Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, October 2012
What Global Hunger Index 2012 Really Means
By Sam B.
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, October 16, 2012
It is said: “Statistics don’t lie, but Statisticians do.”
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has again released it annual Global Hunger Index (GHI) report for 2012. In it IFPRI states:
“In terms of the GHI components, Burundi, Eritrea, and Haiti currently have the highest proportion of undernourished people—more than 50 percent of the population.”
I am certain this will come as a surprise to many Eritreans and anyone that knows anything about Eritrea’s reality. It should force us to ask how is it that in a country where under-five child mortality rate has nosedived (See Figure 1), a country that has the highest Life Expectancy at Birth compared to all its neighbors and that is on track to doubling it since 1990 (See Figure 2), has child immunizations rate approaching 99% (See Figure 3), where % of population using improved drinking water is above 60% (compare to Ethiopia’s 38%, in fact Eritrea’s current score could be higher as this data is possibly pre 2008, Source UNICEF), where Eritrea’s youth literacy rate (% of people ages 15-24) for male is 92% and 86% for female (Figures 1, 2, 3: Source, UNICEF), additionally as a report, authored by UK’s Oversee Development Institute, asserts:
“Eritrea is one of the few countries expected to achieve the MDGs in health, in child health in particular. Infant and child mortality rates have reduced dramatically; immunisation coverage has rocketed; malaria mortality and morbidity have plummeted; and HIV prevalence has almost halved in a very short period.
“This can be attributed to the high prioritisation of health and education and a strong commitment to development among Eritreans, as well as to innovative multi-sectoral approaches to health. Finally, in spite of highly centralised control and relative political isolation, government commitment and ownership have played a key role in successful health outcomes”
“Out of necessity, Eritreans’ experience in adapting to adverse circumstances has given them the capacity to develop innovative multi-sectoral approaches to health. In addition, community involvement has enabled improved health-seeking behaviours as well as widespread buy-in.”
I could go on, but you get the picture, how is it possible while every trend is undoubtedly up and drastically improved since 2002 and before, this GHI remained stagnant year after year according to IFPRI?
The IFPRI’s report disconnect from reality ought to spur us to ask some more relevant question of the report. The first and obvious question of course being: what is GHI anyway? Does it measure “Hunger” as we know it or something else altogether?
However, before we tackle these issues, we have to confront a refrain that is usually made when these sort of reports are disputed. We are implored not to question the validity of this (Global Hunger Index) or similar reports or dismiss them as Western Media Propaganda. We are told if we do, we should also not glorify the reports that highlight Eritrea’s achievements.
The embedded implication of the above assertion is that we pick and glorify those reports that highlight Eritrea’s achievements without regard to the truthfulness and/or validity of the reports and we dismiss those reports that highlight some weakness without regard to validity and/or reality on the ground. The implication being truthfulness, accuracy and validity does not matter to ‘us’.
I would like to take the position that, and I speak for myself (if that needs reiterating), we ought not (and I do not) take or accept any report on the basis of where it comes from, who wrote it and/or in what light that report portrays Eritrea. We ought solely evaluate any report on how sound the report is and how well the report reflects the situation on the ground. That ought to be the sole measure by which any report is and ought to be evaluated by, and its validity assessed.
Now to the obvious question:
IFPRI provided a number that stated the Global Hunger Index 2012 for Eritrea is 34.4. That ranks Eritrea 78th and that this is considered “Extremely Alarming” (for comparison Eritrea was ranked 87th and had GHI 38.97 in 2008).
So, what do these numbers mean? How does this reflect the reality today, in 2012, in Eritrea or for 2010, 2008 or any other time? We are given numbers that are apparently “Extremely Alarming”. What does it really mean for any year? Are people falling off and dying for lack of food? Well, the availability of food is not what the index really measures. IFPRI explains:
“The terminology used to refer to different concepts of hunger can be confusing. “Hunger” is usually understood to refer to the discomfort associated with lack of food. FAO defines food deprivation, or “undernourishment,” specifically as the consumption of fewer than about 1,800 kilocalories a day—the minimum that most people require to live a healthy and productive life …“Undernutrition” goes beyond calories and signifies deficiencies in any or all of the following: energy, protein, or essential vitamins and minerals. Undernutrition is the result of inadequate intake of food— in terms of either quantity or quality—poor utilization of nutrients”
So in general you can eat plenty and still be undernourished. Alternately, you can eat little and consume more than 1,800 kilocalories a day. So in the index “Hunger” does not necessarily imply lack of food. Moreover, the authors of the report have no way of finding out the availability of food in Eritrea at any particular time. What it is relying to make its inference is kilocalories a day consumed as a proxy for hunger. But where does this data come from and for what years and what context does it apply? Numbers too as in everything else have context.
