The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have given participating organizations a deadline of 2030 to meet several ambitious targets, including Zero Hunger. After several years of increasing global hunger levels, 2020 has only made the path to Zero Hunger an even steeper one.
A global pandemic and an economic downturn have affected every corner of the world, with many of the countries most vulnerable to hunger and food insecurity further plagued by a devastating outbreak of locusts that have decimated crops. According to initial predictions, the pandemic and its economic fallout could double the number of people facing acute food crises. If we do not take significant action now, these acute crises might set the stage for increasing levels of chronic hunger and related health problems in the long run.
Produced annually by Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe, the Global Hunger Index examines the available data for hunger levels around the world. While the 2020 GHI does not yet reflect the full impact of COVID-19 and hunger, it shows that the situation is already worrying in many contexts and is likely to worsen in the years to come. COVID-19 has made it clear that our food systems, as they stand, are inadequate to the task of achieving Zero Hunger, even if the world does produce enough food to feed all of its inhabitants. Here, according to the 2020 Global Hunger Index, are the current top 10 hungriest countries.
Second only to Somalia, Nigeria has the world’s highest mortality rate for children under the age of 5 (12%). However, this is not a uniform number across the country’s large and diverse population, which illustrates the factor that inequality plays in the hunger crisis, and serves as a good reminder that there is no uniform approach to reducing food insecurity. In the Kebbi state, where 66% of children are stunted, the mortality rate jumps to 25%. In other states like Lagos and Bayelsa, that mortality rate drops to just around 3%. The disparities between the best and worst performers for each indicator on the Global Hunger Index are striking. While there is some overlap in terms of which states face the greatest struggles according to different indicators (particularly in the north of the country which has faced an upsurge in violence in recent years), it’s also clear that the nature of the problem varies from state to state.
Afghanistan recently experienced its worst drought in decades, brought on by the effects of La Niña. The impact waned in 2019, however ongoing conflict combined with climate and livelihood crises illustrate the intersectional nature of hunger. As the World Food Programme notes, however, the country’s engaged government, natural resources, and young and diverse population all give it the potential to make progress towards Zero Hunger by 2030 through interventions around climate change, disaster risk reduction, gender inequality, and underemployment.
El Niño droughts in Lesotho in 2019 left over 30% of the country’s population facing acute levels of food insecurity that was expected to affect families until March of 2020. This came on top of years of crop failures that, combined inflation, left 41% of rural Lesothans spending more than half of their income on food. The impact of COVID-19, which reached the country in May 2020, is expected to have a knock-on effect on financial stability and food security. Finally, the long-term effects of climate change will likely only continue to challenge more than 70% of the country’s population, who rely on subsistence farming for their food and livelihoods.
7. Sierra Leone
It’s useful to consider the progress that Sierra Leone has made since 2000, with its GHI score dropping by 27.4 points from 58.3 to 30.9. However, 26% of the country still faces chronic hunger, and it has one of the world’s highest child mortality rates at 10.5%. While still recovering from the economic and personal loss of the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic (like neighboring Liberia, see below), it is now also faced with additional challenges from school and business closures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Liberia continues to rank on the GHI’s ten hungriest countries list following its entry in 2019. But its food insecurity stems back to its 1989-2003 civil war. Roughly 16% of Liberian families are food insecure, and while the country was not hit as severely by the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic, the compound issues of border closures and economic loss caused by COVID-19 threaten even more families with hunger.
Mozambique enters the ten hungriest countries list this year at number 5 as one of the many countries facing increasing levels of food insecurity. This is especially distressing as, in 2015, the country reached its MDG of reducing the number of food-insecure Mozambicans by half. Currently, its rate of undernourishment is 32.6%, indicating that nearly one-third of Mozambicans face chronic hunger. Child stunting rates are also high at just over 42%
Haiti continues to have the highest level of hunger in the Western Hemisphere and has made limited progress since 2000. The island nation has suffered from a destructive combination of political instability and natural disasters including the ongoing effects of the country’s 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. At the beginning of 2019, 2.6 million Haitians were food insecure. Just one year later, those levels rose to nearly 3.7 million, including 1 million in a situation classified as an emergency due in part to the country’s ongoing crisis.
Before we get to Number 3…
A number of countries are not included on the 2020 Global Hunger Index, due to insufficient data to support calculating their GHI scores (this includes some countries that have appeared on past versions of the world’s 10 hungriest countries. Based on available data, however, we estimate that the following countries would rank somewhere between Haiti and Madagascar in terms of hunger levels: Djibouti, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Laos, Niger, Tajikistan, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Madagascar, along with the following two countries on this list, is one of three countries with full GHI data for 2020 that is classified as having an “alarming” level of food insecurity. One of the reasons is a troubling uptick in undernourishment rates, from 30% in 2009-11 to nearly 42% in 2017-19. Child stunting rates are 41.6%, and political instability combined with more extreme weather patterns (resulting in an average of 1.5 cyclones hitting the country per year) has left nearly half of the country’s districts classified at crisis-level food insecurity. At the beginning of this year, before the pandemic-level spread of COVID-19, the United Nations warned of an unprecedented level of hunger in Madagascar and neighboring nations.
One-third of Timor-Leste’s 1.2 million citizens suffer chronic food insecurity. A number of factors have contributed to chronic food insecurity in the country, which ranked eighth on the 2019 Global Hunger Index. Agricultural productivity is low. People’s food consumption is inadequate in both quality and quantity, and many people depend on single, low-value livelihoods. Combined with this is a poor infrastructure for water, sanitation, and hygiene, which means a higher rate of waterborne diseases that can prevent people (especially children) from absorbing nutrients. This also has left over half of Timor-Leste’s children estimated to be stunted, and 15% suffering from wasting.
Chad is a mainstay on the Global Hunger Index, ranking third in 2019 and second in 2018 and 2017. The ongoing effects of climate change in the country have contributed to widespread food insecurity, which in turn is exacerbated by an influx of refugees from conflict-torn Nigeria, Sudan, and the Central African Republic — all of whom need emergency food assistance.
At 39.6%, Chad’s undernourishment rate is the fourth highest in this report. Its child stunting rate (39.8%) and child wasting rate (13.3%) are both considered high and contribute to a nearly 12% mortality rate in children under 5. This makes Chad one of the few countries in the world where more than 1 in 10 children dies before their fifth birthday.
The numbers beyond Chad…
As noted above, in many countries where we know that hunger is widespread and at levels that are a cause for significant concern, there are insufficient data for assessment and inclusion in the GHI. For 2020, several countries may rank higher than Chad in terms of hunger levels, including: Burundi, Central African Republic, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
In previous years, Central African Republic (CAR) ranked first of the hungriest countries in the world, and we estimate that the ongoing instability, ethnic violence, and conflict that have disrupted food production since 2012 continue to do so. Likewise, last year Yemen ranked second, with the UN declaring the country the world’s largest conflict-driven food security crisis.