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UNU-WHP fellow's essay

How can the united nations university help fight hunger?

Ramesh Lal Bijlani
Department of Physiology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, India

At the beginning of this year al/ UNU Fellows were invited to contribute to the World Hunger Programme's discussions on how the United Nations University might best use the instruments of scholar-ship, research, advanced training, and dissemination of knowledge by submitting a written essay on the subject The winning essay in this prize competition is published here.


Hunger is a ubiquitous companion of mankind. That under nourished people exist even in developed countries is well known (1). In developing countries, hunger is too obvious to be concealed by the well-nourished sector. President Kennedy's statement that every night more than ten million Americans go to bed hungry has often been repeated. Although exact figures differ, it has been estimated by various agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Bank that about one billion persons in the world do not receive enough food (2 - 5). According to the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, in the tropics and subtropics, about 11 million children are affected by severe, and another 76 million by moderate, protein-calorie malnutrition (6). In India, about 15 - 50 per cent of the males and 50 to 80 per cent of the females are anaemic (6). In Central Java, 1 - 3 per cent of pre-school children are said to suffer from acute vitamin-A deficiency, with gross corneal damage resulting in blindness and high mortality (2). Iodine deficiency is still widespread; some five million persons in India alone may be suffering from goitre associated with mental retardation and deafmutism (2). To put the impact of hunger in human terms, Dr. Nevin Scrimshaw recently stated that in parts of rural Bangladesh, during relatively good times, villagers hope to eat one meal a day (7).

The causes of hunger are multiple. They are not completely revealed by facts and figures whose interpretation is subject to personal bias. A food gap of 350 million million calories has been calculated on a world-wide basis (3). Equally convincingly, it has been estimated that the present world grain production alone could provide every person on earth with more than 3,000 calories a day (8, p. 112). Part of the explanation for the discrepancy is maldistribution of the food produced; the other part appears to be that a considerable fraction of the grain produced is consigned to the inefficient process of conversion into meat products. Poverty (3,9 - 11), ignorance (10, 12, 13), absence or weakness of food policies (5, p. 33), and oligopolistic, elitist control of production and distribution of food (8, 14) are some of the commonly cited causes of hunger. The latter cause has emerged from some of the latest analyses of the problem. These analyses, based on considerable study and critical insight, have blamed, more than anything else, the acquisitive tendencies of man. They have projected the world's rich, including those residing in poor countries, as one community that manipulates land, capital, human, and technological resources to ensure availability of, and their access to, expensive foods and other luxuries at the expense of adequate, simple, and nutritious food for the poor majority. It is instructive to observe that developing countries that have come closest to eradication of hunger are neither the richest, nor the maximum food-producing countries, but the socialist countries that apparently have some ruthless political will.

If the causes of hunger are many and somewhat controversial, the solutions suggested for its eradication are even more varied. This is to be expected because there is not just one road to Rome. However, some of the solutions are too slow to be suitable; others are too harsh to be humane. To the former category belong increasing food production (15), reduction in population growth rate (15, p. 37), eradication of poverty (16), nutrition education (15, p. 74), and better nutrition planning (17). To the latter category belong adopting unconventional foods on a large scale (15, p. 132) and regimented distribution of resources. For relatively practical interventions- e.g., reduction of food losses, supplementary feeding, fortification, and concessional/free distribution of food to target groups- considerations of cost-effectiveness are imperative because of the scale of operations involved (3). By way of concrete examples, we have two contrasting models of success. One is the American model, based on hard work, lavish expenditure of energy and capital, business acumen, and ample land resources. The other is the Chinese model, based on hard work, regimented distribution, and clearly defined priorities remarkably insulated from the influences of the outside world. Both have limitations that deprive them of universal applicability, but they do provide valuable leads.


The potential contributions of the UN University to the global problem of hunger are limited by the methods it has chosen for its activities. These methods are those of scholarship- viz., training, research, and dissemination of knowledge. It might be argued that there is nothing sacrosanct about these methods, and that they may be replaced or supplemented by other methods. But since it is a university, its tools must be educational; FAO, WHO, the World Food Council, and other agencies of the UN system concerned with food and nutrition have a much wider variety of methods at their disposal. The scholastic approach cannot solve any of them. All it can do is to suggest the most appropriate method(s) by which the problems may be solved. To actually solve the hunger problem, the results of study have to be applied.

