Photograph by Dominic Nahr, National Geographic
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A single mother makes porridge for ten children in a Nairobi slum. Some 800 million people around the world don't have enough to eat.

Photograph by Dominic Nahr, National Geographic

Opinion: We Can End Hunger. Here's How

We're making progress against hunger, the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization writes, but not enough to end it.

The international community has embraced a new goal, the eradication of hunger by 2030. That makes us the zero hunger generation with a shared commitment to make hunger history.

As we commemorate the Food and Agriculture Organization’s birth 70 years ago and celebrate World Food Day, we are reminded of FAO’s mission to ensure food security for all, everywhere.

The zero hunger goal requires us to accelerate our efforts to reduce hunger and poverty to naught. We have made considerable progress since 1990. A majority of the countries FAO monitors—72 of 129—have achieved the Millennium Development Goal target of halving the prevalence of undernourishment between 1991 and 2014.

Progress, however, has been uneven: Some 800 million people continue to suffer hunger, and almost a billion live in extreme poverty.

We need to break out of the cycles that trap people in poverty and hunger. In a business as usual scenario, more than 600 million people are still likely to be hungry in 2030. That’s a long way from zero.

A Pro-Poor Posture

Eradicating hunger requires commitment—political will. It will require sustained efforts in many areas, particularly pro-poor investments in rural areas, where the majority of the world’s most vulnerable live. Economic growth alone will not suffice; it needs to be socially inclusive to ensure sufficient access to food for all.

Pro-poor public investments include infrastructure benefitting smallholder family farmers, ensuring sustainable agriculture, reducing post-harvest food losses, strengthening land and water rights, and making sure that the poor and marginalized—whose ranks include many women and  youth—have fair access to credit, farm inputs including seed and fertilizers, and the extension services that provide training and advice to rural smallholders.

Road improvement projects in Bangladesh, to cite an example, increased agricultural wages by 27 percent and greatly increased school enrollment for local boys and girls. Such investments can break the self-perpetuating cycle of rural poverty.

Beyond Short-Term Tactics

Along with more pro-poor investments, we need to promote wider and deeper use of social protection programmes to lift people out of poverty permanently by ensuring people do not slip back into it.

Social protection refers to programmes to provide basic needs. Providing a social protection floor ensures basic needs for all.

Social protection schemes can take many forms, from guaranteed employment in public works, cash or in-kind transfers to eligible beneficiaries and school feeding programmes. If well designed, they enable the poorest to undertake activities to earn more, rising above the poverty line.

In 2013 alone, social protection measures took around 150 million people out of extreme poverty. The growing acceptance and proliferation of social protection in the developing world imply recognition of their ability to immediately address poverty and hunger. Such schemes work and are affordable, especially compared to the cost and price of doing nothing.

Social protection offsets income shortfalls so that vulnerable households can avoid livelihood and food security shocks, which are particularly hard for rural households that are dependent on agriculture to recover from.

But it can do much more: it can help millions of family farmers and rural labourers move beyond short-termist survival tactics, and enable them to invest more in productive activities as well as their children’s health and education.

Time is money,  and that is no less true for the poor. Today, we know that even relatively small transfers to poor households, when regular and predictable, can insure against risks that might otherwise deter them from pursuing more income-generating activities.

Far from creating dependency or reducing work effort, social protection strengthens livelihoods. Increasing the purchasing power of the poor also benefits the wider community by increasing business opportunities, triggering a virtuous local economic growth cycle, especially welcome in typically neglected rural areas.

But social protection programmes, on their own, will not be enough. We need to integrate them with pro-poor agricultural investment programmes to derive more virtuous synergies.

Political commitment, partnerships and adequate funding are key to realizing this vision. Policies and plans for rural development, poverty reduction, food security and nutrition need to promote pro-poor investments and social protection to fight poverty and hunger, together with a broader set of interventions, notably in health and education.

We know what to do. We have the tools. Now we’ve made the pledge. So we must be the zero hunger generation.