The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 has several terms that are combined together, according to the goal – hunger, food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture. That doesn’t mean these terms are synonymous. Only fools would try to measure the sustainability of agriculture through data on nutrition. Therefore, in refining the goals, SDG-2 has separate targets on malnutrition, food insecurity, stunting (height for age) and malnutrition (weight for height).
It is difficult to distinguish malnutrition from undernourishment and the FAO tends to equate food insecurity with malnutrition and equate it with hunger. With India’s subsidized food security scheme, hunger is unlikely to be a problem. In fact, the consumption survey of the National Sample Survey showed that almost every household, rural and urban, reported getting two square meals a day. The discourse should shift from hunger to malnutrition. That is why India’s national indicator framework for the SDGs (developed by the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation) has indicators such as underweight, stunting and stunted children under five, pregnant women and anemic children, women with low BMI and population marginalized without access to subsidized food-grains. To state the obvious again, as it is not always appreciated, what is true of children, or women for that matter, is not necessarily true of the general population. When dealing with numbers, it’s best to remember this.
Together with the GHI (Global Hunger Index), with its self-proclaimed peer-reviewed methodology. There are four indicators – malnutrition, stunted children, child wasting and child mortality. Since this is an indicator, how accurate is it to call this a hunger index? One sixth of that weighting is attached to child stunting, 1/6 to child wasting, 1/3 to child mortality and 1/3 to malnutrition. The nomenclature of “hunger” is driven by malnutrition, ie for the entire population, not just children.
Why would someone build such an index? Presumably to influence policy. So, there is a normative angle to such an exercise. It is not merely academic and intellectual. Under “policy”, we are given a rather empty general statement: “The 2022 GHI reflects both the alarming scandal of hunger in too many countries around the world as well as a change in trajectory in countries where decades of progress in addressing hunger are being eroded .” There is no specific mention of children, or women, for that matter, suggesting the policy intention is to emphasize hunger, not other indicators, even though they are included in the index. All policy statements have value judgments. Is child growth stunted and child wasting -children are necessarily bad? Most people would probably automatically answer in the affirmative. However, child and infant mortality has decreased simultaneously. Of course, that is a good thing. These are children who might have died. Now born , they are now more likely to be underweight, stunted and wasted, than average and that will reduce the numbers.
If the methodology were truly peer-reviewed, and not happily reviewed, it is likely that criticism would suggest the separation of indicators for the general population from indicators for children. That allows for a teasing policy, different for both segments. For indicators related to children, we have numbers from the NFHS-5 (National Family Health Survey), which was conducted between 2019 and 2021. The recent UNDP report on multidimensional poverty has used this to document the decline in poverty. Thus, one understands where the data for three of the four indicators comes from. Data comes through surveys, not from complete enumeration, as is the case with censuses.
Nevertheless, the NFHS sample size is quite large. Where does FAO get data on malnutrition or hunger, the fourth indicator? This is not data that any standard survey gets a number on. FAO decided to conduct its own survey, as it has done in the past, through the Food Insecurity Experience Scale Survey Module, which has eight questions. As most people know by now, this poll was given to a sample size of 3,000. In an era, where a chat with a taxi driver offers basic insight, 3,000 may seem large. But in a country like India, most people would laugh at this sample size.
Peer-reviewed or not, the question seemed odd to anyone who had drafted the questionnaire. For example, question 8 states, as a question asked, “You don’t eat all day because of lack of money or other resources?” This is good. But question 1 states, “You worry that you don’t have enough food to eat because of a lack of money or other resources?” There should be great skepticism about questions concerning the state of mind. It gets worse. Of course, the question was not asked in English. Yes, they were asked in Hindi. Question 6 states, “Does your household run out of food due to lack of money or other resources?” The Hindi translation, as asked, is “apke ghar mein bhojana ki kami ho gayi kyonki ghar mei paise ya anya samashadano ki kami thi”. “Out” means no food. “Kami” means less food. Answering yes to a Hindi question is not the same as answering yes to an English question.
This is more than just semantics. It is a serious error in translation. Such errors can be due to incompetence, or they can be intentional. In an exercise that has been peer-reviewed and must go through successive iterations, inefficiency and inadvertence are unlikely to be the answer. In any case, by disseminating something like the GHI, the FAO has done itself a disservice, downplaying a serious issue, where cross-country surveys of hunger in other countries are also bound to be subject to serious anomalies.
The writer is the chairman, PM’s Economic Advisory Council. Views are personal