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Eric Bebernitz headshot

Global Hunger: The Growing ESG Issue That Few Companies Want to Face

By Eric Bebernitz
USAID emergency food relief in east africa - famine - fighting global hunger

USAID distributes food assistance in East Africa, where an unprecedented drought is pushing millions to the brink of starvation. 

Companies are working to meet rising stakeholder expectations on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues in ways that can differentiate, build brand reputation, and engage employees. Yet the predominant approach misses a critical opportunity since it doesn’t focus on a critical issue that few want to face: global hunger.

Hear me out. Just as the climate crisis is a universal challenge, global hunger is a fundamental issue that ultimately impacts business success — and humanity as a whole. In 2021, an Action Against Hunger survey with The Harris Poll found that nearly half of all Americans worry about increases to the price of food as a result of climate change. The most recent Trust Barometer found that 67 percent of people globally are worried about food shortages leading to hoarding, riots and hunger, which Edelman characterizes as an existential societal fear. As a priority, the issue ranked behind climate change and just ahead of energy shortages. It’s not hard to see why.
After decades of progress showed that it is possible to dramatically slash rates of malnutrition, global hunger is once again on the rise. Approximately 828 million people — 1 in 10 worldwide — are undernourished, and as many as 50 million people in 45 countries are on the verge of famine. The costs of inaction are high.

Yet global hunger is a predictable and preventable problem that we can solve in our lifetimes. Doing so can provide a strong return on investment. As a 2022 study showed, every $1 invested in preventing chronic malnutrition in children can result in gains from $2 to $81 annually. Among the range of ESG issues, addressing malnutrition stands out for its ability to advance other corporate priorities, such as the following. 

Long-term workforce development 

Hungry children struggle to learn, and hungry workers are less productive. Hunger robs the U.S. economy of at least $167.5 billion annually, and research published in The Lancet found that, across 95 low- and middle-income countries, childhood stunting costs the private sector at least $135.4 billion in sales annually, amounting to around 1.2 percent of national GDP.

Socio-economic growth

The U.S. Secretary of Commerce believes an aging population will hit the country "like a ton of bricks," with migration as a potential solution. Africa is the only region projected to enjoy strong population growth long-term, which can provide a global demographic dividend — but only if we invest in the potential. Africa has the world’s youngest population as well as the highest hunger rates, with 9 out of 10 children not receiving even the minimum acceptable diet, according to the World Health Organization. One in 3 African children are permanently stunted by hunger, reducing the region’s present GDP per capita by 10 percent. Hunger is growing in other regions, as well.

Political stability

Conflict and global hunger are deeply linked. As U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres noted in a 2020 report, income inequality is creating a vicious cycle of discontent, leading to mass protests in both developed and developing countries. Roughly 70 percent of the world’s most malnourished people live in countries with an active conflict, which disrupts harvests, hampers aid delivery, and creates a burgeoning population of displaced people. This can contribute to even greater instability, often in already fragile regions. 

Permission to operate

The epochal shift from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism comes as a growing number of millennial and Gen Z adults — now a majority of the U.S. workforce and a growing share of the electorate — hold a negative view of capitalism itself. Public willingness to subsidize, tax and regulate business can, quite literally, hinge on bread-and-butter issues.

The bottom line: The untapped potential of investing to fight global hunger

Although addressing global  hunger is a wise investment, it’s one that isn’t being made. Countries with “crisis” levels of hunger face a 53 percent gap in hunger funding. Corporate giving to health and social services dropped 5 percent in 2022, and median international community investments decreased by 15 percent, according to CECP. Among the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, companies consistently report providing the least support for the objective to eradicate global hunger. 

Inaction is particularly unwise in an era when economic anxieties and the mass-class divide are eroding trust. The effect is sharply pronounced among those with lower incomes: In the U.S., for example, there is a 23-point gap in the levels of institutional trust among lower-income and higher-income groups. Lack of trust has a corrosive effect on society, dimming long-term economic prospects.

In other words, chronic inequality — a major driver of global hunger — is bad for business. Ending hunger is no longer about charity or even being “woke.” It is now essential to foster the kind of operating environment that is essential to business value and long-term success.

Image credit: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development/Flickr

Eric Bebernitz headshot

As Action Against Hunger’s Director of External Relations, Eric Bebernitz is responsible for driving the organization’s brand growth, communications, public relations, marketing, individual giving, and high-impact private partnerships. These activities aim to inspire and provide opportunities for people to take part in the global movement to end hunger. Prior to joining Action Against Hunger, Eric applied his fundraising, communications, and brand building expertise at the International Rescue Committee, Earthjustice, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Read more stories by Eric Bebernitz