It is no accident that within the last few months I have seen several headlines suggesting the way the economic development community measures poverty should change. During last month’s Skoll World Forum Michael Green, the Executive Director of the Social Progress Index (SPI), which examines 52 economic, environmental and social indicators to determine how far countries have come in their development, challenged the current approach of measuring a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), calling the system ‘flawed’. Green went on to say that the current system is ‘dead’. Given that GDP measures the final value of goods and services produced inside a country’s borders, and in many cases does not consider cost of goods sold or final sales value at each stage of production, GDP can often mis-represent economic activity. Additionally, GDP does not correctly represent the power of one’s income (i.e. what a unit of currency can buy each person in country) nor does it highlight wealth distribution, all rural activity or access to basic needs like schooling, health services or nutrition. Michael Green’s SPI goes much farther than the GDP in that it's indicators include access to shelter, water and sanitation, personal safety and personal rights, among others. There is clear alignment between what the SPI includes and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as there should be, since by all accounts we should measure progress in bringing our world out of poverty by determining how far countries are advancing in each of the seventeen goals set out by the United Nations for governments to work towards between now and 2030. That said, there is one metric within the SPI and the SDGs that is becoming increasingly linked to poverty – access to basic nutrition.
More than one-tenth of our global population suffers from hunger, and even more do not have the resources to obtain proper nutrition. According to the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), one in three people are either undernourished or overweight. As I learned when visiting food insecure communities in Central America in 2014, food security is not always about access to food, but having access to nutritious food. What nutrition indicators show us that GDP doesn’t, is how well people are living, not just how much money is exchanging hands.
Using the example of the Economist’s Global Food Security Index, the United States achieved a score of 89 out of 100, falling short on access to nutritious foods (particularly in heavy urban areas) and also cost for diverse foods (evidenced by the prevalence of obesity among poorer families in the United States). Directly to our south, Mexico scored 68.7 out of 100, stymied by issues like corruption, high tariffs, and quality. Although the United States ranked 1st in the world according to the Global Food Security Index, and is 1st in the world (according to the International Monetary Fund) for its GDP, Mexico ranked 35th according to the Global Food Security Index, yet just 15th for its GDP.
Food security and nutrition is complicated, made more so by the players with a vested interest in agriculture, land ownership, food processing and retailing. Government engagement in the form of regulations, taxes and licenses to operate have turned access to nutritious food into a political game in many countries, especially where tax revenues are heavily dependent on food exports. Yet some company leaders are recognizing the role they can play in making the shift towards greater nutrition, measuring sustainability and corporate progress according to how their supply chain actors are nourished. Governments should follow suit. Given how closely access to nutritious foods are tied to related measures like health, safety, the ability to obtain education (since without nutritious foods our brains cannot absorb the information provided), income and the future of our children, we must consider how to measure this important indicator as we consider the future of poverty alleviation.