The Case Against Zero Hunger and the Sustainable Development Goals

With 2016 just around the corner, we are mere days away from getting started on the next set of development goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I have been able to follow the long consultation process that led up to their adoption in bits and pieces, through a conference in Seoul in 2012 and some related work on the food security side in Rome in 2014. I have a bit of an issue with the ‘Christmas tree approach’ to development goals (hang everything up and hope it sticks) embodied in the 17 goals and 169 targets the UN has adopted to guide the next 15 years of development work. But here I want to address one goal in particular: Zero Hunger.

I don’t like the concept of Zero Hunger as a development goal. This is not the most popular opinion in the place that I work, and so I thought I would give a few reasons to explain myself. What follows are the four main reasons for which the 2nd SDG is simply not good enough for me.

1. It’s not a goal. It’s an anti-goal. A goal would be something measurable, not just ‘find whatever I think we should eliminate, and eliminate it’. Zero anything is more of a vision. The underlying logic behind Zero Hunger is that it must be possible, and therefore can be a useful development goal. I address this point further down.

2. It’s confusing. Zero Hunger as in absolute Zero? The food insecure in Switzerland too? There’s no reason not to focus on them, sure, but let’s define terms. Is getting to absolute zero the same thing as getting to the current level of developed countries in general? And does it solicit the same approaches? I think no in both cases. Maybe we are on the cusp of large gains in the access, availability and utilization of food across the world- gains in the past decade alone have been astounding, and that’s good news. But the quality of food insecurity in richer countries in my estimation is very different from that in poorer countries. Food insecurity dropped with development in these former countries, but has kept steady at low levels for decades- even FAO stops counting undernourishment when it drops below 5%. To have this type of food security be the focus of the SDGs is to miss the point; sure, developed countries have gains to make, and it’s important to push them along that path- but to have that distract from the monumental effort required in developing countries is to miss where the largest impact can be had.

3. It’s not coherent with other goals. The goals on poverty reduction aren’t well linked to the food security goals- on one hand there’s ‘Reduce by 1/2 the number of people living in poverty…’, and on the other ‘End hunger, ensure access to safe nutritious food all year long’. That’s not the current relation of poverty reduction to reduction in food security though. People get less poor, then less food secure, not the other way around. FAO and WFP’s State of Food Insecurity annual report from back in 2013 had a great graph showing progress on the 1st MDG from 1990 to 2010. In this 20 year period, the prevalence of poverty dropped by almost half, while reductions in food insecurity (malnourishment and underweight) were of only about 10% points. How are we to get zero food insecure people while only aiming to reduce the number of people living in poverty by half? More importantly, if poverty is such a problem, why are we not running a ‘Zero Poverty’ campaign?

4. It’s not doable by 2030. It’s not. A goal is not, should not be, something that you walk into knowing that you will fail. You have to actually be able to do it. In Sudan WFP is cutting its support to tens of thousands of people. Not because there are fewer food insecure people, just because WFP doesn’t have any more money. It’s being disguised under the auspices of more ‘sustainable programmes’ to help people in the long term, but the fact is that WFP is helping fewer people who need help; it is cutting people off from support (bad, dependence-inducing support, but still support). Meanwhile the government of Sudan bombs towns, cuts off humanitarian access, and we have to shut up about it, because if not, we get kicked out. Rwanda is housing Congolese refugees for 20+ years now, and they’re not going anywhere soon; they still need support. What about international dialogues and agreements in the past 5 years makes anyone think that things are changing so much that in the next 15 years all these problems can be solved?

Food security is, like everything else, a matter of politics as well. And politics are…well, complicated. In a United Nations that continues its tradition of ambivalence toward governments that oppress their people, it becomes impossible for development and humanitarian actors to effectively support food security, much less eliminate food insecurity.

In this light I would have much rather seen an SDG goal and targets for food security that talk about humanitarian access to protracted conflicts, about the right to food, about government accountability, and about pushing states to capitalize on the truly great gains in food security over the past decades. Instead we are left with a vague wish list,the unfathomably dense idea of saying ‘I know, why don’t we just end hunger?’.

