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Hunger and malnutrition: Our helping hand

A healthy diet lays the foundation for a healthy, active life - right from the start. If mothers are able to provide themselves and their babies with a sufficient and balanced nutrition, they and their child have the best prospects for birth, recovery after birth and, above all, for healthy development in the long term - with positive consequences for both individuals and society.

Yet global hunger is still one of the greatest challenges facing the global community. 735 million people suffered from hunger worldwide in 2022, according to the UN report "Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023." Another report (Global Report on Food Crises 2023, GRFC), which focuses on the 58 countries acutely struggling with hunger crises, comes to similarly frightening conclusions: In 2022 alone, over 258 million people in 58 countries or regions of the world suffered from acute food insecurity (IPC/CH Phase 3 or higher - more info below), with devastating consequences. Especially the people in several countries in Asia, Africa as well as Latin America are affected by acute food and water shortages.

A direct comparison with the previous year shows the growing hardship of the people: according to the GRFC report, around 193 million people were affected by a hunger crisis in 2021. The drastic increase of 34 percent (65 million people) is due to various causes such as conflicts, economic crises or weather extremes. Last but not least, the consequences of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war against Ukraine caused a deterioration in the living conditions of many people who were already in critical situations before. 

Ending hunger and malnutrition is a key goal of the international community demanded by Goal 2 of the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Malteser International's commitment to ending hunger, malnutrition and famine is therefore even more important. In our project countries, we work together with local people to achieve sustainable food security. To reach this and to improve the living conditions of people holistically and in the long term, we combine our measures for better and sufficient nutrition with components from the areas of health as well as water, sanitation and hygiene.

Our emergency relief in Gaza

Due to the escalating Middle East conflict, the humanitarian situation for the civilian population in the Gaza Strip is life-threatening. The living conditions are catastrophic.

Together with the Order of Malta, Malteser International is working in cooperation with local partners to provide direct humanitarian aid to the population in need on the ground.

Find out more about the situation, our humanitarian work and help the people in need with your donation.

More information about the situation in Gaza & our help

Hunger is not just hunger: The three types of undernutrition

The term hunger is used colloquially to refer to various forms of undernutrition. Nutrition experts, however, make a more specific distinction and define three types of undernutrition:

  • Acute hunger, known as acute malnutrition or wasting among experts, is the most extreme form of malnutrition. It occurs over a limited period of time - usually as a direct result of natural disasters or wars. The identification of acute malnutrition is subject to specific criteria, each of which is measured in children between the ages of six months and five years. This is because children in these age groups are considered particularly vulnerable, which is why information on the health status of the youngest can be considered a reflection of society as a whole. Acute malnutrition is measured by the ratio of weight to height: Children whose body weight is less than 80% of their age-appropriate weight are considered acutely malnourished. If the children's weight is less than 70%, they are acutely malnourished.
  • Experts refer to chronic malnutrition or stunting as a permanent state of undernourishment in which those affected lack vital nutrients. This form of malnutrition is the most widespread worldwide. Poverty is considered a frequent cause of chronic malnutrition: the people affected do not have sufficient resources for a healthy diet and no secure access to clean water or healthcare.
  • The term "hidden hunger" is used colloquially when an unbalanced diet results in a micronutrient deficiency. Vitamins, minerals and trace elements such as iron, iodine or vitamin A are essential for a healthy development. People who do not absorb enough of these micronutrients due to an unbalanced diet suffer from what is known as "hidden hunger," even if they eat a lot of calories.

Child malnutrition

Malnutrition poses a particularly serious threat to children, as both acute and chronic malnutrition can have severe consequences for the physical and mental development and health of girls and boys. According to the Food Security and Nutrition Report (2022) published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other UN agencies, some 45 million children under the age of five are considered wasted due to acute malnutrition – their weight is too low for their height. Another 149 million children are stunted due to chronic malnutrition and show clear signs of growth retardation, i.e. they are too small for their age. A healthy and sufficient diet therefore gives children the chance to develop healthily and has a positive impact on their lives in the long term. For example, it increases the likelihood that they will be able to do well in school, which in turn affects their future, self-fulfillment and income opportunities.

Malteser International is committed to counteracting child malnutrition and undernourishment. To this end, we advise families about child-friendly nutrition, organise nutrition courses on healthy diet, breastfeeding and infant nutrition. We provide health and nutritional therapies to acutely malnourished children and pregnant and nursing mothers in crisis situations.

More about Child Malnutrition

The 5 stages of hunger

The United Nations Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) provides a uniform scale that can be used to show the severity and extent of food insecurity and acute malnutrition in a transparent and comparable way. The IPC scale is used in 30 countries and divides the consequences of food shortages into five levels.

