Despite signs of progress, world hunger remains an intractable problem, according to the newly published 2010 Global Hunger Index. Reported annually by the International Food Policy Research Institute, the index looks at 122 developing nations and transitional economies, and gives them a score based on three equally weighted hunger indicators: the proportion of people who are undernourished, the proportion of children under 5 who are underweight, and the child mortality rate. Each nation receives a score ranging from 0 to 100, with 0 indicating "no hunger" and 100 indicating the opposite. While no country actually achieves either extreme, the numbers show that world hovers at a serious level, with the total number of hungry people on the planet recently beginning to rise. About 1 billion people on the planet today qualify as undernourished.
The 2010 GHI includes hunger statistics between 2003 and 2008. To give us a greater perspective on hunger over time, graphic designer Ross Perez has created this visualization, which compares GHI in 1990 with GHI in 2010. Here we can see that African nations continue to top the "world's worst" list, and some countries—such as Sierra Leone and Chad—remain virtually stagnant in their scores. Others, however have progressed markedly. According to the IPRI's report, Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Vietnam made the most absolute headway in improving their GHI scores between 1990 and 2010. In relative terms, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Tunisia, and Turkey made the most progress in that same two-decade time span.
A recent spike in global food prices, the IFPRI report notes, is responsible for tipping the number of undernourished people beyond 1 billion. In Africa, those price increases have dovetailed with declines in agricultural production, high rates of HIV/AIDS, and political instability to produce an alarming negative synergy: Africa is home to eight of the nine countries in which hunger levels rose, including Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi — the latter two receiving "extremely alarming" scores of hunger on the GHI. Globally, 29 countries now have levels of hunger that are "extremely alarming" or "alarming," with most of those countries being in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Against those sobering trends, the new report provides some grounds for optimism. Childhood hunger could be cut by one-quarter to one-third by providing better healthcare for women. Mothers who are undernourished tend to give birth to underweight babies, and the problems perpetuate when breastfeeding women are too malnourished to produce adequate milk.
The first 1,000 days of a person's life are absolutely critical, so making sure that women are well-nourished is the easiest gain. Poverty, gender inequality, and entrenched conflict present the far more challenging hurdles. But visualizations such as these are a start, reminding us of a dilemma that continues to sap life from the human population, even as our numbers grow.