Dissonance in Development Discourse: ‘Africa Rising’

I recently wrote my frustration with the conception of risk and vulnerability in the African continent as dealt with by a Davos World Economic Forum debate. There is a similar line in the ‘Africa Rising ’ discourse, which as the Davos debate, centered almost exclusively on growth, investment and interest in the continent’s economic future. What is missing from these conversations is a serious consideration of how growth is benefiting the citizens of each country, and how international development efforts and international capital should approach this evolution.

Part of the problem is a dissonance between aid/development actors and business and investment actors when it comes to developing economies on the continent. The discourse of shared growth, welfare, investment in local economies and the like are pillars of the broader aid/development discourse, and are put into practice through different programs and policy advising.

The business and investment end does not have the same angle of attack. To be sure there are differences between foreign direct investment and financial speculation, bank driven investment and the like. The nature of the investment and the timeframe considered for the investment are such that in the latter case, there is a smaller incentive to care about second-degree causes of success, such as a country’s education level. There is a tendency across the board to look at indicators such as the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, ‘hard’ infrastructure such as roads, electricity, internet, but also the ‘soft’ infrastructure indicators that are laws, regulations, corruption indices and the like.

This is why debates like Davos can come up, and this is why McKinsey and Co. keeps coming out with reports (relevant and useful though they may be) on how Africa’s rise is being driven by privatization, low inflation rates and other ‘strong fundamentals’. So, that the question of ‘whose benefit’ has not been featured as prominently as it should be in a certain (nebulous) sector’s articulation of ‘Africa Rising’ is certainly one glaring obstacle.

Nairobi Marketplace

Nairobi Marketplace

African Consumption

There is another very interesting line, running parallel to the previous one, but with a more African-centered focus: it’s the way in which Africa’s rise is equated with the rise of an African middle class and of an African consumer. (This is a real leit motif of whoever is in charge of African markets research over at McKinsey, because they are all over this one- and here, and here). The actual numbers are very interesting. Consumer product industries slated to grow by 400 billion dollars by 2020. Private consumption on the continent rose by 568 billion dollars from 2000 to 2010. All very exciting stuff.

It’s exciting because an African consumer of enough significance could really change the way foreign capital looks at African countries, in addition to deepening markets for African businesses. In pointing this out, these reports, op-eds and books play an important role in getting the message out- that is, we are long past the days when ‘development’ in African countries meant simple aid money. Okay, all well and good.

Upon Further Inspection…

But this discourse and these studies are still very detached from that of shared growth and social welfare. The business community, the investors who have African countries, companies, and projects in their portfolios aren’t as eager to talk social protection, insurance and welfare.

And yet there is a real need to do so. Not simply because there is a large vulnerable population on the continent, but because sometimes the very growth that is touted in all these statistics comes at the expense of the more vulnerable population. So yes, there is a rising African consumer. But when you look closer, you learn that 81% of African private consumption is concentrated in 10 countries- only 5 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa (and they are all pretty much the usual suspects). One more step and you learn that a vast majority of labor on the continent is informalized. Another step and you see that while Diaspora communities returning ‘home’ can bring some economic advantages, it also perpetuates existing social inequalities.

You can be satisfied with the quotation here below for only so long…

In the 1990s African economies embraced the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) structural adjustment programmes, which advocated free market policies.“The introduction of liberalisation, which focused on private sector-led growth, is key to the growing middle class on the continent,” said Bategeka. “Countries introduced sound economic policies which controlled inflation, benefiting investments in their economies.” Source

…before you remember what structural adjustment also did to the African state’s ability to protect the most vulnerable in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the end…

There is nothing wrong with growth. But when you keep listening to Davos and to McKinsey and the others, it is easy to forget that growth and wealth in and of itself is not the end goal. Equatorial Guinea is classified by the World Bank as a High-Income country since 2007, even while 77% of the population lives on less than 2 dollars a day.

How can more of the population be involved in and see benefits from growth? How can growth serve to protect the most vulnerable from the risks of a globalizing domestic economy, from environmental changes, from health concerns? These are all questions of importance to the continent, and yes, to its overseas investors as well. This is the type of debate I would like to see grace center stage at forums like Davos.

