- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2000

LONDON Somalia, Afghanistan and Haiti rank as the hungriest countries in the world, according to a new measurement introduced yesterday by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In an effort to better quantify hunger as the world struggles to reach goals set at the 1996 World Food Summit, the FAO introduced a "depth of hunger" measurement in its annual food security report.

Comparing the average dietary intake of the undernourished in a given country with the minimum requirement needed to maintain body weight under light activity, the FAO found that hungry Somalis are missing 490 calories a day, or 27 percent of their minimum requirement.

The hungry of Afghanistan are missing 480 calories, 26 percent of their minimum requirement, and Haiti's hungry lack 460 calories, or 24 percent.

The three countries also rank highest in terms of percentage of population undernourished Somalia at 75 percent; Afghanistan, 70 percent; and Haiti, 62 percent.

A total of 826 million people nearly one in six in the world do not get enough to eat, according to the report. The vast majority of these 792 million live in developing countries.

Nations attending the World Food Summit pledged to reduce the number of hungry people to 400 million by 2015, but the FAO report says progress has been so slow that it now predicts the target cannot be achieved before 2030.

"Action has to be taken. The situation is alarming," FAO Assistant Director General Hartwig de Haen said at a news conference yesterday.

Asia has the most hungry people, but food insecurity is most severe in sub-Saharan Africa, where 19 out of 46 countries have a food deficit of more than 300 calories a day.

High hunger predictably causes high infant mortality rates and low life expectancy, but this year's report also found that women tend to suffer the most.

Women are generally smaller and less muscular than men, requiring less dietary energy per day, but the FAO found that a woman's more demanding physiology requires an equal amount of nutrients.

The result is that women even when not pregnant require more nutritious food and suffer more in times of hardship.

Pointing to recent success stories in Ghana and Thailand, the FAO advocated a mix of political stability, sustainable economic growth and agricultural research to eradicate hunger.

In Ghana, agricultural research identified new market opportunities for farmers growing cassava. Between 1990 and 1998, annual consumption of cassava in Ghana rose from 282 pounds to 510 pounds per person.

Undernourishment in the country fell from 29 percent to 10 percent during that period.

In Thailand, poverty and malnutrition fell dramatically over the last two decades as the country focused on sustainable rural development.

Nearly 37 percent of Thais lived below the poverty line in 1988, but by 1996 poverty had been reduced to 11.4 percent.

The FAO also endorsed a strengthening of debt relief to poor countries recently undertaken by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

"Most highly indebted countries are those where the prevalence of hunger is also highest," Mr. de Haen said. "We believe this is a golden opportunity that cannot be missed."

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