Hunger Plunges Everywhere in Southeast Asia, Except the Philippines

October 12, 2012, 1:28 AM SGT

By Eric Bellman

JAKARTA – The total number of chronically hungry people in Southeast Asia has plunged by close to 70 million in the last two decades thanks to economic growth and policies to feed the poor, but the number of people that regularly go to sleep with their stomachs growling in the Philippines has actually grown.

A United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization report this week showed the number of undernourished people in Southeast Asia fell a whopping 51% in the period between 1990 and this year. That was the biggest improvement of any of the regions the report surveyed.

Globally, the number of hungry people fell by only 13% during the same period, to 868 million people, according to the report, jointly published by the FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Program Entitled the “State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012.”

“Among the regions, undernourishment in the past two decades decreased nearly 30% in Asia and the Pacific from 739 million to 563 million largely due to socio-economic progress,” the report said. “Despite population growth, the prevalence of undernourishment in the region decreased from 23.7% to 13.9%.”

The Philippines, however, saw the number of chronically hungry citizens rise. Back in the period between 1990 and 1992, the Philippines had around 15 million people considered undernourished. In the period between 2010 and 2012 the hungry horde had expanded 5% to 16 million. The only other Asian countries in the report that saw an increase in hungry people were Pakistan, Nepal and North Korea. The report did not include data from Myanmar.

While the percentage of hungry people in the Philippines has fallen from 24% in 1992 to 17% last year, the country’s high population growth rate has meant that even though a smaller slice of the populace doesn’t have enough food, the total number of undernourished has risen. The Philippines has more than 92 million people.

“Southeast Asia is probably doing better than any other part of the world. But over this time period (the Philippines) is the worst-performing of the countries,” said David Dawe, a Bangkok based senior economist for the FAO and one of the editors of the report. “The Philippines has one of the highest population growth rates in the region and that kind of amplifies the difference.”

The country may have adopted the slogan “It’s more Fun in the Philippines,” but there is also more hunger there because for the last decade its birth rates have been higher while its growth rates have been lower than those rates at most of its neighbors.

Another structural problem that may lead to more empty stomachs in the Philippines, could be that the benefits of economic growth do not trickle down to the masses.

“The Philippines has always been a nation where the fruits of growth tend to be shared less equally,” said Mr. Dawe. “The poverty rates have just not gone down all that much for its rate of GDP growth, so you don’t have as much impact on undernourishment.”

At the current rate of hunger, the Philippines looks like it will be one of the few countries in Asia to fail to get close to the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals of halving the percentage of the populace which is hungry by 2015. Whether the country’s controversial reproductive health bill is passed or not, it will be too late to lower the birth rate to meet the target.

Ramon Carandang, secretary in President Benigno Aquino III’s communications office, said that the Philippines had performed better on some anti-povery metrics such as per capita income, purchasing power parity and the wealth gap than some of its neighbors.

“Having said that, it’s true that growth in the past tended to benefit a narrow segment of the population,’’ Mr. Carandang said. “This is partly because growth tended to be limited to sectors that did not have a big impact on poverty. Areas like real estate development and financial services, for example.’’

While the Philippines did badly relative to Asia, the report showed that there were much hungrier regions in the world. The number of undernourished people in Africa shot up 37% during the 20 year covered in the report and some Latin American countries, notably Guatemala and Paraguay, saw their number of hungry citizens rise.

– Josephine Cuneta contributed to this article



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