by Sasha Alyson
In 2015 the U.N. announced that its Millennium Development Goals were an unprecedented success.
But the real success was not that this program had improved the lives of the world’s poorest people. The U.N. never tried to honestly figure out if that was the case. Rather, the success was that the U.N. managed to control the entire conversation, convince the world that the MDG goals had brought great improvements, avoid any objective evaluation of whether global, top-down development goals actually worked, and win permission for a greatly expanded program, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from 2015-2030.
It would take a book to cover this story in full detail. Here’s what one chapter in such a book might look reveal.
The first Millennium Development Goal, which also got the most attention, was to “Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.” It came with two closely-related targets, which actually said nothing about eradication:
• Reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day
• Reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger
In 2015 the U.N. claimed success. The number of people in extreme poverty had fallen by a walloping 68%, the hunger number by only 45% but together these were clearly good news. The world had cut poverty rates by half. That was the key takeaway of the U.N.’s MDG report, the uplifting news repeated around the world. But to produce this feel-good soundbite, the U.N. has sloughed off its moral obligation to give an honest accounting of a complex topic.
Well-qualified critics tried to call attention to this,(1) but the media prefers the soundbite. That’s why soundbites got invented. But this particular soundbite is self-serving and willfully deceitful.
Home team advantage
Imagine a sports event in which a few unusual things happen:
• The first game wasn’t going well for the home team, so they called it off and started a new game with new rules.
• After the game started, the goal lines were quietly moved.
• The referees declared a winner before the game ended….
• …. late in the game they changed scores from the early play…
• …. and they made some highly questionable calls along the way.
• The referees are paid by the team that they declared to be the winner. Actually, they are on that team.
In a major sports event, that would have caused outrage. When the United Nations did it with the Millennium Development Goals, it raised nary an eyebrow. Here, let’s zoom in on the goal of halving world hunger.
New game. In 1996, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) hosted the World Food Summit in Rome. World leaders pledged:
“an ongoing effort to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015.“
A few years later, that wasn’t happening. The FAO estimated in 2000 that there were 826 million undernourished people – “essentially no change since the last count.”
But relief was on the way – if not for the hungry, at least for those claiming to help the hungry. In 2000 the United Nations passed its Millennium Declaration, with a goal that sounds much like the 1996 Rome pledge:
“To halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people … who suffer from hunger.”
Within a few years, the 1996 Rome goal was largely forgotten. The 2000 MDG goal was the new game.(2)
New rules. Read that new goal closely. Instead of reducing the number of people, the new goal was to reduce the proportion. With a rising population that was an easier goal, but it left more people hungry.(3)
Even more quietly, while the 1996 Rome declaration was of “all countries” and the U.N. in 2000 referred to “the world’s people,” within five years the U.N. was reporting on hunger only “in the developing regions.” This unannounced change sounds minor, but it had big consequences: In 2015 the U.N. could announce a hunger reduction of 44.5%, more than 3 points better than if it had kept its original goal of 2000.(4)
At this point, it is impossible to claim, with a straight face, that the U.N. was acting in good faith. These four words — in the developing regions — did not crawl out of a dictionary, in the dead of night, and insert themselves into the U.N. reports. There was a willful decision to subtly change the goal in a way which cast the U.N. in a better light.
The goal lines moved. These global development goals were first proposed in 2000. Yet a few years later, with no fanfare, the U.N. was measuring success from a 1990 baseline.
How come? Surely a big factor is that China greatly reduced hunger and extreme poverty in the 1990s, mostly through land reform. China, however, was following its own policies, not the U.N.’s; and this reduction happened before the MDGs existed. When the U.N. in 2015 claimed credit for having greatly reduced hunger, 74% of that reduction was in China and had nothing to do with the U.N. program.
Declaring the winner before the game ends. The U.N. declared great success for its MDG program six months before the program ended. Since it takes at least another year or two for data to be produced, and some statistics aren’t collected every year, and a careful evaluation takes additional time, it would have been impossible to produce a good report before 2018 or 2019.
