Global hunger is on the rise again, with more people hungry today than 10 years ago. According to a recent United Nations report, 821 million people - one out of every nine people in the world - is undernourished. This is largely because of unproductive food systems and food waste. Yet there are some basic steps we can take that would dramatically reduce the problem.

According to Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, hunger kills more people than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. It also has a profound impact on survivors, affecting brain development, school attendance, educational attainment, health outcomes, gender equity, the environment and workforce productivity. But while these problems are interconnected, our programmes to address them often are not. Too often, governments, funders, experts and social entrepreneurs are missing opportunities to work together across sectors. To reverse the rise in hunger, we must unite our efforts.

For example, nutrition should be part of every maternal and infant health programme. According to the World Health Organization, severely anemic mothers face twice the risk of maternal mortality than women who are not anemic. Those who survive are more likely to have malnourished children, with both mother and baby struggling for life after birth. One simple way to strengthen women’s iron intake would be to change what they grow on their farms and in their gardens. Yet many maternal health programs ignore this opportunity.

In other sectors, too, health practitioners battle diseases without addressing undernutrition or overnutrition. They fail to recognize that food availability and eating habits often determine health in the first place.

Similarly, agricultural programmes that ignore gender equity; youth employment interventions that ignore food and agriculture; education programmes that ignore child hunger; environment programmes that ignore rural people’s livelihoods, all have limited impact.

Collaborating and developing shared goals takes time. It requires large development organizations to innovate, experts to think beyond their comfort zones, and all parties to prioritize the common good over individual ambition. Several integrated programmes show that this is both possible, and hugely effective.

Image: World Economic Forum

One example is the Nigerian Dairy Development Programme, which Sahel Consulting is piloting in partnership with leading private sector dairy companies, the Nigerian government and a major international funder. It integrates development across agriculture, gender and nutrition to help nomadic farmers and their families enhance the productivity of their cows and supply high-quality milk to large processors.

Free and healthy school meals for children not only reduce hunger, but also increase school enrolment and learning outcomes. The Ghana School Feeding Program illustrates this knock-on effect. Using ingredients from local farmers and employing local women to cook the meals can make such programmes even more powerful, improving livelihoods, empowering women, cutting costs and boosting sustainability.

To improve the lives of millions of people and achieve the “zero hunger” Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets in our lifetime, we must change two key aspects of our engagement.

First, we have to consistently base our work on the actual, interconnected needs of the populations that we work with, develop comprehensive interventions, and pull in relevant partners with expertise. This means leaving our logos and egos behind to work collaboratively and address the complex issues related to food and development.

Second, government agencies, development partners, and funders must revamp their own operations to break down internal silos. Similarly, funders have to drive behavioural changes by requiring collaborations from the onset.

Success will come when we collectively recognize food as a unifying goal, a prerequisite for human life, and a determinant of all other development indicators and outcomes. A quote from the late Kofi Annan encapsulates this premise: “The eradication of hunger is not just an end in itself: It is a first step toward sustainable development and progress in general.”