To reflect on the above enumerated questions one is forced to look deeper into the report. And ask again and again what is GHI 2012 anyway? As you read this report you quickly understand that the report has little to do with current reality in Eritrea or anywhere in the world for that matter. In its introduction the report states:
“This report offers a picture not of the present, but of the recent past. The calculation of the GHI reflects the most recent data available from governments and international agencies, but these data suffer from significant time lags.”
IFPRI is more clear and honest in its GHI 2008 report. It states:
“It is important to remember that this report offers a picture of the past, not the present. The calculation of the GHI is limited by the collection of data by various governments and international agencies. The 2008 GHI incorporates data only until 2006 — the most recent available.”
As the report admits it has nothing to do with current reality anywhere, least of all about hunger in Eritrea today. As it clearly puts it, it “offers a picture of the past, not the present”. The 2008 report clearly stated that it offered at best a picture of 2006. But how different is the 2012 report from that of 2008? Does it contain significantly different data for Eritrea?
For those that choose not to dismiss it as simple Western Media Propaganda and want to use it as their anchor for their outrage it presents a dilemma. The outrage based on this report at best will be a few years too late, as will be shown here the source of the data used in the 2012 report is essentially identical with that of the 2008 report. So at best the 2012 report is a reflection of 2006. But the reality is even worst for the report. Further reading and scrutiny of the data and its source reveals that it does not even reflect a reality or picture of 2006. How you may ask? That requires looking into where the data for GHI really comes from. To get a good picture of what GHI is you have to read through the appendix and find the sources for the data from the references provided.
Global Hunger Index: According to the report, GHI is calculated from three components:
GHI = (PUN + CUW + CM)/3
PUN = Proportion of the population that is undernourished (in %) CUW = Prevalence of underweight in children under five (in %) CM = Proportion of children dying before the age of five (in %)
According to the report the percent of the population that is undernourished (PUN) in Eritrea is 65%. If you think this number is exceptionally high you will be correct. It is the highest anywhere in the world. No country in the world is as under nourished as Eritrea according to this list, in bumper harvest years or in drought years that number has essentially remained high. To compare our two nearest neighbors: Sudan is at 22% and Ethiopia is at 41%. The question to all is then how does this number reflect the reality of Eritrea you know? But more importantly where does this number come from and how is it defined?
BTW the other two values for: CUW = 32.2% CM = 6.1%
So the calculation is rather childishly simple. Add the three numbers and average them (ie divide them by 3)
GHI = (PUN + CUW + CM)/3
there you have it. Rocket Science!
I should state that the data source for the above three factors according to IFPRI is:
PUN – Percentage of undernourished in the population is from data collected in 2006 – 2008 published by FAO in 2011 (as well as the authors’ estimates)
CUW – Prevalence of underweight in children under five is from data collected between 2005-2010 by WHO and published in 2012 (as well as the authors’ estimates)
CM – Under-five mortality data from 2010 and published by UNICEF 2012
I have looked up many of these reports and data, the assertion that the data for Eritrea is from 2010 is at its very best misleading. I have even gone through GHI 2006, 2007, 2008, etc essentially the same data is used for all, see the link for the sources provided at the end of this note.
With the exception of the Under-five mortality provided by UNICEF 2011 report data from around 2010 all the rest of the data is at best from 2002.
See the following link for instance, for WHO’s Eritrea data for Prevalence of underweight in children under five (CUW), which the GHI report says is from data collected between 2005-2010 by WHO and published in 2012. The fact is, as you can see from the link below, WHO’s document states the data was collected between March and July 2002.
The authors of the GHI report provide no justification for why these numbers should be considered current, adjusted or otherwise. Regardless, their source remains prior to and from 2002. That is over a decade old, nowhere could this be considered “the recent past”.
Moreover there is an inconsistency between the GHI, FAO, UNICEF, and WHO data. For instance PUN for Eritrea is 68% in some report and elsewhere 75%. If you are asking how does one calculate PUN anyway? According to FAO:
“At the national level, a per capita food intake of less than 2,200 kcal/day is taken as indicative of a very poor level of food security, with a large proportion of the population affected by malnutrition.”
I recall a discussion paper that stated that the average calorie intake per day of traditional Highland Eritrean meal could be around 2,000, in good or bad times. It turns out if you live in Eritrea and you eat your traditional meal (allowing for regional variations of course) as Eritrean have done for centuries your intake may not always approach the 2,100 calories per day recommended, although according to IFPRI the minimum required by FAO’s definition is 1,800 calories per day.
Much of the data for this comes from a government of Eritrea study conducted post Ethiopia’s invasions in 2000 and the drought years that followed, while a large chunk of Eritrea’s population was living in IDP camps and scattered wherever they can find shelter. The data collected in those years was presented in a table labeled dated March 2003, see table below.