The instruments for application of methods relevant to a problem like hunger are at the disposal of governments rather than scholars. The dichotomy between those who investigate and analyse problems and those who implement the solutions is at least partly because of the aversion of intellectuals to politics. It is interesting that Herman Hesse examined this dichotomy in The Glass Bead Game and observed that intellectual aristocracy, like every aristocracy, inclines to a certain measure of class arrogance. Although rich in cultivated intelligence, intellectuals often suffer from a lack of insight into their place in the structure of their nation and the world, They fear that involvement with politics would lead to a rapid neglect of their proper field and real concern, for their requirements differ. While cultivation of the mind requires unflinching devotion to truth, politics requires "whole-hearted delight in extraverted activity, a bent for identifying oneself with outward goals, and of course also a certain swiftness and lack of scruple about the choice of ways to attain success" (18). Thus, the approach at the disposal of the UN University has at least an inherent weakness, if not a contradiction.

The contrast between the academic approach and the methods that are practical in the real world has been all too apparent in the field of nutrition. There are historical records from 917 of a famine in Kashmir during which the king and his ministers amassed riches by selling grain at a high price (11, p.7). In Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, the Irish-American character Malone calls the famine "the starvation" and justifies the word, saying, "When a country is full of food and exporting it, there can be no famine." While millions are hungry, the United States withdraws crop land from production in order to ensure a minimum price for food (9). Countries of the European Economic Community often dump considerable quantities of edible material for similar reasons. Sixty-five per cent of the fruits and vegetables produced in Central America are dumped because they fail to meet the United States' standards of "quality" and the local population is too poor to buy them (19). Lester Brown has calculated that a 5 per cent reduction in meat consumption in the United States would free 6 million tons of food grain, a quantity sufficient to make up 60 per cent of the food gap in the hungry world. To an academician, nothing could be simpler, but in practice such things are easier said than done.

The parochial rather than rational views of politicians were apparent at the World Food Conference in 1974, where the developed countries kept telling the developing countries, "Check your population growth; share your natural resourcees," and invited the invariable response, "Share your wealth; give more aid" (20). Based on an analysis of agricultural planning in India, Thailand, and Tunisia, Cochrane concludes that development planning is a political activity. It is the end-product of many political compromises and accommodations. Political action, rather than economic and administrative logic, governs the planning process (21). Thus, the academic approach can, at best, provide pointers to the solution of the hunger problem, and these, in turn, face a very high risk of being guillotined in the usual routine of "planning."

Further diffidence is forced upon an enthusiastic scholar by the enormous body of knowledge that already exists in the fields of nutrition, agriculture, and food science and the widespread dissemination it has received. In terms of human nutritional requirements, we already know enough to be able to maintain individuals in apparent good health for as long as five years exclusively by intravenous administration of solutions of known composition (22). As to the best sources of the required nutrients, considerable research has not made it possible to excel the cereal-pulse combinations adopted thousands of years ago. The rice and lentils of South India, wheat and legumes of North India, rice and soybeans of China, and corn and beans of Latin America provide an optimal mixture of essential amino acids in the most convenient and least expensive form (23). The consumption of meat on a large scale has become possible for a small section of humanity relatively recently as a result of the prosperity generated by the Industrial Revolution. However, this practice does not seem to do the body any good (24, 25), and it definitely imposes a colossal drain on the fast-dwindling natural resources of our planet (25, 26). Search for unconventional foods like singlecell protein and fish-protein concentrate has yet to provide an economically feasible, socially acceptable, and nutritionally adequate product (27, 28). In contrast, there is a much greater need for progress in agricultural sciences to meet the challenge of continuous/y increasing food production from the world's finite resources of land, water, and energy (25, 26). These facts pose a powerful challenge to anyone on his way to spending yet more public funds for enlarging the store of human knowledge with the aim of reducing world hunger.


Having gone over the enormous constraints and serious limitations of the academic approach to the problem, it is now easier to see what an organization like the United Nations University might do other than dismantling its World Hunger Programme.


