Developing strategies to end hunger
 

113 posts categorized "Hunger Hotspots"

Celebrating Young Women on International Youth Day

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August 12 is International Youth Day, and the generation that will lead efforts to end hunger and poverty by 2030 is a large one.  About one-fourth of the entire global population, or between 1 and 2 billion people, is in the age group 10 - 24.

Children and youth have higher rates of hunger and less opportunity to participate in national economies and politics. The obstacles are most daunting for young women, who face the double burden of gender discrimination and marginalization as young people.

The United Nations established International Youth Day in 1999 as a way of focusing on legal, cultural, and economic challenges specific to young people.  

Today we highlight three stories from the 2015 Hunger Report that celebrate bold young women leaders who are confronting the social norms and discrimination that perpetuate hunger, poverty, and exclusion among young people and women.

Fouzia Dahir

FouziaFouzia Dahir, whose mother never learned to read, sees education as a launching pad. Fouzia grew up in rural Kenya, where poverty and gender based violence meant that most girls never advanced beyond primary school. But her mother was determined. She escorted Fouzia and her sisters to and from school, even staying with them during the school day to ensure their safety and full participation in class. That personal investment paid off for Fouzia in big ways. She excelled at school and continued on through high school, college, and finally graduate school. She’s now the founder and executive director of the Northern Organization for Social Empowerment, a nonprofit based in Northern Kenya that aims to create livelihoods based on farming for women from pastoral backgrounds.

Sara Howard

SaraSara Howard was elected to the Nebraska State Legislature in 2012 -- the youngest female senator and one of 10 women in the 49-member body. Sara feels she especially represents a younger generation of Nebraskans, with their concerns about student debt, low-wage work, and other issues that affect young people more than others.  By the time Sara herself finished law school, she had accumulated more than $100,000 in student loan debt. Women use a greater share of their salaries than men to pay off education debt – not surprising since women are paid less than men.  One result, however, is that women are less likely to raise the money to run for public office. Sara uses her position to help raise awareness and spur action on problems specific to women and young people.

Patience Chifundo

PatiencePatience Chifundo believes there is no reason to deny women opportunities simply because they are women. Her mother lived this truth; she owned and drove a minibus, an unusual occupation for a woman in Malawi. Patience herself was a gifted student who began college at 15. She was the first female candidate for student body president. The discrimination and disparagement she suffered as a candidate fueled her determination to make things better for other female leaders. Though she never became student body president, Patience now works with the  Young Politicians Union of Malawi, training women interested in running for elected office. They demonstrate how politics actually works at the grassroots level – and Malawi needs more elected leaders who prioritize issues such as children’s health and education.

Read more about young women leaders in the 2015 Hunger Report: When Women Flourish … We Can End Hunger

Hunger in Fragile States: Where to Start?

Fragile states photo

Photo credit: NASA

By Michele Learner

Ending global hunger requires enabling and equipping all people – all 7 billion and counting -- to feed themselves and their families, no matter where they live. As the world makes steady progress against hunger, one inconvenient truth is that the people and communities still living with hunger become harder and harder to reach. This is, after all, why many have not benefited from the progress made so far.

Many of the “last miles” in building food security are in the world’s 50 identified fragile and conflict-affected states. It’s not hard to understand why conflict-affected countries have high rates of hunger. The main aim of conflict – destruction – is directly at odds with what’s needed for sustainable development. Peace is a precondition for lasting progress on hunger. In its absence, local, national, and international humanitarian relief efforts are saving countless lives, but they can at best hold the line on hunger. They can’t enable nations, communities, or individuals to move forward.

What makes a country "fragile"? In its June 2015 report, States of Fragility, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one of the main sources of information and analysis on fragile states, argues that fragility can apply to some degree in any country.

The report identifies five factors, based on indicators in the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that help determine a country's degree of fragility. These are:  

  • peaceful and inclusive societies

  • access to justice

  • accountable and inclusive institutions

  • economic inclusion and stability

  • capacities to prevent and adapt to social, economic, and environmental shocks and disasters

Unsurprisingly, the countries identified as weak in all five clusters form a very similar list of countries as earlier lists of fragile states. These are the Central African Republic (CAR),  Guinea, Chad, Swaziland, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Yemen, and Sudan.

But countries that are vulnerable based on just a couple of the five areas include some that have not traditionally been considered fragile -- for example, Venezuela, Fiji, and Kenya. In fact, the report says, 12 countries on the OECD "50 most fragile" have never appeared on a list of fragile states.

