The number of malnourished people continues to grow, despite an 8-year-old pledge by world leaders to cut chronic hunger by half by the year 2015.

A report released Wednesday by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization said the number of hungry people in the world grew 18 million from the mid-1990s, reaching 852 million in the 2000-2002 period.

While efforts to reduce hunger in developing countries are not currently on track to meet World Food Summit and Millennium Development Goals of reducing world hunger by half, the goal can still be attained, according to the FAO report.

It cites more than 30 countries, most in sub-Saharan Africa, which reduced the percentage of hungry people by at least 25 percent during the 1990s, proving that progress is possible and offering lessons in how it can be achieved.

Aside from moral concerns—one child dies every five seconds as a result of hunger and malnutrition—the report highlights the economic costs of hunger. Children who are stunted by hunger stand to lose 5 percent to 10 percent in lifetime earnings. On a global scale, that costs developing countries about $500 billion a year in lost productivity.

The FAO lamented that so little is being done to fight hunger, especially since the costs are miniscule when compared to doing nothing. Studies show that every dollar invested in well-targeted interventions to reduce undernourishment can yield from five times to more than 20 times as much in benefits, according to the report.

“It is incomprehensible and difficult to understand why this investment is not made,” FAO Assistant Director General Hartwig de Haen said in media reports.

The report says more than 20 million babies are born with low birth weight in the developing world each year. These babies face greater threat of dying in infancy and of suffering lifelong physical and cognitive disabilities.

Direct medical costs of malnourished children and mothers add up to $30 billion a year, five times the amount committed so far to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the report says.

Indirect costs—loss of income caused by premature death, disability and lower educational and job opportunity—are estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

The FAO estimates that $24 billion a year in public investment, along with private investment, would boost economies in poor countries by $120 billion a year.

World leaders at the World Food Summit in 1996 pledged to cut hunger in half by 2015. In October a group of evangelical leaders from around the world launched the Micah Challenge, pledging to hold government leaders accountable for meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

Groups pledging support for the Micah Challenge include the Baptist World Alliance General Council, which in June passed a resolution pledging cooperation with 270 other religious groups “to make a biblically shaped response to the needs of the poor and oppressed.”

The FAO report says most of the world’s hungry live in rural areas in the developing world. Some 815 million hungry people live in developing countries, 28 million in countries that are in transition and a surprising 9 million in industrialized countries.

The FAO tracked 35 countries facing a food crisis requiring emergency assistance as of July 2004. Most were in Africa and were caused by drought, conflict or a combination of the two.

The report calls for a two-track approach of improving food production in poor counties while targeting relief programs that give the most needy direct and immediate access to food.

While facing the challenge of widespread malnutrition on one hand, developing countries ironically are at the same time seeing increases in diabetes, heart disease and other problems associated with too much food as globalization and urbanization result in changing lifestyles and diets, the FAO said.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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