While the mechanisms of implementation rest with governments all present-day enlightened governments have, pretend to have, or would like to have, appropriately trained and qualified professionals to advise them on various issues. These technically trained persons can act as a bridge between the ivory towers of intellectuals and the corridors of power. They may not be in a position to implement their opinions, but they can exercise influence at the level of implementation. In practice, even persons in government are not always well versed in nutrition, agricultural economics, and related fields. The typical administrator is a legacy of colonial times when his job was only to maintain law and order and collect taxes. He is a "generalist," and is frequently shifted from one sector to another unrelated sector according to circumstances (21, p. 154). This undesirable situation is at least partly due to dearth of appropriately trained manpower.

It would be a worthwhile investment for the UN University to train suitable persons who can fill this gap. To do so requires a special type of training. The typical nutrition scientist is ill-equipped to deal with the kind of questions posed by the development planner (15, p. 3). In this connection, it is interesting to read the introductory paragraph to the health policies of developing countries in a World Bank document: Few governments in developing countries have tried to select health policies after rational consideration of the questions [involved]. The objectives of health expenditures in terms of consumption and investment have rarely been articulated. The administrative framework for making decisions is usually fragmented, the data base is deficient, and specific measures are seldom evaluated for cost effectiveness. [30]

The state of food and nutrition policy in developing countries is, if anything, worse. In poor and rich countries alike, governments, private organizations, and individuals continually make decisions that affect nutritional status with little or no knowledge of the nutritional consequences (5, p. 33). Thus, three aims can be visualized for the training provided by the UN University:

  1. Increasing the number of professionally trained nutrition and agriculture scientists interested in assisting governments, and conversant with the language and methods of planners.
  2. Providing a refresher course in recent scientific advances and the latest trends in development planning to those holding advisory positions, but who may have lost touch with the academic circle because of prolonged stay in administrative circles.
  3. Creating public opinion in favour of suitable socioeconomic changes by dispersing well-informed, motivated individuals. Fortunately, public opinion commands some measure of respect in many poor developing countries such as India that have democratically elected governments. Fortunately, too, many of the countries where public opinion may not be so important have largely alleviated hunger by imposing a rigid control on vital resources.


Generation of new knowledge and information in areas where they are deficient is important to provide a base of sound and sufficient information to administrators, including those trained by the UN University. They should have access to data collected from several fields that bear on a specific problem. If their views have a solid foundation, their conviction is deeper, and they can be more persuasive. For instance, in the field of nutrition, the demonstration that malnutrition has an indirect but marked influence on morbidity and mortality through its adverse effect on the resistance of the body to infections was an important landmark (31). It has been observed that, with a comparable incidence, mortality from measles was 274 times higher in Ecuador than in the United States (30, p. 17). Analysis of the primary causes of 80 per cent of the deaths in the under-five age group in Latin American countries reveals that 40.4 per cent result from diarrhoeal diseases, 33.1 per cent from air-borne diseases, and 7 per cent are caused by nutritional deficiency (30, p. 12). Although the contribution of nutritional deficiencies per se is minor, a substantial fraction of mortality in the first two categories is also likely to be secondary to malnutrition.

If facts are presented in this light to decision-making bodies, one can hope for a better allocation of resources to nutrition. Another feature that appeals to administrators is the economic consequences of malnutrition (15, pp. 9 - 30). It is easier to convince administrators to make an investment that brings tangible dividends rather than one based on purely humanitarian considerations. For instance, the case for vitamin-A supplementation to prevent blindness is strengthened by the calculation that sustaining a blind person at a cost even as low as US$25 a year costs 1,250 times the ingredient cost of vitamin A needed for prevention (15, p. 26).

With this background, one might enumerate the areas in which further addition to human knowledge is most likely to be reflected in the nutrition policies of developing countries. (To be most valid and effective, as much of the data as possible should be collected locally in the country where it is likely to be used.)