States that have a significant degree of fragility thus vary widely -- in size, location, income level, specific challenges, and more. The world's remaining 795 million hungry people have not yet all been "mapped" precisely, but we know that a large number of them live in fragile and conflict-affected states.

This blog post has only just begun to consider where to start in the world's difficult but essential task of reaching hungry people in such a variety of difficult situations. Future posts will consider some examples of countries where hungry people are concentrated and look at research on policy improvements that could better enable them to feed themselves and their families. 

 Michele Learner

 

Vizathon Tackles Hidden Hunger from Both Coasts

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By Derek Schwabe

This past Saturday, Bread for the World Institute held our first-ever bi-coastal (and second annual) vizathon to expose hidden hunger. The event, held at Bread’s offices in Washington, DC, and the offices of Macys.com in downtown San Francisco, brought together a diverse group of volunteer data heroes (statisticians, web developers, coders, designers, and data geeks) who gave their time, skills, and creative energy to help us visualize a widespread and growing kind of hunger: hidden hunger. We teamed up with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), who shared a rich new dataset that helped our volunteers tackle the issue from all sides. We were grateful to have two fantastic data facilitators who led the charge -- Jon Schwabish of HelpMeViz on the East Coast and Leigh Fonseca of LivingData on the West Coast. Here’s a storify-style recap of our exciting day of data storytelling:  

Two Full Rooms Took on Two Forms of Hidden Hunger

Challenge 1, De-Mystifying Micronutrient Deficiency: Micronutrient deficiency harms one in two preschool-aged children worldwide, yet it’s impossible to detect by looking at a child. How can we make the damage caused by micronutrient deficiency visible?  

Challenge 2, The Coming Obesity Pandemic: Obesity is hunger for the right kinds of food. In the developing world, we’ve seen steady progress against traditional forms of hunger, but obesity is rising rapidly. With it comes a proliferation of deadly non-communicable diseases. All too often, these don’t have treatments that are 100 percent effective, even in developed countries (e.g., heart disease, stroke). Poorer countries certainly do not have the resources to treat large numbers of patients with these conditions. Help us tell this urgent story.

Getting Started: A Deluge of Data

IFPRI introduced a dataset with household-level information relevant to both data challenges. Sara Signorelli of HarvestChoice, a project led by IFPRI, oriented the Washington, DC and San Francisco teams to available indicators such as those on micronutrient deficiency, dietary diversity, obesity, and body mass. The dataset was specific to Africa South of the Sahara. Signorelli pointed participants to HarvestChoice’s Mappr tool—a nutrition and agriculture data mapping app that lets users isolate specific indicators, years, locations, or groups. HarvestChoice also supplied even more granular datasets on Ethiopia and Malawi. The “vizathoners” had no shortage of data to sift through, but the real challenge was pulling out a story.

The Coasts Connect

By the time the San Francisco team was ready to jump into the data, the Washington, DC, group had already been working with it long enough to begin to notice trends, gaps, and roadblocks. We took advantage of the three-hour time-zone difference to give the two teams a chance to connect and learn from each other. Using Google HangOut, participants in Washington, DC, communicated their most salient findings -- and in some cases, vented their frustrations -- to San Francisco. Twitter was also a cross-coastal communication channel of choice.  

Visualizing Answers...and more Questions

Once both teams had a few hours to explore the data, visualizations started to surface, highlighting fascinating trends and raising many new questions. Here’s a smattering of some of them:

What’s Next?

The discoveries made and questions raised by vizathon volunteers will not be left alone. In the coming weeks, the Institute, IFPRI, and a smaller group of volunteers will process the day’s findings and start digging deeper. We’re excited to create opportunities for the teams to continue their work, which will (we hope) lead to visualization tools that will make hidden hunger impossible to miss. Stay tuned.  

Further Reading

Check out HelpMeViz.com to see more work by vizathon participants, dig into visualizations in greater detail, or even play around with the data yourself. And be sure to read this post by my colleague, Robin Stephenson, in which she recaps the vizathon from her own first-time perspective and introduces us to some of the incredible participants!

Derek Schwabe

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Announces New Nutrition Strategy

Melinda Gates announced a new foundation pledge of $776 million over a six-year period to fight malnutrition. Gates made the announcement June 3 at the European Development Days forum on development and international cooperation. 

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Photo Credit: 1000 Days "Investing in Nutrition: A Golden Opportunity"

Gates said that efforts to end malnutrition are underfunded, adding, “I know of no other problem in the world that does so much damage yet receives so little attention.”

