September 2017: Why are
five UN agencies reporting the wrong numbers for food insecurity?
FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WHO and WFP report numbers of people with "severe food insecurity". But world leaders in 2015 agreed to include far greater numbers covered by the actual SDG indicator, "moderate or severe".
The FAO spreadsheet wrongly claims that "severe food insecurity" is the SDG indicator.
There are still fundamental problems in the UN "nutrition" report.
The main UN hunger and nutrition report is The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.
It is produced by:
the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO),
the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD),
the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF),
the World Food Programme (WFP)
and the World Health Organization (WHO).
The 2017 report says,
"For the first time, this year’s report provides two measures of
FAO’s traditional indicator of the extent of hunger, the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU), is complemented by the prevalence of severe food insecurity, which is estimated based on data collected from adult individuals worldwide using the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES)."
These are the questions for the new method:
Although the report says this is the "first time", in 2016 at least two UN documents did make use of statistics on this: the statistical annex to the Secretary-General's progress report on the SDGs for the General Assembly, and the UN SDG report for the public.
The Secretary-General's 2016 Statistical Annex gave figures for "moderate or severe food insecurity" among adults: 20% in 2014 and 20.5% in 2015.
It is not clear how we can guess vulnerability among children from figures about adults. However, we can see that those figures of around 20% are much higher than the "severe" figures (which were 7.7 per cent for both years in the Secretary-General's annex). They are also much higher than the traditional FAO "undernourishment" (severe calorie lack) figures for all ages (about 11 per cent).
Here is the excerpt from the Secretary-General's 2016 Statistical Annex:
The 2016 Statistical Annex correctly identifies "moderate or severe food insecurity" as indicator 2.1.2 for the SDGs.
But for some reason, the Secretary-General's 2017 report and annex give no figures at all for "food insecurity". Goal 2 is "End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture".
The main 2017 UN report on the SDGs also contains no "food insecurity" numbers:
- even though the 2016 version mentioned some statistics on
The five UN agencies' 2017 nutrition report omits the indicator.
For unclear reasons, it includes instead figures for "severe food insecurity":
"FAO calculates two indicators based on the FIES methodology: one of the prevalence of food insecurity in the population that includes both moderate and severe levels (FImod+sev),3 and one that refers to severe levels only (FIsev). The latter is presented in this year’s report."
Rather than explaining why they have reported this instead of the actual SDG indicator, the five UN agencies include a bizarrely irrelevant footnote. It says why they have omitted something no-one is likely to be interested in:
"The reason the percentage of moderate food insecurity only is not
used as an indicator for global monitoring is because a change in this
percentage would be prone to ambiguous interpretation; a reduction in moderate
food insecurity could be due to the movement of some of those who were
suffering from moderate food insecurity into the severe category.
Combining the moderate and severe food insecurity categories avoids such ambiguity."
That is odd especially because for this report, "combining the categories" is exactly what the UN agencies have not done.
It is quite interesting what rubbish people can write in shiny reports without widespread ridicule.
The above reminds me of FAO staff arguing, basically, that "we set the undernourishment level as an average calorie intake over the year only adequate for an inactive life, because we can't look at individuals' energy needs"; and "world leaders in 1996 didn't mean 1996 when they pledged halving the number of hungry people from the "present level" because at that time the available statistics were from previous years". (When I produced evidence in public that the date was recognised in earlier FAO documents as 1996, the FAO representative did not answer.)
The five agencies also say that their "undernourishment" claims for recent years use the short questionnaire is used for recent years.
Below, "coefficient of variation" means something like "estimates of inequality of access to food", used to estimate the proportion of undernourished people:
"The coefficient of variation (CV) and skewness (Skew).
The most common sources of data to estimate CV and Skew are multipurpose household surveys, such as Living Standard Measurement Surveys or Household Incomes and Expenditure Surveys (Household Budget Surveys), which also collect information on food consumption. ...
