase) in hungry people is based not just on the basic USDA model, but also on the second of three additional USDA scenarios. Scenario one assumes export growth of the countries considered is reduced in 2009 relative to the baseline estimates. This reduction uses the same proportion as the estimated decline in the countries’ economic growth for 2009. Scenario two has the same assumptions, but additionally reduces capital inflows in 2009 by 25 per cent. Scenario three models a 50 per cent reduction in capital inflows. The declines in economic growth are derived from the IMF World Economic Outlook, January 2009 update. This projected economic growth in emerging and developing countries would be 3.3 per cent in 2009, down 3.0 percentage points (48%) from 6.3 per cent in 2008. The July 2010 update revises the 2009 value to 2.5 per cent, down 3.6 percentage points (59%) from 6.1 per cent in 2008. The July 2010 update also shows export growth for emerging and developing countries declined by 13 percentage points (289%) in 2009 compared with 2008, whereas the January 2009 update projected an export decline of 6.4 percentage points (114%). Although values will vary for the individual countries incorporated in the USDA model, these data suggest both that the initial economic growth projections used in the USDA model were overly optimistic, and that using proportional declines in economic growth as a proxy for proportional export declines is a flawed approach that greatly underestimated the trade collapse.

    3) I haven’t done much digging on this week’s numbers, but I suspect the downwards revision is purely a result of updated economic projections employed by the USDA model. Note that the FAO still haven’t released national data on hunger for 2009 or 2010 as they have for earlier periods.

    4) Yes!

    5) Work in progress?…

    Posted September 16, 2010 at 5:11 am | Permalink
  8. “Spot the made-up world hunger numbers”.

    To ‘A Free Energy RICH WORLD NATION and Well off Persons’ can be.

    ROLL Cuba With THE USA and What AMERICA Eats, Cuba Will Eat.

    In Cuba they make less than $0.50 cents a day.
    In some places in Africa a Dollar or less and 3 billion people live under $3.00 USDollars equivalent a day.

    Over 1 Billion people go hungry every day and because of the polluted disobedient peak oil/ethanol greedy,disobedient competition economies were almost wiped out and now with economy recessions the nations are poor and give less for the hungry.

    One nation used to give $500.million and now in 2010 only gave $10.Million USDollars ti THE WORLD Hunger Fund.

    In 2010 more people are dying from famine and plagues and that is with out wars.

    It is a sad true story.

    The Nations must move to end war and tribulation and that is the only direction that will bring security programs to our unequal world.

    Isa 2:4, 2 Kings 2:11, Isa. 11:6-9.
    Thank You.

    Sincerely, For Us.
    09/16/2010 Friday, 7:22 P.M.

    Posted September 16, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  9. David Dawe wrote:

    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 at, 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 at, 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 at

    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, which can be accessed at A longer publication (from USDA) that describes the model in more detail and its estimates is available at 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, available at ). 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

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 3:53 am | Permalink
  10. Rukmini wrote:

    I am an Indian journalist. After the 925 mn number was put out, I wrote to the FAO to ask for its India figures. Their reply was that they don’t have country-level data post-2007. Quite amazing, then, how they do have world-level data for 2009.

    Posted September 17, 2010 at 4:39 am | Permalink

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  2. […] 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 […]

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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