Is the Global Hunger Index Erroneous, as the Indian Govt Claims?
India's government criticised the methodology used to create the Global Hunger Index, which ranked India 107 out of 121 countries, but worsening food insecurity in the country post-pandemic has been confirmed by several independent surveys, say experts
On October 15, 2022, the Government of India reacted speedily to the news that India had been ranked 107 out of 121 countries on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2022, released that day by Concern Worldwide, an Irish non-governmental organisation (NGO) and Welthungerhilfe, a German development and humanitarian aid NGO. The level of hunger in India had been labelled as 'serious' by the latest edition of the annual country-wise rankings report.
The Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD), later that same evening, issued a statement claiming that the index was "erroneous" and contained "serious methodological issues". The data used in the GHI to compute undernourishment values for India had been collected from a minuscule sample through an opinion poll, the ministry claimed, adding further that three of the four indicators used by GHI relate to childhood health, which could not be representative of the entire population.
When FactChecker examined the WCD ministry's arguments rejecting the methodology used to prepare GHI 2022, we found one argument to be misleading and another in need of additional context.
"The report is not only disconnected from ground reality but also chooses to deliberately ignore efforts made by the Government to ensure food Security for the population especially during the Covid Pandemic," said the ministry's statement. Experts, however, pointed to multiple recent independent surveys which indicated worsening food security in India during the Covid-19 pandemic.
How does the Global Hunger Index calculate country rankings?
Each country's ranking is based on an overall GHI score, which is measured based on a formula that combines the following four nutritional indicators:
Undernourishment (share of population with insufficient calorie intake);
Childhood Stunting (share of children under age five who have low height for their age);
Childhood Wasting (share of children under age five who have low weight for their height);
and Childhood Mortality (share of children who die before they are five years old).
Prevalence of undernourishment and under-five child mortality rates each comprise 1/3rd of a country's total GHI score, while childhood stunting and wasting each have a 1/6th share in the calculation.
For India's GHI 2022 score, data on undernourishment came from the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Food Security Indicators dated July 2022, stunting and wasting data were taken from the latest National Family and Health Survey-5, 2019-2021 (the latest such survey, and child mortality rates were sourced from 2021 UN estimates.
Now, let us look at the claims.
Claim #1: The data used to compute undernourishment values for India had been collected only from a minuscule sample through an opinion poll
Alleging the survey to be biased, the government said that the "FAO estimate is based on the "Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES)" Survey Module conducted through the Gallop World Poll, which is an "opinion poll" based on "8 questions" with a sample size of "3000 respondents"."
The undernourishment indicator used by GHI, however, is only partly based on an opinion poll. It is also partly based on data officially reported by FAO member countries themselves, including India, experts said and a detailed FAO methodology shows.
Though FAO produces a suite of multiple food security indicators, two are recognised globally as indicators to monitor progress on two targets of UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 – Zero Hunger. The first is Target 2.1.1 – Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU) – which estimates the proportion of the population whose habitual food consumption is insufficient to provide the dietary energy levels that are required to maintain a normal active and healthy life. FAO's undernourishment indicator comprises five objective indicators: real per capita gross domestic product, income Gini coefficient, an index of real food prices, extreme poverty headcount rate, and daily per capita food consumption, Dr Jayati Ghosh, development economist and Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, told FactChecker.
The second globally recognised FAO indicator is used for Target 2.1.2 – Prevalence of Moderate or Severe Food Insecurity (PMSFI) – which estimates the proportion of the population that faces constrained access to food of adequate quality and quantity – is based on the FIES survey module.
Of these two indicators, GHI 2022 only uses PoU. PMFSI is not used in GHI 2022.
"PMFSI is based on a Gallup poll, but that is not what has made India fall so sharply in the Global Hunger Index. In fact, India does slightly better in terms of the Gallup poll results than in terms of the objective indicators," said Ghosh. "Incidentally, the persistence or worsening of food insecurity is confirmed by several independent surveys in India, by Right to Food, Azim Premji University and Gaon Connection," she added.
Prevalence of undernourishment in India declined from 2005 onwards, but the trend was reversed beginning in 2016, according to FAO data. From 13.3% in 2017, it rose to a 14-year high of 16.3% in 2021, representing 224 million undernourished people in India.
Claim #2: Three out of four indicators used are related to childhood health and cannot be representative of the entire population
The WCD ministry's statement said that calculating hunger based mainly on indicators related to children's health (wasting, stunting, mortality) is "neither scientific nor rational". It added that the childhood nutritional indicators used were outcomes of complex interactions of multiple factors, including availability of drinking water and sanitation, genetics, environment, etc, apart from hunger.
"It is true that other factors affect malnutrition, but that does not mean that food does not play a role in contributing to it," said Dipa Sinha, Professor of Economics at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. Stating that the global debate around hunger has moved past engaging in semantics of exact terms such as 'hunger' or 'undernourishment', she added, "The [GHI] report clearly says that it includes a broader definition of hunger, and not just calorie deficiency."
The GHI component indicators, when assessed together, capture the "multidimensional nature of hunger" by "reflect[ing] deficiencies in calories as well as in micronutrients". Its methodology clarifies that childhood undernourishment indicators such as wasting and stunting are used to provide a more holistic view beyond just availability of calories. It aims at considering aspects of diet quality and utilisation, and children's particular vulnerability to nutritional deficiencies. For many children who die from infectious diseases, the indirect cause of death is a weakened immune system due to a lack of dietary energy, vitamins and minerals. Therefore, the under-five child mortality rate is also included.
FAO too, defines hunger as being synonymous with chronic undernourishment.
Moreover, the international community – including India – has agreed upon the SDGs, and the GHI uses indicators that are part of the internationally recognised indicator set to measure progress toward the SDGs, the GHI India page notes. Child stunting and wasting rates are recognised indicators to track progress on SDG 2.2 – ending all forms of malnutrition. SDG 3.2 related to reducing preventable deaths of children under five.
FactChecker reached out to Dr Mahendra Munjpara, Minister of State in the WCD Ministry via email for comment on our findings, but had not received a response by the time of publishing this article. We also reached out to Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe for comment and clarification about the questions the Government of India raised about the GHI methodology, such as why three out of the four indicators used relate to childhood health. Concern Worldwide responded with a detailed list of resources GHI uses for India. We did not hear back from Welthungerhilfe by the time of publishing. When we do, we will update the article.
Corrigendum: An earlier version of this article said that the Food and Agriculture Organization's Prevalence of Undernourishment indicator was not based on an opinion poll. However, Concern Worldwide pointed us to FAO methodology in a separate FAO report, unconnected to the Global Hunger Index, which makes clear that the PoU indicator does incorporate some survey-based data for countries where recent consumption survey data are unavailable. The error is regretted.