‘De-risking’ Africa, Davos-Style

The World Economic Forum hosted a (televised- see video below) debate asking how to ‘de-risk’ Africa. The debate, while interesting, did not at all venture beyond first-order economic improvement and political stability. This could have been an enlightening and dynamic debate on the effects of economic growth and distribution, or lack thereof, on the continent. Instead it was a list of risks which, while accurate, doesn’t venture further down the prescriptive road past “states need to do everything they can to allow the growth to continue.” Whose growth and whose benefit? Mystère et boule de gomme, as they say. This is my attempt to add another dimension to the debate.

Why is this debate one-dimensional?

The prompt for this debate was rightfully put into question by Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, at the outset. But the subsequent conclusion drawn by the panelists was short-sighted. ‘De-risking’ Africa could imply that Africa is an inherently more risky place (from an economic standpoint- this is the WEF after all) than other continents. Zuma and two other entrepreneurs sitting on the panel with him (a panel which also included Louise Arbor, the president of the International Crisis Group, and Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan) responded that Africa was, far from a continent of risk, one of the most promising future economic opportunities.

But most panelists took this one line about growth and the ‘rise of Africa’ as the entire response to the question. That is to say, 1) the intrinsic answer to economic risks is economic growth. 2) Africa will continue to experience good economic growth, ergo, 3) Africa has a good answer to the question of ‘risk’.

WEF Africa

World Economic Forum

In particular the discussion emphasized the ‘hard infrastructure’ needed to facilitate economic activity and the implantation of foreign companies (roads, electricity, internet). A slight mention of ‘soft infrastructure’ (laws and regulations, governance-related factors) was made by Ms. Arbor. This back and forth, while interesting, misses a more fundamental question/critique of the debate prompt: risk for who?

Risk for who?

The WEF being what it is, this debate saw company owners, investors and politicians talking at length about economic prospects in the continent. But it was significantly less clear from discussion who these prospects were supposed to benefit, and why ordinary Africans should be more interested in the bright prospects of their continent.

The panelists talked about risks to investors- foreign and domestic, emphasizing large companies as vehicles for such investment. They talked about risks to states- in governance, in managing development cooperation on a regional level. They also talked about risk to people- but only to the extent that this meant the risk to physical security: the risk of conflict.

But what about all the other risks? There have been a few other bloggers writing about how the debate was framed, mentioning especially the problem of environmental risks being almost entirely overlooked in the debate. There is also the risk to people’s livelihoods and ability to live decently, caused by the cocktail of unpredictable commodity prices and high dependence on imports for basic goods that you see in so many Africa countries. There is the risk of the rough transition from agricultural production for unready emerging economies: university graduates without jobs, shrinking agricultural sector and rapidly rising urbanization.

These risks have a social dimension that was entirely bypassed during the debate. As the gains from economic development are built upon more and more, the social welfare of Africans will become a vital factor in determining the economic soundness of societies. To reduce this problem to one of the ‘security risk caused by the youth bulge’, or to ignore it entirely in favor of a monochrome view of how foreign companies are settling in African countries to not understand the important roles that Africans are playing and will play in their economies.

Growth or de-risking? Growth is de-risking?

Incidentally it strikes me as interesting that the  almost unanimous answer from the panelists be to ‘help growth’ on the continent in order to reduce risk. This is firstly because there is always an element of risk in economic expansion. But also because certain types of economic activities can signify more risks to vulnerable populations. For example, oil exploitation in Nigeria can certainly be a motor or economic growth, but unless it addresses the severe negative environmental externalities it causes, and unless it finds more successful ways to reinvest profits in the local economy, expansion of this activity could mean expanded risk- not for those making the profits of course, but for those who bear the brunt of the side-effects.

That’s not to say that growth and de-risking are directly opposable concepts. It’s a question of finding out how to help growth serve the people of the country in sustainable ways. It is also a question of further involving the people in economic activity, and make them active participants, or ‘shareholders’ with a more direct interest in the growth their country experiences.