The motive for the rush seems clear. Less than three months after the self-congratulatory MDG report appeared, the U.N. General Assembly approved the new Sustainable Development Goals as the blueprint for another fifteen years of development policy. That vote was the real deadline here. The U.N. leadership wanted unanimous, friction-free approval for the SDGs, and got it. By rushing through a glowing report, then a vote on the successor to the MDGs, the U.N. ensured that a much-needed debate about “did the MDGs actually work well enough for a sequel?” never took place.
Changing the early scores. They shifted the baselines, then announced results before the game had ended. They didn’t stop there. By 2005, things were looking grim. In sub-Saharan Africa, hunger levels were rising. China’s progress had more than compensated for this in the 1990s, but there wasn’t enough hunger left in China for that to continue. In 2009, the FAO published these numbers:
With this, the U.N. chiefs surely went into crisis mode. When it came time to report the success of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, there might well be more hungry people on the planet than ever before! Sure, the U.N. could report that the proportion of hungry people had dropped but it couldn’t credibly claim success if the absolute numbers were going up.
Already, the FAO was frequently revising its previous estimates of the world’s hungry. Each time, helpfully, it re-estimated figures going back to 1990. Conveniently, the 1990 figure went up. In 1992, the FAO said there had been 786 million hungry people in the developing world in 1990. A decade later it had revised that to 818.5. The 1990 data was getting old, but it was vitally important. Every time that number went up, it looked like the current hunger numbers had dropped farther, and thus represented a greater success for U.N. policies.
Above all else, big institutions protect themselves; they’d never have grown big otherwise. We do not know all the details, but the United Nations was not going to let itself look irrelevant. In 2011 the FAO reported that it had been “asked” to review its methodology, and to hold off on issuing new hunger estimates. The next year, it received an “explicit request” to review all the data “back to 1990.” It did. In 2012, the 1990 figure jumped from 833.2 to 980 million. Suddenly, the U.N. was winning the war against hunger.
Here’s the chart again. The green line shows the original numbers reported by the FAO. The red line shows what the FAO reported in 2015.
According to the FAO, the biggest revision in the 1990 hunger data was caused by new estimates about food loss during the distribution process – twenty years earlier, in countries which have trouble recording births and deaths accurately and where GDP figures are little more than a hope, a hunch, and an estimate, all added together to produce three significant digits. More food had been lost than was recognized back then, the experts decided, thus less food reached people, thus more people – 111 million more, to be precise, and precise numbers make it look like we have all the answers – were hungry in 1990 than anybody knew until twenty years later.
The FAO’s data changes were challenged in a New York Times opinion piece by the Argentine journalist Martín Caparrós, who wrote:
“This is not conscious corruption. It’s a symptom of an institutional culture that has to prove it is achieving important progress. The 1990 change justifies the United Nations’ efforts and jobs, as much as it quiets our consciences.”
The FAO responded that “revisions are normal practice among national and international statistical agencies.” Rubbish. When U.N. officials saw how the numbers were headed, they convened a “High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition” with representatives from 15 countries to assess the situation and make a recommendation about what to do – which, predictably, was to produce new numbers. This gave the FAO the cover it needed, but convening 15-country panels to come up with a reason to toss out 20-year-old data is not part of a routine statistical revision, and it seems deliberately misleading to suggest otherwise.
This decision introduced further bias in yet another way. The U.N. decided to recalculate old data, such as the 1990 hunger estimates, simply because, as the deadline neared, it didn’t like the way things were shaping up. Everyone agrees that hunger calculations are sketchy, at best. Many subjective decisions go into these numbers; even smart, dedicated analysts who want accurate results – and the FAO has such people — will produce different estimates. In a situation like this, to accept the numbers you like, but toss out anything you don’t like and try again, will skew the numbers in the direction you want. That’s just what the U.N. did.
Other questionable calls. The U.N. says it is reporting the proportion of people who “suffer from hunger.” But it uses such an extreme definition that most hungry people aren’t included in the U.N.’s count. You do not count as “hungry” unless for more than a year you consume too few calories to support even a sedentary lifestyle. If you’re farmworker engaged in heavy labor, then by definition you don’t suffer from hunger because you’re able to do work that requires twice the calories of a sedentary person. If your baby starved to death at the age of nine months, your baby won’t be counted as having suffered from hunger.