  1. Economic consequences of malnutrition.
  2. Illustration that alleviating malnutrition is an achievable goal by the example of employing suitable interventions in small pockets of the population for limited periods of time on an experimental basis.
  3. Finding the most cost-effective investment among those interventions tried experimentally.
  4. Calculation of the initial and recurring cost of applying the most cost-effective intervention on a national scale to assess its feasibility (it should be within a reasonable and acceptable fraction of the GNP).
  5. Calculation of the economic benefits associated with the intervention in terms of increased production, so that the intervention can be projected as a productive investment rather than one that merely consumes resources.
  6. Systematic cataloguing of nutrition-related research- both past and current, and either local or foreign- that may provide portions of the needed information (15, p. 209). This type of activity, though less prestigious than conventional research, is very important for avoiding duplication, and ensuring application of existing knowledge, as well as economic allocation of fresh resources for generating new information.
  7. Agricultural research pertaining to plant growth regulators, carbon dioxide supplementation, water conservation, targetting of pesticides, systemic fungicides, nitrogen fixation, and cattle nutrition (32).
  8. Techniques for continuous cultivation of the soil in the humid tropics after the tree cover has been removed.
  9. Techniques for desalinating sea water at costs low enough to be economic for irrigation, with sources of electricity cheap enough to pump the water long distances and up considerable heights.

If techniques 8 and 9 above are realized, Walter Pawley, former Director of the Policy Advisory Bureau of FAO, argues that 36,000 million persons could be fed by the year 2070 without recourse to synthetic food (11, p. 1 72).

Though not as cut and dried as the above areas of research, some other topics have also been suggested that cannot be easily ignored. The fact that socialist countries have come the closest to eradication of hunger, and that they have achieved the feat in a very short time, has prompted Johan Galtung to assert that the most important factor in alleviating world hunger is structural (33). As a corollary, he suggests that the first priority should be given to such topics of research as how inadequate structures can be overcome. The Food Study Group of the Goals, Processes, and Indicators of Development Project of the UN University has also done some radical thinking on the topic. They suggest that one of the tasks of research is to understand more fully the nature and extent of the expanding capitalist control of use and enjoyment of resources. This group also resents conventional research that has largely brought about a flow of information from the poor to the rich, to the advantage of the latter. They suggest research aimed at rediscovering wisdom gleaned over the centuries by the millions of peasants in developing countries. Research, they feel, should involve a true interaction between the researcher and researched from which both should emerge improved (34). It is felt, however, that such ideas for research are laudable but vague; some of them suggest studies that would be almost impossible to conduct in the real world. But, if such research is proposed to be conducted, the UN University, with the academic freedom and flexibility that it enjoys, is the right body to support it.

Dissemination of knowledge

Besides training scholars from, and supporting research in, different parts of the world, the UN University should also adopt more aggressive techniques for dissemination of knowledge. Information gathered and generated by the University as well as other bodies should be transmitted to scholars and governments as well as to community-level medical and paramedical workers. Translated into global terms, it is a stupendous but worthwhile task. Selection, cataloging, and presentation of data suitable for different sections of consumers is itself a gigantic task. But this type of dissemination is obviously much more economical than providing direct training to all concerned, and is the only feasible approach to this much-needed activity.


There are some temptations and distractions in research that the UN University should avoid in view of its relatively meagre resources. It need not support fundamental research with no apparent bearing on the problem of world hunger in the foreseeable future. It should refrain from having anything to do with the collection of meaningless, or even misleading, figures. Figures such as per capita availability or consumption make no sense in a world ridden with wide disparities. Collection of such data should be left to the international agencies that have been doing so in the past.


Defining the four priority areas of the World Hunger Programme- viz., human nutritional requirements, post harvest food conservation, nutrition planning, and agriculture/nutrition interfaces (4)- appears to be unnecessary. They are a needless constraint on imagination, though unlikely to be an effective check on the type of activities that may be funded. It requires only a little worldly wisdom to fit any nutrition-related activity into one of the four priority areas. Therefore, in keeping with the open-minded and flexible policies of the University, the concept of the four priority areas should be done away with. The World Hunger Programme should encourage and support any worthwhile idea bearing on the problem of malnutrition anywhere in the world.