The missing social element

Where was then the discussion on social safety nets and social insurance? Programmes to help solidify the most vulnerable in a country through cash transfer programmes, subsidies, fee waivers and others have seen some rather publicized successes in South America. Social insurance formed one of the cornerstones of South Korea’s social policy during its middle-income period.

Assuring that the basic needs of citizens are met is one of the reasons there is a state to begin with. But social safety nets and social insurance are not simply ‘soft’ humanitarian band-aids to poverty. They can help increase schooling rates, or bolster domestic consumption. Solidified ‘African demand’ can in turn bolster trade among African countries, which in turn could also contribute to the ‘hard’ infrastructure projects the panelists mentioned. It can help create a more dependable workforce, more reliable, more educated and if trained, with more know-how.

Just as African countries cannot rely on aid as the principle mechanism to advance their development, they cannot count on simply continuing growth trends without a long and serious national conversation on how the engines of growth should be shaped to address environmental problems and problems of social welfare. It is a debate that is taking place all over the world- just not as this particular debate in Davos.

Emerging Africa: More Questions

View from the Heritage Hotel, Dar es Salaam- Seyemon

View from the Heritage Hotel, Dar es Salaam- Seyemon

The tone was slightly reminiscent of an afro-pessimism/afro-optimism debate, but the January 11 rebuttal article of Rick Rowden’s Foreign Policy piece certainly makes some good points.

The interesting framing of the problem, (à savoir, ‘going the way it is going and pursuing the path it is on, will many countries on the African continent achieve more economic development?’) is in terms of what African countries do with the resources they have.

The authors of the book The Fastest Billion: The Story Behind Africa’s Economic Revolution make five big arguments for progress on the continent:

  1. Social and economic policies in many African countries are seeing a shift akin to that which took place in East Asian countries before their ‘takeoff’
  2. African countries are doing (and will keep doing) better at reinvesting the gains from agriculture and primary goods exports into infrastructure, services and other higher value-added production which will drive production in the future
  3. Rising wages in China and other Southeast Asian countries can cause a renewed interest in African countries for labor-intensive production
  4. Education levels are also rising on the continent, which will spur on the advent of industrialization and manufacturing
  5. Ease of doing business indicators have been getting better, corruption as well, and this is creating a more favorable environment for growth

After reading this I simply must get my hands on this book, The Fastest Billion. There are simply too many questions that I could not find answers for in the short Foreign Policy article. The book, I think, should be great for providing paths to the following questions:

–          Is agriculture really doing all right? Are the African countries in the so-called middle income stage of growth being supported by the agricultural sector? The authors mentioned the importance of agriculture as a basis for industrialization in Korea; is this the same case in African countries? Niger and Gabon are two countries with interesting plans to reduce reliance on food imports- is this type of state-led program the way to go?

–          Is it really easier to do business on the continent? There might be some improvement over the last 5 years in African countries’ scores on the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, but are these the result of steady improvement in policies? Here I surmise the answer will vary vastly among countries. Rwanda’s indicators for this year are leaps and bounds better than just four years ago, and are driven by a government dedicated to change. But so many countries are not showing much steady progress, while they also face trouble in corruption indicators.

–          Are resources being properly reinvested in value-added industries? There is much talk as to the extent to which these resources need to all be funneled into new industries- they are not the end-all be all of economic development, and first ensuring a population’s basic needs are addressed makes more sense on so many levels. But where are the oil dollars and copper and bauxite dollars going? I don’t have nearly as good an idea of this as I would like.

–          Are African countries really on track to absorb higher value added production, successfully move up global commodity chains and mobilize their population’s rapidly growing education? My most vivid memory over the last year were the protests in several countries by what were essentially overeducated youth, who invested precious years in study only to find that there were few, if any jobs available for them in their countries. Successes in primary education in Africa are becoming more and more known, and many have pointed to tertiary education as a sort of new education frontier for many countries. But how well is this skilled labor being absorbed by these economies? I really want to know.

For now there are only questions.