Projection of the CV. Estimates of the CV are obtained from
analysing food consumption data collected in household surveys."
[MB: It is not clear to me that they really look at "food consumption data".
Are they looking at what food people ate, or how much money they said they spent (which illiterate people and others may not remember accurately) and the money values assigned by researchers to what they grew, fished, hunted and gathered for themselves (which may be based on non-existent markets)?
"For years in between survey periods, the CV values are interpolated. Results of the analysis of the Food Insecurity Experience Scale data collected in 2014, 2015 and 2016 have been used to estimate the likely changes in the CV during those years and applied to the latest available estimate based on survey data."
In other words, the FAO say they have used the eight "food insecurity" questions to estimate not only the recent "food insecurity" numbers, but also the "undernourished" (severe calorie lack) numbers for 2014 to 2016 - a different method from previous years.
I am not sure how they decided that the interview answer results are reasonably comparable to the previous method.
But also, even though they did use the "food insecurity"
interviews to estimate how many people were chronically lacking in calories,
the agencies have this year not reported the "moderate and severe food
insecurity" interview results.
Even the figures in last year's reports do not appear in this year's reports from either the Secretary-General or UN agencies.
The FAO are still giving a misleading impression of a ridiculous level of precision, at least here:
"The absolute number of people in the world affected by chronic food
deprivation began to rise in 2014 – going from 775 million people to
777 million in 2015 – and is now estimated to have increased further,
to 815 million in 2016."
These are perhaps not the "final" numbers as the FAO director-general claimed when the report was issued. The household surveys on "food consumption", which take longer to process than the interview answers on "food insecurity", would normally be used to adjust the figures when they are ready.
The FAO have not said clearly, from what I have seen, that they are now using the "food insecurity" questions permanently instead of the "expenditure" surveys.
The FAO are saying that they changed their method for reporting 2014 to 2016.
So we have to ask why we
should trust that the headline 2014-16 figures are properly comparable to those
for 2013 and earlier.
That is in addition to questions we must ask about the reliability of the statistics - or the words used to describe them - in the first place.
The five UN agencies' 2017 report gives figures for
"people affected by severe food insecurity".
Last year's figures included some on "moderate or severe" food insecurity". In comparing the "severe" figures it should be borne in mind that last year's figures were on adults.
(2016 Secretary-General's progress report on SDGs, statistical annex)
(UN agencies, 2017 State of Food and Nutrition report)
From the above tables we can see the following:
This year the UN is saying it is likely that fewer people were in severe food insecurity in 2015 than 2014, while last year the central-estimate percentage figure for adults was given as the same in both years.
What should we conclude about the trend?
I don't know. It is not clear to me why the eight questions should be treated as a firm basis for precise claims. The situation is perhaps not helped by the presentation of uncertainty ranges for individual years, not for the trend. If the UN agencies' position is that the uncertainty is due to similar factors in each year, then maybe the trend is more reliable than the years' figures. (We should note, though, that these figures do not indicate either the depth of insecurity or the situation of people just above the line - see below).
As noted above, figures from the same "food insecurity"
questionnaires (whether "severe" or "moderate or severe")
are used as part of the calculations for the new estimates claiming a rise in
If We would have to wait until the "consumption expenditure" survey results arrive to compare previous years with 2014-16, if the FAO intend to use those surveys.
But in any case, there are the fundamental problems that:
a) "counting the hungry" does not measure the extent of hunger
- for which you would need to know death rates and the severity of hunger above and below the cutoff line;
b) hunger in terms only of lack of calories clearly does not measure "undernourishment"
as most people would understand that word;
c) it is far from clear that the FAO's figures relate to the proportion of people "suffering from" hunger
in the sense implied in the Millennium Declaration;
d) you may need more food if
a) your system is damaged by malnutrition or stress, or
b) you are currently suffering illness or stress.
If countries have changed the "income
and expenditure" questions as the World Bank researchers say, how can we
trust the FAO's estimates for any previous years based on them?