Malnutrition is the underlying cause of almost half of all preventable deaths of children younger than 5. Many millions more who survive—one in four of the world’s children—are stunted, meaning that early childhood malnutrition has permanently damaged their physical and cognitive development.

The 2015-2020 Gates Nutrition Strategy centers around five initiatives: country impact; new solutions; food systems; data, analytics, and evidence; and advocacy, policy, and alignment. The efforts will include reaching more women, young children, adolescent girls, and others at risk with proven solutions such as breastfeeding and food fortification, improving food systems so that people have better access to nutritious and affordable food, and support a data revolution in nutrition to strengthen the evidence for nutrition actions and track progress.

The Gates Foundation will focus its efforts on five countries that have both high rates of child malnutrition and significant opportunities to make improvements: India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. 

Gates called on European donors to continue to support maternal/child nutrition efforts, particularly at the upcoming Financing for Development conference, to be held in Addis Ababa in July, and at the U.N. General Assembly in September, where global leaders will be finalizing targets and financial commitments for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs will set the global development agenda through 2030, including targets for reducing malnutrition and child mortality. The SDGs succeed the Millennium Development Goals (September 2000-December 2015).

Scott Bleggi
 

167 Million Fewer Hungry People in the World, But Sustained Funding Is Still Needed

The number of hungry people in the world has dropped below 800 million for the first time, according to this year’s State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) report, released today. The report, authored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Program, takes stock of the progress being made toward global hunger goals.

SOFI_2015The report identifies what still needs to be done as the world transitions to the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, which will follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they sunset this year. In 1996, 182 countries at the World Food Summit committed “… to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015.” The first of eight MDGs, all adopted in 2000, encapsulates this commitment, including the target “cutting in half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by the year 2015.”

So how is the world doing?

The report reviews progress for every country and region. The news is good overall -- improvements outweighed setbacks. But as can be expected with such a broad and ambitious worldwide goal, problem areas remain, and in some regions hunger is still a stubborn problem.

Twenty-five years ago there were a billion hungry people. According to the new SOFI report, this number has now dropped to 795 million. The countries that improved the most had two features in common: strong economic growth that included investments in poor people, agriculture, and food production; and relative political stability. These countries were largely in East Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. A solid majority of countries (72 of 129) have met the ambitious target of cutting hunger in half.

These are certainly impressive achievements. Consider that natural disasters, civil and regional conflict, and weak governments can damage to poor countries disproportionately. Also, the world population has grown rapidly: it is higher by 1.9 billion people than it was in 1990. Predictions of widespread famine have for the most part not come true, but certainly there have been famines, such as the 2011 one in Somalia that killed at least 100,000 children younger than 5.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s hunger rate is still more than 33 percent, and more African countries (24) are experiencing food insecurity now than in 1990. Hunger rates in countries with continuing crises are more than three times higher than elsewhere, according to SOFI. In Africa and South Asia, “progress has been slow overall, despite success stories at country and sub-regional levels … there is no one size fits all solution.”

This is why sustaining the development work being done in USAID’s flagship hunger and poverty reduction initiative, Feed the Future, is so important. Feed the Future’s focus areas were developed specifically to sustainably reduce global poverty and hunger. It has demonstrated progress in “significantly reduc[ing] both poverty and stunting (a measure of chronic food insecurity)” in countries where it operates, and adequate funding is essential so this progress can continue.    

Scott Bleggi

A Bi-Coastal Vizathon to Expose Hidden Hunger

Hidden-Hunger-Visathon-Announcment-Image, SF Register button, SF Register button, Washington, DC Register button, online

We're excited to announce our second annual HelpMeViz Data Vizathon event. On Saturday, May 30, we will partner with HelpMeViz.com and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to bring back our community of data heroes -- coders, data scientists, designers, and data visualizers -- to help shed light on the elusive problem of hidden hunger in the developing world. We’re especially happy to be expanding this year’s vizathon to two volunteer sites—one on the East Coast in Washington, DC, and the other on the West Coast in San Francisco.

IFPRI and Bread for the World Institute have drawn from several brand new hunger and nutrition data sets from Africa South of the Sahara to develop two data visualization challenges centered on two forms of  'hidden hunger':

Challenge 1: Exposing Hidden Hunger

“The ‘hidden hunger’ due to micronutrient deficiency does not produce hunger as we know it. You might not feel it in the belly, but it strikes at the core of your health and vitality.”  -Kul C. Gautam, former deputy executive director of UNICEF

Find a way to bring the problem of hidden hunger out of the shadows. Use the latest global data on micronutrient deficiencies to expose the story of hidden hunger and its massive human costs.

