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Conceptual basis of the World Hunger Programme of the United Nations university


Conceptual basis of the World Hunger Programme of the United Nations university

Depending upon the criteria adopted, 500 to 1,000 million persons in today's world consume diets deficient in one or more nutrients to an extent that affects or threatens their health or work performance. The majority of these are children under the age of five who not only experience greatly increased morbidity and mortality because of inadequate food, but also retardation of physical growth and an associated effect on learning and behaviour. The World Hunger Programme (WHP) of the United Nations University is expected to contribute effectively to the elimination of this hunger and malnutrition through application of the instruments of scholarship: research, advanced training, and the dissemination of knowledge. It seeks in these specific ways to complement the efforts of FAO, WHO, and other agencies of the UN system concerned with food and nutrition.

It is assumed by some that the primary means of preventing hunger and malnutrition is to grow more food. It is axiomatic that in order for people to eat, food must first be produced, conserved, and distributed. In general, food to meet human needs is obtained in only two ways: by purchase and by procurement (home production, hunting, and gathering). For food to be purchased, someone must pay the price, and the money available for food purchases determines the effective demand for food. Even if the food is given free to selected population groups, some institution or government must still pay for it. Effective demand for food and consumption of food are obviously closely linked. For the populations of developing countries, however, a gap often occurs between their consumption of food and their nutritional needs. Simply producing more food will not meet human nutrient needs unless it leads to increased consumption. At a country level, it can lead mainly to more exports or to surpluses that people cannot afford to buy even at prices ruinous to farmers. In the latter case, the ultimate result is a decreased production of food.

It is evident that there are specific human needs for the nutrients and dietary energy supplied by food. These needs are conditioned by the effect on the human host of various environmental factors, i.e., an interaction of physical, biological, and social influences in the environment with individual genetic characteristics, and physiological and pathological states. Nutritional needs have been little studied for populations living under conditions prevailing in developing countries and consuming local diets. For this reason, the determination of nutrient requirements under such conditions is one of the sub-programme areas of the WHP.

Assistance in primary agricultural production is left to the far greater resources of FAO and the international agricultural research centres. However, the estimated 20 - 40 per cent losses of cereal grains and the greater than 50 per cent losses of fruits and vegetables in many tropical developing countries have received inadequate attention. For this reason, the post-harvest conservation of food through better processing and storage at the home and village level is a UNU-WHP sub-programme priority. In addition, a joint effort with the Natural Resources Programme of the University is concerned with the increased utilization of organic residues at the village and household level through the microbiological production of biomass for animal feeding. These resources include animal manure, fruit and vegetable wastes, starches, and cellulose residues such as straw. Finding means for reducing food losses and for the better use of organic wastes at family and community levels can both contribute substantially to meeting human nutritional needs and improving economic status.

A third WHP sub-programme area, Food and Nutrition Policy and Programme Planning, is a dominant one. It is concerned with understanding these factors and the consequences of alternative interventions, both direct and indirect, and intentional and unintentional. Like the previous two sub-programme areas, it involves both research and training. The relevant disciplines for food and nutrition policy and programme planning include economics, political science, anthropology, sociology, and systems analysis, as well as nutrition, food science, and disciplines within agriculture and the health sciences. In all economic and political systems, the factors determining whether food needs are adequately met are multiple and complex, although some countries deal with food and nutrition problems much better than others, or have fewer inherent problems.

In theory the gap between effective demand for food and human food needs can be approached in many different ways. For example, people can buy more food if prices are lowered by price controls, subsidies, decreased production costs, lower distribution costs, etc. The same result can be achieved by an increase in purchasing power through better employment and income generation, minimum wages, reduced taxes, subsidies, and the like. Each of these measures has disadvantages as well as advantages. For some families, increased home production or procurement can help close the gap.

For some populations, nutritional deficiencies can be overcome, at least in part, through improving the nutritional values of foods. Examples are the iodization of salt to prevent endemic goiter, vitamin-A fortification of sugar or another appropriate food vehicle for the prevention of nutritionally caused eye disease, and improving the iron value of food in different ways.

For the poorest and most vulnerable individuals, free or greatly subsidized distribution of food may be introduced as a temporary measure while specific programmes to improve their economic situation are implemented. Measures that will control infectious diseases can help close the gap by decreasing human need. Because much hunger is due to poor food choices and habits, nutrition education is a part of the sub-programme in Food and Nutrition Policy.

The primary focus of the entire World Hunger Programme is on human need. An additional reason why its limited resources are not concentrated on increasing agricultural production is that increased food production would not be sufficient to solve the hunger problem. WHP focuses on food losses at the home and village level because these losses have tragic consequences for the individual family that at present often feels helpless to prevent them. WHP work on nutrient requirements is concerned with human needs not only for biological survival, but for better learning and functional capacity, for social as well as economic activity, and for increased freedom from disease. The WHP recognizes that, for maximum impact in meeting human needs, these points must be taken into account in overall development policies as well as in policies and programmes directed specifically toward the prevention of hunger and malnutrition. They receive emphasis in both the training and research programmes of WHP.

Many persons in developing countries have received narrow disciplinary training that is insufficient to enable them to deal effectively with complex practical problems of food and nutrition. The intent of the WHP training is to help such persons to understand the multifactoral nature of hunger and malnutrition and see them primarily as the result of physical, biological, and social (cultural, political, economic, etc.) factors in the environment.

Appropriate and effective policy and programme development for preventing hunger and malnutrition requires communication and understanding among the disciplines of the natural and social sciences. The training cannot teach advanced study fellows specifically what to recommend in their countries because this depends on national and local circumstances. Instead, it is attempting to instil a holistic approach that will enable UNU fellows to understand the principal causative factors within their own social systems. It should also enhance their capacity to use their disciplinary competence in co-operation with persons of other relevant disciplines for the purpose of developing appropriate policies and programmes and analyzing them for both their primary and secondary effects as thoroughly as possible.

Despite the complexity of the problems, and even where structural, political, and/or economic changes are obviously needed, there are still feasible measures that can improve significantly the nutrition and health status of the underprivileged. WHP sends no consultants or advisers to countries. Instead, it seeks to give professionals of developing countries the tools with which to do their own research, make their own decisions, and deal with food and nutrition problems within their own cultural, economic, political, and development frameworks.

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