Investing in evidence to end hunger

Maternal nutrition and feeding training for mothers and caregivers. Photo by: WFP / Masud Al Mamun

The proposed Sustainable Development Goals are universal, but translating them from rhetoric to action requires recognition of agriculture’s highly differentiated nature in each part of the world.

Ending hunger remains at the forefront of long-term global political priorities. This was most recently on display in the July 19 outcome document of the U.N. General Assembly’s Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, which proposed a headline goal to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” Specific targets were recommended for 2030, including ending all forms of malnutrition, doubling productivity of small scale farmers and ensuring resilient agricultural practices in the face of new environmental stresses.

The proposed goal aligns well with the U.N.’s Zero Hunger Challenge, launched in 2012, which aims for no stunted children under the age of 2; no food loss or waste; 100 percent year-round access to adequate food, a 100 percent increase in smallholder productivity and income; and sustainability across all food systems.

These objectives are universal, but translating them from rhetoric to action requires recognition of agriculture’s highly differentiated nature in each part of the world. For example, global efforts to improve farm productivity and income need to recognize each country’s unique mix of crops, which in are in turn affected by growing conditions like climate, soil fertility and physical access to other markets. All development challenges are grounded in local realities, but the biological aspects of plant growth play a uniquely important role in affecting the diffusion of appropriate technologies and best practices. The global challenge of agricultural is, to a great extent, a constellation of local challenges.

In that context, at least two types of information can help inform the global effort. First, objective country-by-country assessments of needs, policy frameworks and available resources among societies still struggling to conquer hunger. And second, informed by the country-level assessments, an analysis of international actors’ policy and implementation performance in tackling the challenges at hand.

Access to distilled evidence can help decision makers, practitioners and advocates enhance the impact of their efforts toward “zero hunger” success. Objective performance metrics are also crucial for promoting accountability at all levels.

To that end, researchers in the Brookings Institution’s Global Economy and Development Program have recently launched an initiative under the title of “Investments to End Hunger.” The project is collaborating with a wide variety of partners to synthesize the best available data that could inform faster international progress. The initial assessments will be published in advance of the major September 2015 U.N. summit, where world leaders are slated to confirm the final composition of the sustainable development goals. The ambition is for these baseline assessments to inform practical discussions on both policy and implementation as a generation’s new goals take effect on Jan. 1, 2016.

To be sure, the usefulness of any data lies in the eye of its beholder, so we are actively soliciting input from practitioners and researchers regarding what forms of evidence they consider most likely to stimulate global progress. As one element of this, more than 40 researchers and policy advocates convened Thursday at Brookings to share their input and suggestions. But a huge number of committed individuals around the world are of course working on key dimensions of the global hunger challenge. What new information do they most need? What information do they think others need to see? We hope interested readers from the Devex community will take a moment to share their views too.

Want to learn more? Check out Feeding Development's campaign site and tweet us using #FeedingDev.

Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • John W McArthur

    John W McArthur is a visiting fellow in the Brookings Institution's Global Economy and Development Program and senior fellow with the U.N. Foundation. He previously managed the U.N. Millennium Project, the advisory body to Secretary-General Kofi Annan; served as CEO of Millennium Promise, the international non-governmental organization; and taught as a faculty member at Columbia University.
  • Sinead Mowlds

    Sinead is currently with Brookings Institution to work on the Investments to End Hunger project. Previously, she worked with the OECD and the BMGF researching aid for food and nutrition security and improved methodologies for the reporting and tracking of aid to agricultural research. She holds a BSc in International Development and Food Policy at University College Cork, Ireland.