No Poverty, Zero Hunger: How Realistic Are the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?



As climate change holds the headlines, there are many other pressing issues facing the global population which are under-reported. The United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2016 in an attempt to increase sustainable growth so that all the world’s population benefits without breaking the planet.

Belong looks at all the 17 SDGs in detail to see how effective they have been to date, the problems the SDGs are trying to alleviate and what needs to be done to make the world a better place for everyone.

We begin by looking at SDG One, No Poverty, and SDG Two, Zero Hunger. We will examine the remaining SDGs in upcoming articles, so watch this space.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have been roundly criticised by many journalists as being unachievable.
The Economist has called the SDGs “worse than useless” while another commentator called them “a high school wish list on how to save the world.”

However, such criticism fails to embrace that the UN operates in a complex world and that substantial progress has already been made on reducing global poverty and hunger. They also seem to ignore the fact that many people in the world are malnourished and still live in desperate poverty and while criticising the SDGs, offer no viable alternatives.

According to figures from the UN, 783 million people live on less than US$1.90 per day and one in four children under five is of inadequate height as a result of undernutrition and malnutrition but there has been progress. The proportion of the world’s workers living below US$1.90 per day has dropped from 26.9% in 2000 to 9.2% in 2017.

While there has been progress in stamping out world poverty, after a period of prolonged decline, world hunger appears to be on the rise again and the proportion of undernourished people in the world rose from 10.6% in 2015 to 11% in 2016.

John Coonrod, Executive Vice President of The Hunger Project, an NGO which fights to end world hunger, explained to Belong in an exclusive interview what steps need to be taken to eradicate world hunger.

Why Are People Hungry and Where do They Live?

Coonrod explained that in the corridors of the UN the term hunger does not necessarily mean that someone is starving. Hunger is rather an umbrella term that covers undernutrition as well as severe and malnutrition. The effects even of undernutrition mean a person is not getting enough calories, proteins or vitamins and may result in poor health or stunted growth in children.

The greatest proportion of hungry people in the world live in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. India has a third of the world’s hungry people and many people in the rural north of China are still going hungry, despite China’s rapid economic growth in the past two decades.

There is a strong link between poverty and hunger, most hungry people are also poor people, but there are also other factors at play particularly conflict and to a lesser extent climate change related disaster, such as the recent cyclone that devastated coastal regions of Mozambique in March.

“The kinds of conflict that are going on in Syria, Iraq and northern Nigeria. These were not particularly hungry places five years ago. These were places where we saw relative stability, relative peace and relative lack of corruption,” said Coonrod.

Syria has never been a poor country, yet it has been ravaged by civil war for seven years and experienced a drought that badly affected farmers but that was ignored by the government.

There are also regions of the world that are poor that have eliminated hunger, for example, the Kerala state of India.
“It’s not one of the richer states of India but its got quality of life that’s pretty similar to the developed world, in terms of life expectancy, nutrition levels, and mortality rates,” said Coonrod.

What Needs to Change

One immediate practical step, Coonrod explained, would be to scrap farming subsidies in the developed world.
“The countries that have made progress in ending hunger have done so through having a real expansion in agricultural production and the systematic denial of markets to poorer countries is very unjust,” explained Coonrod.

Coonrod is clear that the kind of economic growth in the world has to change and that the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are calling for inclusive, sustainable growth.

“We really need to emphasise how different that is to the sort of growth we have seen in the past 30 years. So inclusive growth means economic growth for the poorest. We are going to have population growth, so some economic growth is inescapable, but let’s shift it to being inclusive and sustainable,” he said.

Of all the income generated by global GDP growth between 1999 and 2008, the poorest 60% of people on the planet received just 5% of it.

Despite criticism from some quarters, Coonrod believes the UN is right to try and work with big business and corporations to try and solve world poverty and hunger. For example, there are companies, such as Unilever and L’Oréal that support initiatives such as zero deforestation.

“The people I’ve talked to at the UN are trying to have some influence on the norms and aspirations of business people. The United Nations has really sought to find a group of enlightened corporate leaders who would seek to change the norms within business because they have such enormous influence,” said Coonrod.

Coonrod, who was overseeing a project in Togo, West Africa, when I spoke to him, explained that there is not a crisis of food but a crisis of democracy and this is why so many people are still hungry. In the developed world, even with a swing towards ever greater privatisation, local communities control about 50% of public resources, whereas, in the poorest countries, local communities control only 2-3% of public resources.

“We are pushing for a devolution of public resources down to the counties and sub-counties so that people have a chance to hold local government to account for decent services,” said Coonrod. “This is particularly important for women. Unless they have access to healthcare and the kind of drudgery reducing opportunities, like hand pumps and grain mills, they will never escape extreme poverty,” he added.

While the SDG’s may not be perfect, they are ambitious and unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that proceeded them, they are trying to harness the huge resources of the business world to create more sustainable growth. Perhaps we should wait and see before we condemn what the SDGs achieve.