Is the Hunger Challenge in Asia-Pacific Going Unnoticed?

While a UN report gives alarming findings about hunger in Asia, the issue is still a low priority to many states.

Is the Hunger Challenge in Asia-Pacific Going Unnoticed?
Credit: Cpl. Jeffrey Scarmazzi

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN recently published a report about the Asia-Pacific region’s troubles in achieving zero hunger by 2030, a Sustainable Development Goal. Where reduction of hunger has gradually halted in states like Bangladesh and India, hunger has actually increased in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Philippines.

Exploring the situation and challenges faced in these three countries will give a solid preface for understanding the overall region.


A landlocked country with negligible water resources, Afghanistan has been the least successful at combating hunger out of the 26 countries monitored in Asia-Pacific.

A region troubled by coups, civil wars, and external threats, Afghanistan still managed to decrease the incidence of stunting due to malnutrition in children under five years by over 13 percent in the first decade of the millennia. Even though this feat should not go unappreciated, there are still two out of five children not tall enough for their age, an alarming statistic.

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Vital nutrient deficiencies in Afghanistan have improved since 1995, which is, once again, a step in the right direction given the political and economic circumstances that prevail in the country. However, the incidence of such deficiencies is still troubling at 40 percent.

Since the report’s main aim is to judge the success of countries in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, Afghanistan has failed in that regard comprehensively.

How has the government been dealing with this hunger challenge?

The agriculture sector accounts for 40 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP, and can rightly be termed as the backbone of the economy. Yet since 2000, public spending on the sector has been about one fifth of its contribution to GDP. This lack of government support to the sector has led to increasing rates of nutrient deprivation and hunger. In a country where the occurrence of hunger and malnutrition is so widespread, it would be naive to assume that the relevant authorities have been ignorant of the problem at hand. Yet, the Afghan government has actually decreased public spending on agriculture since 2010. This fact means that there will be less research in the field of agriculture, even lower supply-side support to the farmers and agriculturalists, and weaker implementation of policies. It will not be surprising if the hunger issue intensifies in the coming years.

From all the statistics quoted above, it goes without a doubt that Afghanistan is going through a hunger crisis; however, as of this writing, the Afghan authorities have not made any public statement after the publication of the report. This shows the priorities of the Afghan government.


The sixth most populated country in the world, bestriding the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia, Pakistan has also shown an increase in the occurrence of hunger in the past five years.

Pakistan’s was one of the first few parliaments to formally adopt the UN Sustainable Development Goals in February 2016. Pakistan’s newfound commitment to work on its development concerns is contrasted by the findings of this report. With a GDP that stands at about $270 billion, Pakistan is the second least successful country at mitigating hunger, since the 1990s; only a 13 percent reduction has taken place in over 25 years.

An amazing 40 percent of Pakistan’s population is under 14 and this massive fraction has been neglected by the governments over decades. Further proof is given by the fact that stunted growth in under-five children has actually increased since 2000, a statistic shared by only three other countries in the region. Always boastful of the growing GDP in their tenure, all of Pakistan’s ruling parties have failed to recognize the conditions in which the children of this country live.

In Pakistan, the number of people suffering from deficiencies of important nutrients have also increased since 1995. Meanwhile, the government is known for keeping health and education, both critically linked with hunger, on the backburner.

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Pakistan’s economy continues to be heavily dependent on agriculture; however, public spending in this sector is less than one-tenth of agriculture’s contribution to GDP. Its policies have been driven by the uninformed misconception that industrialization is the shorter and faster route toward development, often at the cost of the livelihoods dependent on the agricultural sector. According to the UN report, out of all the countries surveyed, Pakistan has placed the lowest priority on agriculture. A Livestock Insurance Scheme has been recently initiated by the government; its success can only be judged at a later stage.

Pakistan suffers from exponential population growth, natural calamities, and military insurgencies – the deterioration in nutrition levels can be attributed to these struggles. However, the government’s budget documents would disagree as they paint a clear picture of the state prioritizing other interests. For example, Pakistan spends the least on education of any country in South Asia.

The Philippines

An island country and 12th most populated state in the world, the Philippines has also suffered from increasing rates of hunger recently.

In the Philippines, stunting among children under five has decreased since 2000, nutrient deficiencies have improved since 1995, and public spending on agriculture has significantly increased.

Then how has hunger actually increased in the country?

First, the Philippines finds itself plagued with natural disasters and armed conflict. Due to the tragedies suffered, the country is experiencing falling living standards in particular areas.

Second, the Philippines had been very successful at fighting hunger in the past. Since the 1990s, 51 percent of hunger has been curtailed. This is an indication that the current policy may have reached a saturation point, and for further success a new approach should be undertaken. Development policies are usually dependent upon set social networks for their implementation. If most of the beneficiaries of a policy have been reached through a network, it suggests that the network has been exhausted and a new network has to be employed to reach new people. Therefore, a fresh strategy may assist the Philippines in its fight against hunger.

The Issue at Large

The report identifies that those who have escaped hunger are more connected to markets, possible employers, and health centers.

David Dawe, co-author of the report, has also emphasized the importance of curtailing private sector pollution, as environment degradation, commonly leading to the depleting quality of land for cultivation, is highly linked with malnutrition and disease.

The issue points toward the need for policy revision in the region: the states involved must prioritize agriculture, local food demand, education, population control, safe drinking water, sanitation, and the environment.

Meha Pumbay is a recent graduate with a BSc (Honors) in Economics, and a minor in Political Science. Pumbay has been a research consultant with the European Union, USAID, British Council, Senate of Pakistan, Pakistan-China Institute, Pakistan Center for Philanthropy, and Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.