But the beginning of an answer will probably come more from looking at individual countries, as opposed to trying to rationalize trends across the great diversity that is the Continent.

The Korean State and Private Actors: Building Capacity


What do welfare and R&D have in common? They’re both keys to an interesting policy lesson from Korea.

The nexus between the public and private sectors is an integral part of Korea’s development history during its middle-income period (from about the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s), and has always gotten special attention. Most known are the Chaebol conglomerates, private businesses which, through their very close relations to political power contributed to the country’s industrialization.

There are many lenses through which one can look at the relationship between state and private sector; here is an interesting and often overlooked one:

In many middle-income countries (MICs), development problems often revolve around capacity issues: state capacity to provide services, private sector capacities in investment or infrastructure-building for example. These challenges go along with that of properly negotiating the role of the state vis-à-vis private actors, ensuring cooperation for development. In this respect the Korean example is very germane, giving policy insight into a number of specific issues.

Two examples show rather well how the relationship between the state and the private sector was established and subsequently evolved over time.

The first one is that of research and development. In Korea, the state played a strong architect role, initially establishing research institutes in the 1960s such as the Korea institute of Science and Technology to promote technological ‘catch-up’. But from the mid-1960s onwards the state enlisted its tax regime, credit allocation system and trade policy to push for higher private sector investment in R&D. The private sector shouldered a very large portion of research and development investments starting in the mid-1960s, with its share in total investments reaching around 75% twenty years later. The state investments made early-on corresponded to the immediate needs of its developing private sector which, coupled with incentives, pushed the private sector into more ownership of the R&D process. The attached graph shows the rapid evolution in the private sector’s share of R&D investment.

Longterm Trend Korea's R&D Expenditures

Long-term Trend in Korea’s R&D Expenditure

The second example is that of welfare policy. The Korean welfare system started in the 1970s by placing almost the whole burden for financing on the shoulders of the private sector. The state instituted mandatory but privately funded welfare programs. For medical insurance, coverage was taken on by companies with more than 500 employees in the mid-1970s. This was subsequently expanded to companies with 100 or more employees (1984), then 16 or more (1986), then finally to the self-employed by the late 1980s. But it was with the 1997 financial crisis and increased public vulnerability that spurred increased state expenditure on welfare (the government instituted a minimum living standard guarantee for the first time). Here, the state-planned, privately-implemented system was brought further into the public realm as time passed.

These issues are of great importance to MICs as well. Countries like Thailand struggle to increase the portion of private investment in R&D, while countries like the Philippines are looking for ways to expand welfare coverage in the population.


To be sure there are setbacks, not the least of which was the exclusion of small firms and of the self-employed from social policies for the longest time. There is also the fact that the ‘transfer’ of the burden for R&D onto the private sector was not made in a fair or equitable way, and was very much tied to the political relations that different companies had with the state. This contributed to widening the gap between chaebol and small and medium enterprises.

The state was also had a rather limited idea of its social responsibilities for quite some time (still today really). It boiled down to the provision of different types of insurance, and was heavily weighted on employment. So when the 1997 ‘IMF crisis’ hit and the number of unemployed soared, or in the aftermath when the portion of temporary employment climbed to over 50%, the inadequacy of the systems of protection were laid bare. This is a problem that continues to this day.

But despite its shortcoming, the Korean experience raises interesting questions on how the state and private sector reinforced each other’s capacity weaknesses, and how that relationship changed over time with economic growth.

Is this pattern prevalent in other countries as well? How has financing for social policies and R&D been informed by the relationship between the state and private sectors?

Also, the Korean example is one of a very strong state, with a tight handle on its finances; but have similar policies been pulled off with any success (or not) by more decentralized states, and in more recent climates of economic openness?

And the most important question, are such policies possible in today’s climate of liberalized public services? That is, do countries have the policy breathing room to start taking on more welfare-related responsibilities given the push (free trade agreements are part of this) to privatize medical services and other ‘social’ allocations? Or is it more of a capacity problem, where the state is simply unable to envision upgrading its social service responsibilities in the first place?

Chris Blattman

International development, economics, politics, and policy


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