PolitiFact: Soft numbers hurt claim about costs of Iraq war, hunger

As sectarian fighting in Iraq spreads, there’s a Facebook meme that captures the public’s frustration with the relative costs and benefits of America’s military intervention in that country. The image makes a simple claim.

“For the cost of the Iraq War we could’ve ended world hunger for 30 years,” it says.

Lee Camp, a stand-up comedian and host of the RT show “Redacted Tonight,” posted it on his Facebook page. Camp said he didn’t come up with the message, but it made sense to him.

“I looked up (the) numbers and found that the Iraq war has cost us $2 trillion since 2003,” Camp said. “The U.N. estimates ending world hunger each year would cost $30 billion. So ending world hunger since 2003 would have cost $330 billion.”

There are a few problems with the numbers, though. First, pinpointing the cost of the war in Iraq isn’t so black-and-white. The $2 trillion figure, for instance, includes future health care and disability costs for veterans. Second, many experts find the claim that $30 billion a year can end world hunger dubious, including one of the world’s leading hunger advocacy groups.

Make no mistake, the money would help. But would it end world hunger? We’ll dig into the numbers.

Cost of the Iraq war

The big debate in tallying the cost of the Iraq war centers on whether the total should include the projected expense of caring for veterans. Adding future health costs boosts the total by anywhere from well over $300 billion to $1 trillion. The direct military, and security, costs are easier to identify.

We checked a number of sources, and the tallies show a wide range. The lowest, $774 billion, comes from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office but includes no veterans health care costs. The higher estimates, in the neighborhood of $3 trillion, include a long list of costs that span from 2001 to decades in the future.

Cost to end world hunger

If we took the highest cost estimates for the war, that would provide about $70 billion annually over 30 years. No one questions that those funds could do a lot of good. But beyond that, the data support little more.

The estimate that $30 billion could end world hunger for a year comes from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Multiply $30 billion by 30 years and you have $900 billion. That’s less than several but not all the estimated costs of the Iraq war — without factoring in inflation.

But a host of experts we talked to agreed that the $30 billion a year figure is impossible to verify and likely incorrect. (The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization did not respond to our request for more information about where its estimate comes from.)

Part of the problem is counting how many people are in a state of hunger. The U.N. World Food Programme says the figure is 842 million. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals project puts the number at 1.02 billion.

Part of the problem is trying to estimate what it would take to lift everyone out of hunger.

We talked to several authorities on hunger, and most of them lacked faith in the U.N. numbers.

Among the skeptical was Oxfam America, the national chapter of one of the leading global organizations in the fight against hunger and poverty.

“We at Oxfam do not have a figure for the price tag to end hunger, and we are not aware of any credible recent figures,” said Laura Rusu, an Oxfam spokeswoman.

One of the analytic hurdles in this claim lies in its choice of words. If the Facebook post had said the Iraq war could have ended hunger 30 times over, it would have been on slightly firmer ground. As it is, it makes a claim based on the state of global hunger over the next 30 years. Our experts noted that a lot could happen in 30 years to change the dynamics — from regional armed conflicts to the effects on food production from climate change.

Our ruling

The Facebook post said the money spent on the Iraq war would have ended world hunger for 30 years. While a back-of-envelope calculation gives the claim a superficial appearance of accuracy, below the surface it lacks substance. We found no advocacy group or expert who expressed confidence in the estimates of the total number of people who suffer from hunger or in any estimate of what it would cost to end it.

A majority felt that the dollars spent on war would have helped a good deal, but the funds would still fall short of the goal. The claim uses the appearance of mathematical accuracy to support a bold vision of the future, but that does not make it more sound.

We rate the claim Half True.

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This article was edited for length. To see a complete version and its sources, go to www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2014/jun/24/facebook-posts/facebook-meme-iraq-war-dollars-could-have-ended-wo/.