  • Demonstrate the mounting costs of hidden hunger (in lost potential, years, GDP, etc.).
  • Combine data with graphic art and photos to humanize the problem of hidden hunger, giving it a name and a face.

Challenge 2: Showing How Hunger Feeds Obesity:

Use new data on obesity and body mass index (BMI) to tell the story of obesity’s stunning rise across the developing world and the array of health problems that are beginning to mount as a result. This will mean finding ways to count the economic and health costs of obesity as well as showing the gaps in national healthcare systems being revealed by the rise in obesity. 

You can read more details on the data challenges at the event announcement on HelpMeViz.com.

Vizathon Details

HelpMeViz, IFPRI, and Bread for the World Institute are inviting up to 50 guests to each site on Saturday, May 30, from 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. to work on these two challenges. The Institute will provide the challenge data and space for participants to work. Breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks will be provided. Participants will also receive a printed copy of the 2016 Hunger Report, which focuses on hunger and health and will be released in November 2015.

The event will be blogged live on HelpMeViz. We hope that interested people all over the world will want to lend their voice and their skills to respond to these challenges. Data will be made available at the beginning of the event. Visualizations, conversations, and comments from both coasts and elsewhere will be posted to the vizathon’s website in real time.

If you would like to attend in Washington, DC, or San Francisco, click the links below to register.

Washington, DC: Register to attend the HelpMeViz 2015 Vizathon at the Washington, DC site.

San Francisco: Register to attend the HelpMeViz 2015 Vizathon at the San Francisco, CA site.

Participate Online: Register to participate in the HelpMeViz Vizathon online from anywhere!

The Return of an Important Acronym: A New QDDR

  Global women's movement photo
Two sources of energy for development in Bangladesh. Photo by Todd Post for Bread for the World.

By Michele Learner

When I first heard the term "QDDR," it was 2010 and Hillary Rodham Clinton was Secretary of State. Was it just another acronym on the list of official Washington's contributions to the English language?

QDDR is the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, produced by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). As you can guess from my mention of it now, it wasn't just another acronym.

Even in 2010, advocates had been arguing for some time that diplomacy and development are necessary tools for U.S. national security. As Bread and other organizations explained, development assistance to reduce hunger and poverty was "not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do."

Now, it seemed, the State Department and USAID agreed. The first-ever QDDR was a comprehensive assessment of how best to use diplomacy and development as tools to reach objectives such as the Millennium Development Goal of cutting hunger in half. The Department of Defense is required by law to prepare a periodic comprehensive assessment, but, of course, its Quadrennial Defense Review focuses on defense as a tool. The 2010 QDDR was a companion document that helped to elevate diplomacy and development as equal partners with defense in U.S. foreign policy.

This week, the second QDDR was released by Secretary of State John Kerry. As the State Department explains, the review identifies major trends "that constitute threats or opportunities," sets priorities, and recommends reforms "to ensure our civilian institutions are in the strongest position to shape and respond to a rapidly changing world."

The new QDDR is more narrowly focused than the first. Secretary Kerry said that he was given some good advice early in his career: If everything is important, nothing is important. Accordingly, the State Department and USAID will concentrate on four global policy priorities:

  • preventing and mitigating conflict and violent extremism
  • promoting open, resilient, and democratic societies
  • advancing inclusive economic growth
  • mitigating and adapting to climate change

"Each of these priorities is related to the need for better governance across the globe," said Kerry. "They're all linked."

Of course, developing an effective strategy for a nearly limitless topic such as "global affairs" requires a close look at that globe through more than one lens. From a different viewpoint than the policy priorities, for example, the QDDR focuses on four "cross-cutting areas." These flow from analysis of major long-term trends. They are:

  • increasing partnerships and engaging beyond the nation-state (for example, partnering with mayors since almost 60 percent of the global population will be urban by 2030)
  • improving governance (partnering with nations and individuals committed to what the review describes as "the difficult work of building strong, democratic governance")
  • managing and mitigating physical risk (Kerry's remark that "diplomats cannot avoid risks in their work" headlined some media coverage of the QDDR's release)
  • enhancing the use of data, diagnostics, and technology ("better application of data for crisis prevention," "greater accountability for strategic planning")

 Michele Learner

What a Hero Looks Like

  Photo for IWOC blog

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom, far left, and U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russell, far right, with this year's International Women of Courage awardees. Photo credit: U.S. State Department.

