Monday, December 16, 2013

Hungry For Facts

Tis the season for everyone to feel good by feeding others. And it has become quite the corporate cause du jour[1] and you've probably felt the pressure to save the world from starvation. You may even have heard some of the more aggressive non-profiteers declaring that "every 15 seconds a child dies of hunger." This is rather deliberate deception is promoted by the "If Campaign"[2]. While Jack Handy of the If Campaign refused to address the deception head on (in a relatively recent More or Less programme) he did justify the use of the tactic arguing that it resonates more than "three million a year", humanizes the problem and provides a depiction of scale and urgency that even the little people can grok.

The UN Food Programme's Jane Howard disapproves characterizing this as a misleading headline grabber and the UN avoids using these tactics as the situation changes from year to year and the use of old data could be perceived as deceptive. Since malnutrition (not exactly hunger) is only one factor in the deaths being used in this calculation it also leads to overcounting by multiple non-profiteers each advancing one of these multiple causes of death. The fact is there are other underlying causes and while nutrition is contributory it is not the only or primary problem. When the fundamental problem is not lack of food to eat but not knowing what to eat programmes that do not focus on education may cause more harm than good.

The reports being used by the If Campaign come from the Lancet and Robert Black of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University with the shock headline based on the Lancet report of estimated data based on a survey. Mr. Black's research shines a harsher light on Hunger Profiteers. He points out that most nutrition related deaths are occurring in non-famine, non-conflict areas (India, Nigeria, Asia,...) where there are sufficient resources in-country. The factor creating nutrition deficiencies range from cultural avoidance (e.g., milk, meat), the fact that even pregnant women often are last at the table and that many people simply do not understand the importance of fruits and vegetables in their diet. A full quarter of these deaths are due to inadequate breast feeding. In many locations up to six months of exclusive breast feeding is recommend for proper nutrition and to avoid exposing infants to contaminated food.

Confronted with these facts the If Campaign acknowledges that one cannot get all the information from their bumper sticker campaign line but still claim it creates the right engagements to lead to further discussions. A reasonable conclusion is this discussion revolves around "how much money are you pledging" rather than a deep dive into real issues and concrete facts. When further challenged Handy slyly pointed out they do not use the word "starvation" and if there is any confusion it is because the audience "inferred" that.

Robert Black is more upbeat. He has seen a decrease in excess deaths that he attributes to increased awareness regarding nutrition. Apparently folks really are starving for knowledge but thankfully there are fewer of them.

[1] You may have wondered how we can justify legislation requiring the use of food (corn) for automobile fuel if people really are starving to death. 
[2] The "If Campaign" is based on the tagline of "there is enough food for everyone IF" where the "if" is primarily "give us your money."