Furthermore, the hunger definition is based only on a calorie count. If you get 1800 calories a day but fall short on key nutrients, you don’t count as undernourished. Large numbers of people – such as nursing mothers who don’t get enough iron, children who’ve lost their vision because of vitamin-A deficiency – are not counted as undernourished. An explosion of fast food in the global South – pushed by Western corporations, and increasingly by China – has led to greater malnutrition even amongst people who get enough calories. When the U.N. changed its methodology in 2012, it could have made adjustments for this, as it did for other factors. But the U.N. was struggling for ways to make the numbers look better, and this makes them look worse. It was not included.
We should not be oblivious to the number of people who are literally starving to death – we should be shamed by it – but neither should we accept this as the best indicator of world food security. Here we see a big difference in tone between FAO and U.N. reporting. The FAO repeatedly stresses that these hunger estimates are too conservative to give a full picture of hunger. The U.N., eager to produce a simple, happy soundbite for the media, does not.
The referees were chosen from the home team. Let’s recognize again what an impossibly hard job it is to accurately estimate how many people are hungry. Nonetheless. Twenty-two years after the 1990 baseline and a year before the U.N. needed data for its final MDG report, the FAO – a U.N. agency – calculated that in 1990 there had been not 786 million hungry people worldwide (as it had reported two decades earlier) nor 823.1 million (as it had reported in 2011) but 980 million. Suddenly, the U.N. goals looked like a success.
Didn’t the U.N. worry that if the world was looking closely, it would scorn a claim of success built on such a questionable process, particularly when overseen by home-team referees? Apparently not. This wasn’t the World Cup or the World Series. The U.N. knew that the world was not looking closely.
Notes and Sources
The FAO usually reports hunger figures as the average of a 3-year span, such as 1999-2001. The U.N. often reports these simply by referring to the middle year — 2000, in this example. For the baseline year, the FAO reports for 1988-1990 or 1990-1992. The U.N. reports this as 1990. In this story, I’ve also used a single-year figure.
- I particularly recommend “How We Count Hunger Matters,” by Frances Moore Lappé et al.; and Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric, by Thomas W. Pogge.
- In this story I criticize numbers produced by the FAO and thus the FAO itself. But clearly the FAO was pushing for a more honest accounting of hunger, while its boss — the U.N. — was determined to get an optimistic soundbite. As just one example: The FAO tried to keep the original, more ambitious 1996 goal in the public eye. In its annual reports, the FAO charted progress toward both goals, surely miffing a few heavies at the U.N. headquarters who were growing worried that even the easier goal might be unattainable. In 2015, as the U.N. announced success, the FAO published the following chart which showed that while one goal was (if we believe the numbers) almost reached, the other was badly missed. But the media didn’t pursue that story.
3. To see how changing the word number to proportion makes it easier to achieve a target, take these numbers which show, in millions, the total population, the number suffering from extreme hunger, and their percentage of the population. Over the 15-year period, the number drops by only 30%, but the proportion drops by 50%. (These numbers are hypothetical, but they aren’t too far from what was reported.)
- It’s not intuitive that to report only developing regions would make the numbers look so much better. Here’s how it works out. Bold figures are from FAO’s 2015 report, others are calculated.
- For this story, all FAO hunger figures are taken from its annual food reports. In most of the 1990s these were titled The State of Food and Agriculture; from 1999 onward they are The State of Food Insecurity in the World. You can search by title and year from fao.org. Here, when I could find it, is the FAO’s estimate of hunger (in millions) in the developing world in the year 1990, as it reported in succeeding years:
1992: 786 (for 1988-90)
2007: data and report not found
In 2012 the FAO stated that the new, radically higher estimate for 1990 was “still tentative” and was “expected to be refined in the future.” I can find no newer “refined” figure, nor can I think of any good reason to spend scarce resources recalculating 30-year-old data which was never very accurate, and never will be. The FAO needed to suggest that it was common practice to keep revising old data, but as of 2016 – after the 1990 figures had served their purpose – the 1990 data no longer appeared in these reports. Data in the FAO’s 2017 report starts with 2004-06. The ever-changing data for 1990 was an embarrassment which the FAO was eager to put behind it.