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2 May 2016

Assessing rural hunger reduction progress just a mouse click away: Q&A with Alexandra Silfvestolpe Tolstoy

2015 is marked in history as a super development year. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 interconnected goals for global development which were agreed on in September 2015, are part of the super development plan. This demonstrates global agreement about the vision of a sustainable future.The hard part is to implement this ambitious plan.

As it is sometimes said: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, so monitoring and evaluating the state of the ongoing implementation is a way to point decision making in the right direction and to support the implementation efforts.

Ending Rural Hunger is an online interactive toolkit created by the Brookings Institution and the DataActLab to assess each countries’ global efforts to end hunger by 2030 (SDG2), with a focus on its core element –  the reduction of hunger among people who live in the rural areas, population segment with the largest proportion of chronical hunger. This online platform contains data on food and nutrition security needs, policies and resources across 116 countries and merges these results with an assessment of how policies and aid efforts of the 29 developed countries contribute to the end of rural hunger.

We spoke with Alexandra Silfverstolpe Tolstoy, the founder of the DataActLab, to find out more about the Ending Rural Hunger toolkit and how it can be used for the implementation of the SDG2.

Q: Measuring the progress of the SDGs is not an easy task, and the indicators have been arguably debated even more than the goals. What is your way of thinking about this and how did you approach the creation of the ending rural hunger tool?

AST: The Ending Rural Hunger platform contains data on 106 indicators. The data is directly tied to the specific targets of SDG 2 (2.1, 2.2., 2.3, 2.4) and also includes the data on aspects of other SDGs. The selection of indicators was a difficult job, which was mainly carried out by the researchers at the Brookings Institution. Additionally a group of 120 experts were consulted in the process. We still had to exclude several important indicators due to lack of data, or bad quality of coverage. We definitely need more and better data!

Q: Let’s say I am a policy-maker from a low-income country with high rural hunger and I am responsible for implementation and monitoring of the SDG#2. How do I begin working with your tool? How do I identify the needs, policies and available resources?

AST: The online platform contains Country Profiles or score cards for 135 countries (116 developing countries and 29 developed countries). Country Profiles are meant to guide high-level advocates and policymakers in their decision-making process by offering snapshots of key data on where the needs are greatest, where the strength and weakness of each country’s policies towards ending hunger are, and how much resources are available to combat rural hunger. These can be found on the map view. Click on your specific country.

Q: I see that your approach is divided into actions for developed and developing countries, but the SDGs are universal, so where are the main connections in action between the low-income and affluent countries in the case of ending rural hunger?

AST: It is true that the SDGs are universal. Therefore we included assessments of both developed and developing countries. The platform includes 2 databases and provides analysis of policy actions for both developed and developing countries:
i) assessing the food and nutrition security needs, policies, and availability of resources for improving food systems in countries where hunger is a big problem (116 developing countries)
ii) assessing the contribution of OECD Development Assistance Committee countries to promote Food and Nutrition Security (FNS) through their domestic agriculture and trade policies and their aid to FNS (in all the 28 countries + EU).

Q: Switching to what more affluent countries can do, we noticed that the report mentions a concept of a “better targeted aid” which is then further explained as giving aid to countries “with high needs, good policies and scarce resources.” Why is that and does this mean that countries with poor policies and implementation won’t get help until a certain level of development?

AST: This is an important question. We wanted to make a point that a lot of aid is not allocated to countries that have great needs, that, actually, have OK policies in place and that lack financial resources. More aid should be directed to such countries. However there are, as you say, also a lot of countries with great needs and weak policies. We also see that these countries have comparatively less resources available to combat hunger. Many of those are fragile states. We do not mean that these countries should not receive aid, but rather efforts should be made to improve their policies. This can be done by capacity building etc. where aid can play an important role.

Q: Another recommendation for affluent countries is to cut their own agricultural subsidies, why is that and how would this help ending rural hunger? Is your tool capable of advising on the rate of the cuts?

AST: When developed countries distort global markets through subsidies, mandates, and tariffs around agriculture or bioenergy, they make it more difficult for poor farmers in developing countries to optimize their production and incomes. It becomes difficult for them to compete with cheaper European products, for example. If rich countries would lower their tariffs or reduce their subsidies, it would be easier for developing countries to export their products and increase and optimize their production.

The tool as such does not advice on the rate of cuts for specific countries. We know, however, from the data that on average, between 2009 and 2013 OECD countries spent 35 times as much on domestic subsidies as on aid to food and nutrition security! If developed countries would decrease their 2013 spending on distorting domestic subsidies by only 4%, and instead devoted that same amount of money to aid for FNS, this would double official development assistance to FNS!

Q: What gives you hope that ending rural hunger by 2030 is possible?

AST: Based on the current trends, the world is not on course to meet any of the relevant SDG 2 targets by the 2030 deadline: ending hunger, ending malnutrition, doubling the agricultural productivity of small-scale farms, or ensuring sustainable and resilient agricultural practices.

But some trends are promising:

1. Even though subsidies are way too high they are lower than before. More developing countries are today prioritizing agricultural development in their plans.
2. Global resources for FNS are increasing, more domestic resources are used to FNS, and aid to FNS is increasing.
3. There is more focus on infrastructure and energy in the SDGs which is necessary to boost agri production.
4. New agricultural research is on its way (better seeds etc).
5. Several high level events at the UN level have put hunger and agriculture back on the agenda.

This is not enough but if sustained further with increased commitment and action it can be solved.

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