The FAO/IFAD/WHO/UNICEF/WFP State of Food Security and Nutrition 2017 report is at:
In judging the credibility of these figures it would seem unwise to ignore, other evidence on the credibility of the organisations.
FAO, WHO and UNICEF have all wrongly claimed or implied that the easier "MDG" baseline was in the Millennium Declaration.
In June 2017 the WHO's "Fact Sheet" was still the misleading version from November 2016:
"The Millennium Development Goal (MDG 7) on drinking-water was met globally in 2010." [!]
"The target was to halve the proportion of the world’s population without sustainable access to safe water. The 48 least developed countries did not meet the target, but substantial progress has been made with 42 per cent of the current population in these countries gaining access to improved drinking-water sources since 1990."
Although another passage says
"The MDG water target is measured by the proxy indicator of use of ‘improved’ or ‘unimproved’ drinking-water sources. But ‘improved sources’ are not necessarily safe",
the "fact sheet" misleads.
The truth is clearly that they did not have enough information to say whether the target was met.
Also, WHO's claim is based on the wrong target, because it uses the wrong baseline. In reality the "MDG" water target in the official list is conspicuous in having no 1990 baseline.
As in other instances of propaganda, the problem is not, as WHO may imply, in some decision taken years ago by previous civil servants and politicians, but misinformation by current civil servants and politicians.
The FAO falsified the targets not only from the Millennium Summit but also the World Food Summit.
Carlo Cafiero, a very senior member of the FAO team dealing with the global numbers, insisted to this author, in a discussion on the Guardian website in 2015, that the 1996 Summit meant "1990-2" when it made a pledge to halve the number from its "present level".
The FAO's idea about the baseline is contrary to any reasonable idea of what a pledge means - a promise can only mean what it is reasonably taken to mean. It also flatly contradicts key FAO documents from the first few years after the summit.
The reader is also referred to the FAO's invention of an MDG "criterion" on the basis of which it gave awards to countries in a comical ceremony in 2015.
After writing the basic passage above on being careful about trusting UN agencies' claims, I found that not only has the FAO reported a different statistic ("severe food insecurity") from that in the official SDG list, but in its spreadsheet of 15 September 2017 of its new set of indicators, it has made yet another false statement. Not only does it omit the actual SDG indicator, but also:
The FAO spreadsheet wrongly claims "severe food insecurity" is the official indicator for SDG2:
One reason I am puzzled by the choice by the five UN agencies to omit the statistics for the "food insecurity" SDG indicator is this:
The figures for particular countries have already been
published, at least for 2014, in the Technical Report mentioned in the FAO
Voices of the Hungry, FAO Technical Report 1. August 2016
At least one person seems to have thought recently that the numbers for the missing SDG indicator are available:
Similarly, the UN Statistics Division SDG database has figures for indicator 2.1.2 on "moderate or severe food insecurity".
Yet the UN agencies have not included them in their report.
SDG Indicator 2.1.2 is classed as a "Tier 1" indicator:
"Below, please find the definitions of the three indicator tiers, based on an updated explanation as developed by the IAEG-SDG at the 5th Meeting in March 2017:
Tier 1: Indicator is conceptually clear, has an
internationally established methodology and standards are available, and data
are regularly produced by countries for at least 50 per cent of
countries and of the population in every region where the indicator is
In spite of that classification:
"International agreement has been reached on key indicators to monitor progress towards SDG 2, but considerable data gaps and methodological challenges remain that need to be overcome to measure food security and nutrition effectively, in a timely and cross-country comparable way.
A possibly even larger challenge is to find effective ways to monitor implementation of the new agenda in its integrity.
SDG 2 and its related targets reflect the notion that hunger and malnutrition are multifaceted concepts and that achieving the goal will require attention to all four dimensions of food security and malnutrition as defined by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and the 1996 World Food Summit (WFS). What holds for the goals within SDG 2 also holds for the linkages to other SDGs."