Humanity has a lot of stories about heroes. Even if we only count written ones, stories about heroes date back nearly 5,000 years to the epic saga of Gilgamesh, first "published" in cuneiform script on 12 clay tablets. 

"Heroine," though, doesn't necessarily convey the same meanings. Depending on the story, the heroine may be someone whose main role is to be rescued or whose hand in marriage is the goal of a hero's quest. A few heroines have stories akin to those of heroes -- for example, Atalanta, who survived being abandoned outside at birth to become a famous athlete and warrior in ancient Greece.

Since there are several ways to interpret "heroine," I've chosen to stay with "hero" for this blog post. The people pictured above are heroes: the recipients of the 2015 International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award. The award is given to women "who have exemplified exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for human rights, women’s equality, and social progress, often at great personal risk."   

One day in April 2013, an angry man asked Nadia Sharmeen, a journalist covering a political rally in Bangladesh, why she was there as a woman. She told him she wasn't there as a woman -- she was there as a journalist. "He did not accept this," she said -- a significant understatement, since moments later, a group of 50 or 60 men began attacking her. "They wanted to kill me," she said. Before colleagues managed to get her to safety, she sustained injuries that kept her in the hospital for five months. Her employer refused to pay for her medical treatment although it was clear that she was injured in the line of duty. Her family stood by her, however, which is why she later said that she felt lucky compared to some other victims of gender-based violence.

Another IWOC awardee, Tabassum Adnan of Pakistan, was married at the age of 13 to a much older man. She was a mother of three before she was out of her teens. She endured many years of domestic violence -- but went on to found and lead Da Khwendo Jirga (the Sister's Council), the country's first women's council. It is dedicated to seeking justice for victims of such crimes as acid attacks and honor killings.

A third Woman of Courage, Burmese activist May Sabe Phyu, has for several years spoken up for the rights of thousands of vulnerable women and children displaced by conflict into makeshift camps. Threats and legal harassment have not deterred her from her work as co-founder of the Kachin Peace Network and head of Gender Equality Now, an umbrella group of more than 90 women's rights organizations.

I wish I could tell the stories of all 10 of this year's IWOC heroes. But the picture above helps sum it up. Left to right (beginning immediately to Deputy Secretary Higginbottom's left) are:

  • Nadia Sharmeen, journalist, women’s rights activist (Bangladesh)
  • Majd Chourbaji, External Relations Director, Women Now for Development Centers (Syria)
  • May Sabe Phyu, Director, Gender Equality Network (Burma)
  • Captain Niloofar Rahmani, Afghan Air Force (Afghanistan)
  • Arbana Xharra, Editor-in-Chief, Zeri (Kosovo)
  • Tabassum Adnan, Founder, Khwendo Jirga (Pakistan)
  • Rosa Julieta Montaño Salvatierra, Founder and Director, Oficina Jurídica para la Mujer (Bolivia)
  • Marie Claire Tchecola, nurse, Ebola survivor and activist (Guinea)
  • Sayaka Osakabe, Founder and Representative, Matahara Net (Japan) 

The International Women of Courage Award is the only State Department award for emerging leaders who are female, and the first year it was awarded was 2007, so the total number of IWOCs is modest as yet. But each year's award winners add to the world's comparatively small supply of stories about heroes who are female. 

Michele Learner

"If she did not fight ... it would have been another story"

In sub-Saharan Africa, a girl with hopes for more than a primary education is unlikely to realize them. For rural girls, the odds are even worse. In a region where a minority of all school children—regardless of gender—even complete lower secondary school (ninth grade), parents must fight to give their daughters an equal chance. This was the experience of Fouzia Dahir, a Kenyan Somali woman whose mother personally shielded her from the social and physical forces that threatened to knock her off the path to a college degree. Fouzia’s story is featured in the 2015 Hunger Report video, just released this week and posted above.

Not only are women and girls the majority of the world’s hungry people, but they are the chief agents the world relies on to help end hunger. Evidence shows that gender discrimination causes hunger, but it also shows that removing gender discrimination leads to benefits that reach every level of society. When women are empowered, families, communities, and even economies are healthier and wealthier. Fouzia’s life and work illuminate this truth. She is the founder of the Northern Organization for Social Empowerment, a non-profit organization in Kenya that advocates for equal opportunities for rural women and girls and equips them to seize those opportunities.