According to the 2003 table, at that time about 33% of Eritrea belonged to the category of extreme poor, thus the percent of population that consumes 2,130 kilocalories a day and above, that is above FOA minimum required1,800 calories per day, is approximately 67%. However, on average at that point Eritreans consumed 2,385 calories per day, surprisingly with rural areas fairing better than urban.
Although, the recommended caloric intake is different for different groups according to age, sex, and level of activity (http://www.fpnotebook.com/Endo/Exam/DlyEnrgyAlwnc.htm ), still, FAO has arrived at this standard, which happens to be the same for the entire world. So be it.
The difficulty of calculating PUN is complicated by the fact that it needs another two important figures, the number of undernourished people (UP), discussed earlier, and the Total population (TP). It turns out FAO gets its data from multiple sources. And all the sources use different Total Population for Eritrea ranging from 3.4 million to 6.09 million (according to CIA Factbook). Assuming even the UP value one has is accurate, as impossible as that is, what is the total population of Eritrea? Depending which value one utilizes 3.4 million or 6.09 million one arrives at a drastically different result, not only for PUN but also pretty much for any per capita calculation involving Eritrea. This is added to the fact that the UP data used for the GHI report is over a decade old.
So what would GHI 2012 mean for Eritrea today?
If you give it the benefit of the doubt and say that all the figures and data in the GHI report and those collected from other sources is valid, then if the GHI 2012 is anything, the “report offers a picture of the past”, a picture of 2002 at best, since the two out of three heavily weighed values in the formula for GHI come from 2002.
That is from the GHI formula
GHI = (PUN + CUW + CM)/3
PUN=65 and CUW=32.2 are from 2002 at best and account for the lion share of the weighting. CM in this case matters little if it is current or not. To be sure the report has nothing to do with the present.
For context here is an excerpt from the report that compiled the 2002 and prior to that data with the help of the Government of Eritrea. It states:
“After six years of steady improvement in Eritrea’s economy, a border dispute with neighboring Ethiopia led to the destruction of economic and social infrastructure, productive assets and businesses. It had a significant adverse impact on the living conditions of the people. More than 60,000 displaced people still live in temporary camps in the country. In addition, large tracts of fertile land and pastures in the border areas remain inaccessible for farming due to land mines. The conflict also resulted in mass displacement of nearly one million Eritreans residing especially in the agricultural areas of Gash-Barka and Debub Regions.”
Moreover it adds:
“The 2002 drought –the worst since independence in 1993, threatened the lives of over 1.4 million Eritreans, more than one-third of the population. An almost complete absence of rain seriously undermined agricultural production, even in the most fertile areas of the country. Crop production dropped sharply in 2002 to an estimated 54,000 metric tons (MT), only about one–fourth of the average production during the past ten years.”
The point for providing this context is to highlight that the war and post war years were not “normal” years in Eritrea. The only appropriate description for them is anomalous years. Thus the best the GHI for Eritrea can be is a reflection on is the war and worst drought years of Eritrea’s independent history, and taken while the country was being invaded and a sizable number of its people were destabilized, in IDP camps with the world not meeting its moral obligation to help. A data utilizing anomalous numbers can only be expected to lead to an anomalous conclusion that is detached from reality.
But here is the rub, despite IFRPI stating that the “GHI reflects the most recent data available from governments”, an email inquiry to with their representative revealed that they have not asked for any data from the government of Eritrea.
So given the PUN definition and that it considers 65% of Eritrean population undernourished, the uncertainty with its population data, the fact it does not take the progress made in child mortality prevention, the bumper harvest years, the extensive infrastructure improvement, the ever increasing efforts to ensuring food security, as well as, the fact that all its data is dated by a decade, as far as I am concerned, the report is absolutely flawed. It does not reflect the reality on the ground today or in 2010 or 2006. To simply brush this as Western Media Propaganda will in fact do it more justice than it deserves. This report or any other report ought to only be weighed on its capacity to reflect the reality on the ground, as it existed or exists. On that measure this one is left desperately wanting. Even on its capacity to provide a picture of the past, as far as Eritrea is concerned, it is severely lacking.
That said however, I would like to add what one prominent persona had to say about IFPRI reports. Vandana Shiva, who is a philosopher, environmental activist, author and a physicist, accuses IFPRI for thinking “false number crunching can be a substitute for truth”. She insists that this attitude is “deadly for food and agriculture security, and farmers livelihoods… A recent paper from IFPRI” she adds “falls in this category of a doubly toxic paper”. And finally she concluded, “Since the IFPRI study is biased in its selection of literature, its claims are also biased.” Moreover, “The IFPRI report is also toxic in terms of contradictions and inconsistency”, Vandana Shiva writes.
In the end, the above note was written to provide a skeletal sketch of the deficiencies of the stated report and not as a comprehensive assessment. My wish is for some young college bound Eritrean to take up this note and provide a comprehensive assessment.
The following and other documents were consulted in compiling the above information
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