Phase Description/Definition according to IPC Required reaction
Phase 1: None/Minimal Households are able to meet essential food and non-food needs without engaging in atypical and unstainable strategies to access food an income. Strengthening the resilience of the population and disaster risk reduction.
Phase 2: Stressed Households have minimally adequate food consumption but are unable to afford some essential non-food expenditures without engaging in stress-coping strategies. Disaster preparedness and livelihood protection measures.
Phase 3: Crisis Households either:
  • Have food consumption gaps that are reflected by high or above-usual acute malnutrition;
  • are marginally able to meet minimum food needs but only by depleting essential livelihood assets or through crisis-coping strategies.
Protecting livelihoods and closing gaps in food consumption
Phase 4: Emergency Households either:
  • Have large food consumption gaps which are reflected in very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality;
  • are able to mitigate large food consumption gaps but only by employing emergency livelihood strategies and asset liquidation.
Urgent need for action to save lives and livelihoods
Phase 5: Catastrophe/Famine Households have an extreme lack of food and/or other basic needs. Starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident. (For Famine Classification, are needs to have extreme critical levels of acute malnutrition and mortality.) * Urgent action needed to prevent mass extinction and total loss of livelihoods.


The five phases of the IPC scale illustrate that the terms "hunger" and "famine" are often used incorrectly in colloquial language and are not simply synonymous with food shortages. A famine (IPC phase 5) is officially declared by the United Nations when:

  • at least 20 percent of the population has less than 2,100 kcal per day at their disposal,
  • at least 30 percent of children are acutely malnourished,
  • and at least two out of 10,000 adults or four out of 10,000 children die of hunger-related causes every day.

In 2017, for example, the United Nations officially declared a famine in parts of South Sudan.

The causes of hunger and malnutrition

The causes of hunger and malnutrition are globally diverse: Poverty, natural disasters, climate change as well as wars and armed conflicts present some of the causes of hunger worldwide. Less developed countries and crises regions are particularly affected.

According to the Global Report on Food Crises, there are three main drivers of hunger in 2022: conflicts, extreme weather events, and economic crises. All three drivers are closely interlinked and reinforce each other.

Due to droughts and floods caused by climate change, as well as the expansion of deserts, soil erosion and rising sea levels, people are losing their livelihoods. This affects rural populations and small farmers in particular: Their fields are parched due to drought and the changing climate is making cultivation areas increasingly unsuitable for farming and livestock breeding. Harvests are failing. The result is a threatening shortage of food.

As a result of conflicts and economic crises, the rise in food prices means that food becomes more difficult to afford for people living in the affected areas. In addition, displacement and flight as a result of conflicts mean that people have to leave their fields behind, can no longer cultivate crops and produce food.

In some regions of the world, moreover, the situation is becoming particularly precarious because several factors are occurring simultaneously. The combination of various causes can drastically exacerbate food shortages in a country and even lead to hunger.

The consequences of hunger and malnutrition

The consequences of hunger can be devastating for those affected and begin in the womb. In pregnant women, malnutrition - especially chronic malnutrition - means that the unborn child cannot develop properly. Possible consequences are premature births or underweight newborns.

Malnutrition of the mother during pregnancy also leads to a significant increase in the risk of the child being born with a weakened immune system. This also increases the risk of infectious diseases, which in turn is associated with an increased risk of death for the infants.

In addition to the physical consequences, many children also suffer from cognitive underdevelopment. Children who are already affected by malnutrition in their mothers' wombs are more likely to exhibit concentration problems. This may lead to poorer performance at school, resulting in a vicious circle that is passed on from generation to generation.

Affected children with reduced physical and/or mental capacity are more at risk of impoverishment in adulthood, which in turn increases the risk of malnutrition in the next generation.

Women, girls and persons with disabilities are particularly affected by the consequences of malnutrition and hunger and are highly vulnerable. Women are often the last and least likely to eat in their families, especially in crisis situations where food is scarce. Yet, as shown above, women and girls in particular need a complex diet because they have higher micro- and macronutrient requirements due to pregnancy, lactation or menstruation.

Socially, hunger also has negative consequences. Families are forced to resort to dangerous or unhealthy coping strategies, such as early marriage of children, dropping out of school, or prostitution. Similarly, hunger can separate families as part of the family has to move away to earn money. Domestic violence can also increase during hunger crises.

Hunger in the world – how many people are suffering hunger?

Around 735 million people suffered from hunger in 2022. The Food Security and Nutrition Report 2022 of various UN organizations and the figures published in it make it clear: hunger and malnutrition are a worldwide problem that affects about one in ten people in the world and thus requires global solutions, change and solidarity. Similar results are provided by the Global Report on Food Crisis (GRFC) from 2023, which evaluated in detail the food situation in 58 countries and regions that are particularly struggling with hunger. According to the report, in 2022 a total of more than 258 million people in these countries suffered from a high level of food insecurity (level 3 on the IPC scale or higher). This compares to 193 million people the year before. This staggering increase makes it clear that there is still much to be done in the fight against hunger.

This shows that children in particular are severely affected by hunger: According to the GRFC, more than 35 million children under the age of 5 suffered from acute malnutrition in 2022, resulting in a weakened immune system and an increased risk of infectious diseases.

Which countries are most affected by hunger?

The number of people suffering from level 3 hunger or higher is spread across 58 countries/regions, according to the GRFC. The ten most affected countries include mainly areas in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Often, these are so-called forgotten crises that are barely covered by the media. But in Ukraine, too, many people are affected by acute food insecurity due to the war.

