The COVID-19 pandemic has set back progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger by 2030. Current predictions show that the world as a whole — and 47 countries in particular — will fail to achieve even low hunger within the next nine years.
But COVID isn’t the only factor here. Recent reports have shown that undernourishment and hunger were on the rise even before last year’s global pandemic further exacerbated matters. The climate crisis has been one factor in food insecurity, but it’s conflict that continues to be the primary driver of hunger — especially within already-vulnerable populations. Conflict devastates food systems, drives up undernourishment and child mortality rates, destabilizes agricultural production, prevents economic investment, and forcibly displaces entire communities.
Produced annually by Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe, the Global Hunger Index examines the available data for hunger levels around the world. This year’s GHI shows the effects of COVID, climate, and — most evident — conflict in the factors that are preventing us from fighting the real enemy: hunger. Here are the world’s 10 hungriest countries in 2021.
10. Sierra Leone
Progress in Sierra Leone has suffered from a combination of major crises and bad timing: The country had just begun to recover from an 11-year civil war (1991-2002) when it became one of the epicenters of the West African Ebola outbreak (2014-16). The following year, it had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, and is now facing the pandemic’s impact on food insecurity. Next to Liberia (#7), another center of the world’s largest Ebola outbreak, Sierra Leone has the highest hunger levels in West Africa with more than a quarter of its citizens undernourished, and a child mortality rate of 10.9%.
Timor-Leste has made progress in decreasing hunger levels, cutting undernutrition rates by nearly half over the last 20 years. While the progress is positive, the reality remains overwhelming. Timor-Leste is home to the second-highest child stunting rate of 52.2%, and 22.6% of its population remains undernourished. Contributing to its GHI score are its population’s lack of dietary diversity and consumption of nutritious foods, along with limited access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities.
The last few years have seen a humanitarian crisis in Haiti that has repeatedly threatened food security. Approximately 46.8% of the population is undernourished, and one in five children are likely to grow up stunted. These numbers do not yet depict the impact of the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti on August 14, 2021, which could further impact food security, and the country faces an uncertain political future which has historically been linked to inflation rates and food scarcity. Climate change and extreme weather events also continue to halt progress in Haiti, where 2.6 million are currently in need of humanitarian assistance.
Much like neighboring Sierra Leone, Liberia suffered a 14-year–long civil war and moved from rebuilding right into the world’s largest Ebola epidemic and is now faced with the challenges of COVID-19. These events, even those in the past, have formed a complex emergency in the country with regards to food security and hunger. 35.5% of Liberian children are stunted, and 23% of the country’s rural households rely on unprotected water sources that can lead to waterborne diseases (which can deprive people of nutrients even if they are eating an adequate amount of food each day). These circumstances leave nearly 40% of the country undernourished.
Before we get to Number 6…
Several countries are not included in the 2021 Global Hunger Index due to insufficient data to calculate their GHI scores (which factor in undernourishment rates for the full population as well as child wasting, stunting, and mortality rates). Based on available data, we estimate that the following countries would rank somewhere between Liberia and Madagascar in terms of hunger and undernutrition levels: Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Of the 116 countries on the GHI, Madagascar is one of five with alarming levels of hunger. However, Madagascar is the only country within this segment that is not experiencing conflict. Instead, the country’s food insecurity is linked to climate change which has caused consecutive years of drought, pushing areas in the south into deeper levels of hunger, and devastating weather events (including 2019’s Cyclone Idai). Not only has Madagascar had one of the five highest rates of total undernourishment (43.2%), but it’s also one of 10 countries where hunger has increased.
5. Democratic Republic of Congo
With one of the world’s most complex and protracted humanitarian crises, the Democratic Republic of Congo is home to nearly 13 million people requiring humanitarian assistance. Despite the country’s first-ever peaceful transition of presidential power in 2019, ongoing conflict directly relates to the DRC’s high levels of hunger, large-scale population displacement, low household purchasing power, and agricultural hardships. The security situation worsened in several provinces in the east in 2020, leaving 5.3 million people displaced — the highest level in Africa. In the second half of 2020, the combination of the DRC’s large population and widespread food insecurity led to the largest food crisis in the world in terms of the number of affected people.
Ranked as the hungriest country in 2020 (and a mainstay on previous hungriest country rankings), Chad assumes the fourth position in this list, with 31.7% of its population undernourished. Driven by conflict and weather extremes, the rate of child stunting is 35.1%, with a 13% rate of child wasting and an 11.4% rate of under-five mortality — one of the few countries in the world where more than 1 in 10 children die before age 5. While faced with instability itself, Chad is also a host community for refugees (many fleeing conflict) from neighboring countries including Nigeria, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. For the estimated 500,000 refugees currently residing in Chad, adequate food and nutrition is a chief concern.
3. Central African Republic
With the third-highest GHI score in 2021, the Central African Republic (CAR) has suffered from instability, ethnic violence and conflict since 2012, disrupting food production and leaving 63% of the total population in need of humanitarian assistance.. Nearly half of its population currently suffers from high levels of food insecurity and acute levels of hunger and undernutrition. In numbers, 40% of children are stunted, 5.3% of children are wasted, and 11% die before reaching 5 years old. Armed conflict within the country continues to halt progress and dismantle entire food systems.
The Yemeni Civil War is currently one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. It’s a crisis that sits at the crossroads of ongoing conflict, international displacement, and public health issues, all of which come to bear on food security levels in the country. In 2019, the UN declared Yemen the world’s largest food security crisis that was driven primarily by conflict. This has left nearly half of the population undernourished and over half of the country’s children stunted, while the catastrophic effects of conflict continue to increase the prevalence of child wasting. Current estimates suggest that 16.2 million Yemenis are food-insecure, with millions living in famine-like conditions.
Before we get to Number 1…
As noted above, a number of countries are not included on the 2021 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 Yemen and Somalia: Burundi, Comoros, South Sudan, and Syria.
Faced with ongoing political instability and civilian insecurity, as well as over a decade of droughts, Somalia ranks as the hungriest county in the world for 2021. Over 30 years of civil conflict has left a legacy of famine, with the last one declared in 2011. At the time, secretary general Ban Ki-moon said, “As long as there is conflict in Somalia, we cannot effectively fight famine. More and more children will go hungry; more and more people will needlessly die. And this cycle of insecurity is growing dangerously wide.” Currently, 59.5% of the population is undernourished, 31.9% of Somalia’s children are stunted, and there is a staggering 11.7% child mortality rate. Conditions are worsening in rural areas, with the compounding effects of climate change and conflict. The latest World Food Program data show that 2.7 million people cannot meet their daily food requirements, 5.6 million people are food–insecure, and 12.3 million require humanitarian assistance.
The Global Hunger Index and Concern’s work to end hunger
Measuring hunger is complicated. But if we are going to get to Zero Hunger, then we need to have some way of measuring progress. Since 2006, Concern has partnered with the International Food and Policy Research Institute and Welthungerhilfe to assess the progress and setbacks in ending hunger. The Global Hunger Index (GHI) has received several national and international awards. In 2013, it received Gold in the BCP, Europe’s largest award for corporate media. It was recognized as setting the standard for reports in the nonprofit sector thanks to its credible, authentic information presented in a way that can be understood by all audiences.
For most of our 50+ years as an organization, Concern has led the way with standard-setting programs that strengthen local health systems and provide quality nutrition support and education to the world’s most vulnerable communities.