Among the unique features of the UN University is its capacity to deal diretly with individuals and institutions. This capacity is a boon if it is not construed as a ban on dealing with governments. Among individuals and institutions are those who are young, enthusiastic, and intellectually oriented- amenable to reason and committed to a cause. They are better targets for the efforts of the UN University than government-nominated candidates who might be selected for all sorts of extra-academic considerations. On the other hand, governments are nameless, faceless, amorphous entities, lost in the dreary desert of dead habits, technicalities, pay-offs, international political climate, and the like. But if problems have to be solved, governments must be brought into the picture as well. The People's Republic of China, the Republic of Cuba, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam- four countries among the developing nations which have nearly solved the problem of hunger- have been able to do so not because they had the best scholars or institutions but because their governments have ensured a reasonable fairness in the handling of human and material resources. The UN University would do well to have a larger share of its Fellows from socialist countries. They are likely to bring fresh ideas from which the other Fellows would benefit. This step would set in motion the process of creating a body of scholars familiar with methods that have worked, at least under some circumstances (11, p. 164; 35).

Some individuals in all parts of the world, under all types of governments, have been able to create small pockets of well-being by dint of their missionary zeal, and they richly deserve the publicity they get (e.g., 36). But these pockets are like tiny stars in a dark sky. To find solutions on a larger scale, methods with wider applicability have to be found, and such methods usually have to employ government machineries. Therefore, while retaining and fully utilizing its capacity to deal with institutions and individuals directly, the UN University should not shun governments. Utilizing the academic approach, the University cannot assume responsibility for solving the problem of world hunger. However, considering all of its assets and liabilities, it can make an effective contribution to the solution. With the relatively meagre resources at its command, the impact of the University will depend upon how sharply it can focus on the most appropriate areas of study

Food problems have always been a part of man's existence. The tragic thing, however, is that they need no longer be so. Every country in the world has the resources necessary for its people to free themselves from hunger. The contradiction has been brought out and analysed in considerable depth (8, 14). The conclusion that has emerged is that scarcity is a product of extreme inequities in the control of food-producing resources which thwart the development and distort the utilization of those resources. Although these analyses are praiseworthy, they imply a moralistic stance- a "good guy- bad guy" approach. This is not a positive trend. Human nature is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Therefore, solutions have to be found that will work despite the acquisitive and selfish impulses of man. Therein lies the real challenge to all endeavours aimed at human welfare.


1. W. Robbins, "The United States. Sweet Home Arkansas: Hunger in the U.S.," in Give Us This Day . . . A Report on the World Food Crisis, by the staff of the New York Times (Arno Press, New York, 19751, pp. 70 - 78.

2. F. Brockington, World Health (Churchill-Livingston, Edinburgh, 1975) pp. 21 - 22.

3. S. Reutlinger, "Malnutrition: A Poverty or a Food Problem?" World Development, 5 (8): 715 - 724 (1977).

4. The United Nations University World Hunger Programme, descriptive brochure (UN University, Tokyo, 1976).

5. World Food and Nutrition Study: The Potential Contributions of Research, prepared by the Steering Committee, NRC Study on World Food and Nutrition of the Commission on International Relations, National Research Council- National Academy of Sciences (Washington, D.C., 1977), p. 26.

6. V.T.H. Gunaratne, Challenges and Response: Health in South East Asia Region, (Regional Office for South-East Asia, World Health Organization; Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., Ltd., New Delhi, 1977), pp. 207 - 208.

7. H. Schmeck, "The World. Malnutrition, the Global Scourge," in Give Us This Day . . . A Report on the World Food Crisis, by the staff of the New York Times (Arno Press, New York, 1975) p. 79.

8. F.M. Lappé and J. Collins, Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity (Houghton-Mifflin Co., Boston, 1977).

9. L.R. Brown, Seeds of Change: The Green Revolution and Development in the 1970s (Praeger Publishers, New York, 1970).

10. J.C. Likimani, "Report on Nutrition in Kenya," in Proceedings of the Eastern African Conference on Nutrition and Child Feeding (GPO, 1969), pp. 41 - 55.

11. J. Power and A.M. Holenstein, World of Hunger: A Strategy for Survival (Temple Smith, London, 1976), p. 51.

12. J.E. Dutra de Oliveira, "Development of Protein Foods in Brazil," United Nations Protein Advisory Group Document 1913, (New York, 1967).