The following table shows that hunger in Africa is a huge: Four out of the top ten countries affected by hunger are in Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to 22,6 million people that suffer from level 3 hunger as defined by the IPC. Another 3,8 million people are classified as level 4 on the IPC scale and are therefore in an emergency situation. 23.6 million people in Ethiopia are in the moderate and severe acute food insecurity range on the Cadre Harmonisé (CH) scale. The Cadre Harmonisé is a tool that contributes to a unified and transparent analysis of the current food situation while helping to make meaningful projections. The CH classifies the severity of food insecurity in a manner similar to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).

Country Amount in MM / Level 3 (IPC) Amount in MM / Level 4 (IPC) Amount in MM / Level 5 (IPC) Cadre Harmonisé / moderate & severe acute food insecurity
DR Congo 22.6 3.8 - -
Ethiopa - - - 23.6
Afghanistan 13.8 6.1 - -
Nigeria 18.3 1.2 - -
Yemen 11.7 5.6 0.031 -
Myanmar - - - 15.2
Syria - - - 12.1
Sudan 8.6 3.1 - -
Ukraine - - - 8.9
Pakistan 6.0 2.6 - -

Source: Global Report on Food Crises 2023

When considering the percentage of people suffering hunger (or IPC/CH level 3 or higher), South Sudan comes out on top. According to the GFRC, 63% of the population there do not have enough to eat.

Our projects: how we help and prevent hunger

In acute hunger crises, saving lives and livelihoods are top priority. Our emergency aid includes the delivery of essential goods, food supplies and cash to buy food or livestock feed. In emergency situation such as the drought in Kenya, providing access to clean drinking water is another priority. To combat acute malnutrition, we also offer therapeutic nutrition programs for children under five, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers.

In addition to food aid in acute crises situations and hunger, we are working towards sustainable food security and link these aspects to agricultural production (plants, livestock, fish) as well as improvements in the areas of water, hygiene and sanitation (WASH) to improve people’s health on the long run. As such, a special focus is on the support of pregnant women and toddlers to fight against hunger and malnutrition. For example, as part of food security in the Thar Desert in India, we are implementing special measures to help pregnant and breastfeeding women gain more knowledge and awareness about nutrition. The aim is to strengthen resilience against hunger in the affected communities by increasing nutritional awareness, with a particular focus on women and girls.

As a preventative measure against hunger, we target small farmers in rural areas and provide sustainable agricultural support. To do this, we distribute seeds to people, equip them with agricultural tools and plant home gardens with them in order to support regional agricultural production, adapt to climate change and ensure sustainable food security. We also support local people with training in food production and sales so that they are able to ensure their own food security in the long term.

Child malnutrition

Around a quarter of all children worldwide are undernourished. In spite of the global progress in reducing the infant mortality rate over the past decades, an estimated 5.2 million children under the age of five died in the year 2019 – undernourishment and malnutrition are responsible for deaths of around half of these cases. A balanced and healthy diet in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life is extremely important. If children suffer malnutrition over this period of time, it can lead to impairments and delays in the physical and mental development of the child.

Malteser International is committed to fighting malnutrition in children. To this end, we advise mothers and families about a child-oriented nutrition, organise nutrition courses and workshops and provide undernourished children with supplementary food that is rich in vitamins.

More on the theme of child malnutrition

Healthy and secure food supply for people in need

"Zero hunger” – that is the second of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, which are to be achieved by the year 2030.

We also make an important contribution here in the scope of our worldwide aid projects. In order to fight hunger and malnutrition, Malteser International enables people living in poverty or crisis situations to have better access to food. In this way, we contribute to an improved health situation and strengthen the resilience of people affected by crises.

Our commitment for food and nutrition security

Water, sanitation and hygiene

Every person has the right to have access to clean water and a safe sanitary provision in order to be able to lead a healthy and dignified life. This is why in the course of our work we strive to help people pursue this right and provide them with a sufficient supply of water.

Measures and programmes in the areas Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) constitute the basis of our worldwide aid projects. We support the people locally by building wells and latrines, building rainwater collection systems or by carrying out hygiene training.

Our commitment in WASH

Stories about our projects against hunger:

School gardens in South Sudan

In the scope of school gardens in South Sudan, we convey knowledge to children about how successfully and profitably vegetables can be grown.

Continue reading

Democratic Republic of the Congo: The treatment of undernourished children

Today, little Dorcas is much better. Six months ago, she was emaciated because she was severely undernourished.

Continue reading

The biggest famines of the past years

Poverty, extreme weather periods and armed conflicts are responsible for the biggest famines of the past years.

  • A famine was declared in South Sudan in the February of 2017, which still acutely affected around 45,000 people in January 2019.
  • In Yemen around 63,500 people are affected by the famine, half of the population is confronted with an insecure food supply. 400,000 undernourished children are fighting to survive.
  • In the Central African Republic, IPC estimates that 63,500 people are facing famine and half the population is food insecure.

Our projects against hunger:

Become active against hunger and undernourishment now!

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