Toward strategies for ending rural hunger

Agricultural fields


Four years ago, the members of the United Nations committed to end hunger and malnutrition around the world by 2030, the 2nd of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Today, that goal is falling further from sight. Without dramatic, transformational changes, it will not be met.

Over the last four years, the Ending Rural Hunger project at the Brookings Institution has tracked progress toward SDG2 through a comprehensive quantitative assessment of countries’ needs, policies, and resources in food and nutrition security (FNS). This final update note features lessons learned from the 20 country case studies and background reports commissioned as part of the project, and is accompanied by a complete update of the Ending Rural Hunger database, available freely online at

The overall picture is not optimistic. Globally, hunger has apparently risen over the past three years, after decades of steady decline. As of 2018, there are an estimated 822 million undernourished people in the world, up from 785 million in 2015. While there has been some progress in malnutrition, the pace of progress remains too slow to meet the 2025 and 2030 internationally-agreed targets (though many individual countries will meet at least some of these goals). There are still 150 million children who are stunted around the world, some 22 percent of the total population. And agricultural productivity remains unacceptably low in many developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The average cereal yield of low- and middle-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa is just 1,500 kg/ha—less than one-fifth of the level of the United States.

The 2030 goals set a vision of a transformational change in FNS policies and outcomes. To date, there is no evidence such a transformation is underway. As Figure 1 below shows, a business-as-usual scenario in countries will leave most people behind on specific hunger-related SDG targets. In the case of overweight children, the business-as-usual scenario shows the problem getting worse, not better. And even this may be over-optimistic if climate change and conflict continue to worsen.

Figure 1: Projected progress toward meeting SDG targets by 2030, business-as-usual scenario

Figure 1: Projected progress toward meeting SDG targets by 2030, business-as-usual scenario

Source: H. Kharas, J. W. McArthur, and K. Rasmussen, “How Many People Will the World Leave Behind? Assessing Current Trajectories on the Sustainable Development Goals,” Global Economy and Development Working Paper 123 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2018)

Meanwhile, international support for agriculture and FNS is lagging, and continues to be reactive rather than proactive: During a crisis, donors will come together and pledge new money, but these promises are all too often forgotten once famines fade from the headlines and food price spikes decline. Collectively, donors spent $12.7 billion on official development assistance to agriculture and FNS in 2017, up 3.4 percent from the year before. This level of spending is not commensurate with the scope of the challenge of ending hunger by 2030, nor is it aligned with people’s perceptions of global priorities. A recent survey of citizens across 28 countries concluded that ending hunger was, on average, the most important priority among the SDGs. And while there is scarce funding available for development assistance, countries continue to spend billions of dollars a year on agricultural subsidies for their own farmers, which distort global markets and food prices. All major countries, including those in the OECD as well as China and India, have significant agricultural subsidies that distort and fragment global food markets. The remainder of this note sketches out what a transformational change would require. It begins with a discussion of national FNS strategies in developing countries—the core driver of progress toward ending rural hunger. Next it considers how to finance these strategies, including the crucial roles of national governments, official development assistance, and the private sector. It then assesses how the global environment can both accelerate and impede the success of these national strategies, and concludes with an overview of some of the biggest challenges in achieving the end of rural hunger: building holistic food systems in light of increasing environmental stresses, meeting the commitment to leave no one behind in ending rural hunger, and strengthening accountability mechanisms at both the national and international level.

  • Footnotes
    1. As explained in the original “Ending Rural Hunger” flagship report, the project focuses specifically on rural hunger in developing countries; hunger in developed countries and in urban areas, while issues of important concern, require different types of interventions, which are beyond the scope of this project.
    2. This database will soon be transferred to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), who will maintain it going forward.
    3. FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2018 Report.
    4. Global Nutrition Report 2018
    5. See Ipsos, “Awareness of United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is Highest in Emerging Countries”,