13. C.D. Williams, "Self-Help and Nutrition. Real Needs of Underdeveloped Countries," Lancet, i: 323 - 325 (1954).

14. S George, How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger (Penguin Books, Ltd., Harmondsworth, UK, 1976).

15. A. Berg, The Nutrition Factor: Its Role in National Development. The Brookings Institution (Washington, D.C. 1973), p. 50.

16. M.F. Millikan, "Population, Food Supply and Economic Development," Technology Review (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Feb. 1970, p. 57.

17. A. Berg and R. Muscat, "An Approach to Nutrition Planning," Am. J. Clin. Nutr., 25: 939 - 954 (1972).

18. See H. Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (orig. Das Glasperlenspiel, 1943), trans. Richard and Clara Winston (Penguin Books, Ltd., Harmondsworth, UK, 1972), pp. 323 - 324, 333.

19. R. Goldberg, Agribusiness Management for the Developing Countries- Latin America (Ballinger, Cambridge, Mass. USA, 1974), p. 87.

20. M.J. Chrispeels and D. Sadava, Plants, Food and People (W. H. Freeman and Co., San Francisco, Calif. USA, 1977).

21. W.W. Cochrane, Agricultural Development Planning: Economic Concepts, Administrative Procedures, and Political/ Process (Praeger Publishers, New York, 1974), p. 162.

22. K.N. Jeejeebhoy, B. Langer, G. Tsallas, R.C. Chu, A. Kuksis, and G.H. Anderson, "Total Parenteral Nutrition at Home: Studies in Patients Surviving 4 Months to 5 Years," Gastroenterology, 71: 943 953 (1976).

23. E. Orr, "The Contribution of New Food Mixtures to the Relief of Malnutrition," Food and Nutrition (FAO), 3 (2): 2 - 10, 1977.

24. T.L. Cleave, The Saccharine Disease (John Wright and Sons, Ltd., Bristol, UK 1974).

25. D. Pimentel, W. Dritschilo, J. Krummel, and J. Kutzman, "Energy and Land Constraints in Food Protein Production," Science, 190: 754 - 761 (1975).

26. D. Pimentel, "Energy Resources and Land Constraints in Food Production," Ann. M Y. Acad. Sci., 300: 26 - 32 (1977).

27. G.D. Kapsiotis, "Single-Cell Protein- Review and Assessment," Food and Nutrition (FAO), 4 (1 - 2): 2 - 7 (1978).

28. M.B. Wallerstein and E.B. Pariser, "Fish Protein Concentrate- A Technological Approach that Failed," Food and Nutrition (FAO), 4 (1 - 2): 8-14 (1978).

29. "Sensible Eating," leading article in Brit Med. J., 2: 80 (1977).

30. "Health," sector policy paper (World Bank, Washington, D.C., 1975), p. 32.

31. N.S. Scrimshaw, C.E. Taylor, and J.E. Gordon, Interactions of Nutrition and Infection, World Health Organization Monograph No. 57 (WHO, Geneva, 1968).

32. K.C. Barrons, The Food in Your Future: Steps to Abundance (Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1975), pp. 129 - 141.

33. J. Galtung, "Comments on the Report of the First United Nations University Group on World Hunger, Sept. 22 - 26, 1975," (UN University, Tokyo 13 Nov. 1975).

34. Food Study Group of the Goals, Processes, and Indicators of Development Project (GPID), "An Issues Paper," prepared for a workshop on Goals, Processes, and Indicators for Food and Nutrition Policy and Planning sponsored jointly by the UNU World Hunger Programme and Human and Social Development Programme, Cambridge, Mass,, USA, 26 - 29 March 1979, HSDRGPID-2/UNUP-54 (UN University, Tokyo 1979).

35. B. Rensberger, "The Visitors Are Impressed with China," in Give Us This Day .... A Report on the World Food Crisis, by the staff of the New York Times (Arno Press, New York, 1975), pp. 130 - 135.

36. D. Moller and A. Mahadevan, "The Miracle Worker of Kaira," Reader's Digest (India), October 1977, pp. 35 - 40.

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