In politics, humanitarian aid, and social science, hunger is a condition in which a person, for a sustained period, is unable to eat sufficient food to meet basic nutritional needs. So in the field of hunger relief, the term hunger is used in a sense that goes beyond the common desire for food that all humans experience. Throughout history, portions of the world’s population have often suffered sustained periods of hunger. In many cases, this resulted from food supply disruptions caused by war, plagues, or adverse weather. In the decades following World War II, technological progress and enhanced political cooperation suggested it might be possible to substantially reduce the number of people suffering from hunger. While progress was uneven, by 2015 the threat of extreme hunger subsided for many of the world’s people.
According to figures published by the FAO in 2019 however, the number of people suffering from chronic hunger has been increasing over the last four years. This is both as a percentage of the world’s population, and in absolute terms, with about 821 million afflicted with hunger in 2018. While most of the world’s hungry people continue to live in Asia, much of the increase in hunger since 2015 occurred in Africa and South America. The FAO’s 2017 report discussed three principal reasons for the recent increase in hunger: climate, conflict, and economic slowdowns. The 2018 report focused on extreme weather as a primary driver of the increase in hunger, finding rises were especially severe in countries where the agricultural systems were most sensitive to extreme variations in weather.
While the FAO’s 2019 report found there was also a strong correlation between increases in hunger and countries that had suffered an economic slowdown. Many thousands of organisations are engaged in the field of hunger relief; operating at local, national, regional or international levels. Some of these organisations are dedicated to hunger relief, while others may work in a number of different fields. The organisations range from multilateral institutions, to national governments, to small local initiatives such as independent soup kitchens. Many participate in umbrella networks that connect together thousands of different hunger relief organisations. At the global level, much of the world’s hunger relief efforts are coordinated by the UN, and geared towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal for “Zero hunger“.
Between 1996 and 2006, the number of chronically hungry people in poor countries increased by over 20 million. Today, 850 million people – 13 percent of the world population – cannot afford their most basic food needs. And every year more than 8 million people die as a result of hunger and malnutrition. By undermining the health and productivity of individuals, hunger also obstructs social and economic development at large. People affected by food emergencies only represent a fraction of those suffering from hunger. But, that amount is increasing as global climate change and armed conflict have doubled the number of food crises since the 1980s. Every year, the UN’s World Food Programme provides emergency relief to over fifty million people. Governments have an obligation to ensure that all people have access to adequate food.
The human right to food is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC). And at the UN Millennium Summits in 2000 and 2005 and at the World Food Summit in 1996, governments made pledges to reduce world hunger by half. Helping the hungry by giving either as actual food items or as cash to buy food – can play a critical role in reducing hunger. By providing emergency food aid, governments, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations can save millions of lives when natural disasters or wars threaten people’s access to food. And by giving non-emergency food aid, such as school-lunches, they can improve health and encourage children to go to school, which has proven essential to a country’s long-term development.