Fouzia’s organization takes direct aim at the largest, most obstinate barriers that stand between rural girls and an education. The most threatening of these is deep poverty, which forces many parents to pull their children out of school to work—simply because the family’s survival depends on it. Scarce economic opportunity and the poverty that results from it exacerbate gender inequality by driving families to make difficult choices about which child gets to go to school. Fouzia’s organization trains rural women to be more productive farmers and connects them to markets so they can earn enough income to send all of their children to school and keep them there.

Social norms pose another pervasive, if invisible, threat to women’s empowerment. Fouzia’s community is no exception. Families who embrace modern education often still hesitate to educate their girls, convinced that their rightful place is in the kitchen. Early marriage is commonplace and virtually always means an end to the child bride’s education. Even girls who manage to evade an early marriage face the next challenge of balancing school and studying with an oppressive burden of domestic work that they alone are expected to shoulder. They must walk miles each way to fetch water, gather firewood, and also do the household cleaning, leaving little or no time for homework. Many eventually drop out of school. This is why Fouzia’s organization works to start conversations among families and between families and schools that encourage a more equitable sharing of household work within the family.

Fouzia is a catalyzing force in her community who is generating very real economic and social returns and making lasting improvements. This would not be possible but for the uncompromising insistence of her mother, herself illiterate, that Fouzia stay in school. Fouzia sees potential similar to her own lost in every young girl denied an education.

You can read Fouzia’s story in her own words and learn more about the importance of education to women’s empowerment by reading the 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish …We Can End Hunger

Derek Schwabe

Sad Statistics for the United States on Maternal Mortality

Infant feet

As a policy analyst, my life revolves around data related to hunger, poverty and nutrition of mothers and their children. Statistics are the tool of my trade. I use them to report, to convey information, and often to advocate on issues. A few stay with me: 805 million hungry people in the world (one person in nine); 165 million stunted children who will never reach their full potential in life.

In my research for the Institute’s series celebrating Women’s History Month, I came across another statistic that will stay with me for a long time. A study by the respected British medical journal The Lancet found that the United States is one of only eight countries where maternal mortality (death from complications of pregnancy or childbirth) is on the rise. The other countries are Afghanistan, Greece, and several countries in Africa and Central America.

In this country, 18.5 mothers died for every 100,000 births in 2013—almost 800 women died here that year alone. This is double the rate of Canada and triple the rate of the United Kingdom! What is going on here? How is it that women in the United States are dying at a faster rate from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth than in almost any other place in the developed world?

There seem to be several contributing factors. Some of the reported rise in mortality is likely due to more rigorous data collection; the United States is one country where data on almost anything is readily available. Another factor is the rise in the number of pregnant women here who have conditions—such as hypertension and diabetes—that contribute to making their pregnancies “high risk.” More girls with heart or neurological diseases are surviving to adulthood—good news, but they remain at higher risk during pregnancy and childbirth.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that American women of color – particularly African Americans -- are three times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy or giving birth than their white counterparts. Higher poverty rates, which carry numerous consequences such as more chronic health problems and less access to prenatal care, are a major reason that women of color in our country run much higher risks in becoming mothers. 

There is a parallel between efforts to end maternal mortality and efforts to end global hunger. We know that a lack of available food is not the problem. It is getting access to nutritious food — a particular problem for pregnant women and children – that is a major problem. Affording food and reaching a place where it is available pose the biggest challenges. Researchers have found the same to be true in efforts to end maternal mortality -- particularly during or shortly after childbirth. The major problems are affordability and access to skilled care. This is true in the United States as in many developing countries.

The situation is even worse in “fragile states,” developing countries suffering armed conflict or civil war while also confronting high rates of food insecurity. 

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Mothers and small children line up at a health clinic. Credit: UN

In its State of the World’s Mothers 2014 (SOWM) report, the international organization Save the Children says: “These countries and territories (more than 50 in number) lack resilience to emergencies and face chronic underlying challenges, including extreme poverty, weak infrastructure, and poor governance. In these settings, children and mothers face an everyday emergency, whether or not a humanitarian crisis is officially recognized by the international system.”

During this Women’s History Month, I encourage you to read Save’s SOWM report and take a look at the statistics on maternal mortality compiled by the World Bank and the United Nations World Health Organization. As a result of a concerted effort by governments, international donors, and civil society, we are making remarkable progress toward the goal of ending hunger.  Much less progress has been made toward the fifth Millennium Development Goal of reducing maternal mortality by three-fourths. An equally concerted and collaborative effort, accompanied by sustained funding for healthcare programs in the United States and overseas, particularly in fragile states, is needed to help women survive as they secure humanity’s future by bearing children.

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