Developing countries’ likelihood of meeting UN hunger targets by 2015? Less than 5 percent

July 19, 2012
Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen

Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen

New research published online in The Lancet suggests that developing countries have a less than 5 percent chance of meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goal target for the reduction of child malnutrition by 2015. The article analyzes trends in the weight and height of more than 7.7 million children worldwide between 1985 and 2011 and is the first large-scale study to provide a detailed examination of trends in children’s weight and growth in all developing countries.

Penny Gordon-Larsen, PhD, associate professor of nutrition at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, responded to the paper with a “comment” article in The Lancet.
“[This study] emphasizes the vastly different circumstances faced by children in low-income and middle-income countries,” Gordon-Larsen wrote in her comment following the article. “Barring radical change, children in the lowest-income countries (especially in the sub-Saharan African and South Asian regions), will continue to bear the enormous social, economic, health and human capital costs of maternal and childhood under-nutrition into the foreseeable future.”
Majid Ezzati, PhD, senior author of the study, said the research showed that the developing world as a whole has made considerable progress towards reducing child malnutrition. “However, there are still far too many children who don’t receive sufficient nutritious foods or who lose nutrients due to repeated sickness,” he said. “Severe challenges lie ahead.”
Ezzati is professor and chair of global environmental health at Imperial College London’s School of Public Health.
The proportion of children who are underweight is one of the indicators for the Millennium Development Goal to end poverty and hunger by 2015. The study uses data collected to estimate past and current levels of malnutrition in 141 countries and to examine how levels are likely to change if current trends continue.
The estimates suggest that more than 250 million children were mildly to severely underweight in 2011, with 17 countries, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania, seemingly undergoing no improvement in the number of children who are underweight or restricted in growth. Although the outlook appears to be poor in these regions, the authors point out that the situation is considerably better in some regions, particularly in some parts of Asia and Latin America, with 61 of the 141 countries studied estimated to have a 50 percent to 100 percent chance of meeting the U.N. goals.
China has undergone the largest improvement in children’s height over the past 25 years, with Latin America and the Caribbean region also experiencing significant improvements in this area. The authors suggest that improvements seen in many of these countries are the result of overall improvements in the population’s nutrition, rather than of specific interventions targeting children at high risk.
“There is evidence that child nutrition is best improved through equitable economic growth, investment in policies that help smallholder farmers and increase agricultural productivity, and primary care and food programmes targeted at the poor,” Ezzati said. “We mustn’t allow the global economic crisis and rising food prices to cause inequalities to increase, or cut back on investments in nutrition and health care.”
In her comment, Gordon-Larsen also points out that some regions which previously faced high levels of child undernourishment now need to tackle rising levels of obesity. “The dual burden of under- and over-nutrition at the country level will challenge resource allocators to meet the needs of undernourished and overnourished populations simultaneously. The successful balance between reduction of hunger and curbing of rising obesity is a challenge.”
The article and Gordon-Larsen’s comment are available online by subscription.


UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Linda Kastleman, communications editor, (919) 966-8317 or