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A World with Extreme Poverty is a World of Insecurity.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

How government fights hunger

By Mahar Mangahas
Last updated 08:50pm (Mla time) 08/03/2007

STATISTICAL efforts. Last Tuesday morning, I attended the National Statistical Coordination Board's forum revealing a new "Hunger Index" done by the Interagency Task Force that it had created in 2006.

The Index turned out to be an average of: (a) the proportion of underweight children less than 5 years old; (b) the proportion of households deficient in food-energy intake; and (c) the mortality rate among children less than 5 years old. The latest period with official data available for these three components happens to be 2003.

The Task Force considered as "Low Hunger" any Index values of .256 or less. "Moderate Hunger" would be between .257 and .291, "Serious Hunger" would be between .292 and .326, and "Alarming Hunger" would be .327 and up. (The boundaries were based on a complex technique which is immaterial here.) Using equal weights, the Index for 2003 turned out to be .272, meaning "Moderate"; but using alternative weights recommended by the Task Force, it became .235, meaning "Low."

I commented at the forum that none of the Index's components was directly about hunger, and thus it ignored the National Nutrition Council's (NNC) one direct survey on hunger, in 2003 [see my column last week]. More importantly, however, the Task Force had no plans for doing the Index more frequently.

I likened this analysis of the 2003 data to archeology--normal for academics, but of little relevance to the present situation. The year 2003 was in fact the lowest or most favorable point in the SWS quarterly surveys on hunger. One relying only on official statistics wouldn't realize that hunger rose to record heights in late 2006 and early 2007.

Executive branch efforts. Also last Tuesday, in the afternoon, in MalacaƱang, the National Anti-Poverty Commission en banc was presented by the NNC with an Accelerated Hunger-Mitigation Program, with emphasis on the National Capital Region.

The NNC presentation started with a reasonable framework: hunger is due to insufficient food to eat, and no money to buy food. On the supply side, the program calls for "increased food production" and "enhanced efficiency of logistics and food delivery." On the demand side, it aims to "put more money in poor people's pockets," "promote good nutrition," and "manage population."

Next, the NNC presented the SWS hunger data for each of the four quarters of 2006 and the first two quarters of 2007, in percentages and projected numbers of households affected. Focusing on the record-high hunger of 22.0 percent in Metro Manila, NNC said that the possible reasons were increased prices of meat and vegetables and unemployment (higher in NCR than in all other regions). It also cited an increase in national electrical consumption and a decrease in manufacturing production and sales (though the reasoning isn't too clear to me).

There followed a long list of programs, said to be in place, for mitigating hunger. The list also showed the agencies responsible, targets, accomplishments, and details for NCR: Programang Gulayan sa Masa; Backyard Fisheries; Barangay Food Terminals; Tindahan Natin; Roll-On Roll-Off (RORO) ports; Food for School Program; Supplementary Feeding (DSWD); Jobs Generation (roadside maintenance of national roads); Microfinance; Aggressive Training (of workers, by TESDA); Training on Infant and Child Feeding; Pabasa sa Nutrisyon; Nutritional Guidelines for Filipinos; Responsible Parenting Movement.

How well these programs, put together, will work will ultimately be determined by forthcoming surveys on hunger. How well a single program works by itself can be gauged by tracking the interface of hunger with that program. Assessing the effectiveness of programs, either collectively or singly, is learning by doing.

But what is sorely lacking, in my view, is learning by studying past movements over time. From mid-1998 onwards, SWS has already done 37 quarterly surveys on hunger and poverty at the national level and in broad geographical areas, making it feasible for econometricians to start building empirical models of the dynamics of hunger, in association with food prices, various cost-of-living indicators, actual wages, inflation, unemployment, Gross Domestic Income, remittances from abroad, the physical weather, and other factors. Econometric models have long been used to estimate the impact of investment on employment; now they should be designed to estimate the impact of, for instance, food prices on hunger.

In this list of requisite data, what worries me the most is wages, since it is measured very poorly and irregularly. There is a bias in official statistics against regularly measuring wages (in real terms, corrected for cost of living) just as there is bias against measuring poverty and hunger, because the findings might be embarrassing.

Incidentally, I saw one interesting theory that the recent slight fall in hunger could have been due to extra purchasing power from election spending. This theory would fit SWS' severe hunger figures in June 2007 of 4.3 percent (about 105,000 households) in NCR, and 2.7 percent (210,000 households) in the rest of Luzon, compared to only 1.7 percent (60,000 households) in the Visayas, and 0.7 percent (25,000 households) in Mindanao, on the assumption that such spending was relatively skimpy in oppositionist areas. Of course, to validate the theory would require help from insiders who know how much money got spent, and where.

Read his previous related article: Hunger hasn’t fallen enough