ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 4, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 49
Columns - Inside the glass house  

Pious declarations won't fill hungry stomachs

By Thalif Deen at the united nations

NEW YORK - When the first major World Food Conference was held in Rome in 1974 to help resolve a lingering food crisis, the delegates who took the podium lamented the widespread hunger prevalent at that time and sympathized with the men, women and children living on the razor edge of starvation worldwide.

But during the conference, one newspaper exposed the hypocrisy of delegates who wined and dined in some of the fanciest and most expensive restaurants in Rome in the nights -- while publicly bemoaning the plight of the hungry and the starving during the day.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Robert Zoellick listen to World Trade Organisation director Pascal Lamy speaking during a press conference on April 29, 2008 in Bern after two day talks with key United Nations agencies on how to tackle the crisis provoked by soaring food and fuel prices. AFP

Pointing out the paradox of poverty amidst plenty, the newspaper also revealed the orgy of eating -- and the absolute waste of food -- at a time when the world's poorest nations were looking for crumbs from the table.

The waste at the sprawling cafeteria at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome also symbolized the stark fact that overconsumption and extravagance were some of the contributory factors to the crisis -- even though negligible.

The 1974 conference, which was hosted by the FAO, proclaimed that "every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop their physical and mental faculties." The goals of the conference included the eradication of hunger, the need for food security and the reduction of malnutrition "within a decade".

But nearly 34 years, and dozens of UN resolutions and voluminous reports later, the developing world is facing another global food shortage. This time, there is a myriad of factors responsible for the crisis, including the shortcomings of international organisations that failed to envisage the current disaster.

In November 1996, the FAO hosted a five-day World Food Summit, the second in a series, which adopted a Rome Declaration on World Food Security and a Plan of Action to eradicate or minimise global hunger. The current crisis, not surprisingly, has triggered a third upcoming Food Summit, also in Rome on June 3-5, where another elaborate plan is due to be unveiled by heads of state and governments. But pious declarations, most of them which remain unimplemented, mean little to empty stomachs.

With a decline in funding from donors, where pledges fall far behind deliveries, the World Food Programme says the shortage of funds has reduced their ability to reach people in need of food. The price of rice alone, which was $460 per metric tonne in March, rose to $980 last week.

At a meeting of 26 heads of UN agencies in Bern last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon identified multiple causes, including escalating energy prices, lack of investment in agriculture over the past years, increasing demand for food, trade-distorting subsidies and recurrent bad weather.

"This crisis has multiple effects, with its most serious impact on the most vulnerable in the poorest countries," he warned. The secretary-general sourced the problem to "a dramatic escalation of food prices worldwide, which has evolved into what we believe is an unprecedented challenge of global proportions that has become a crisis for the most vulnerable."

"We see mounting hunger and increasing evidence of malnutrition, which has severely strained the capacities of humanitarian agencies to meet humanitarian needs, especially as promised funding has not yet materialized," he added, taking a shot at donor nations.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick said that for 2 billion people, high food prices are now a matter of daily struggle, sacrifice and, for too many, even survival.

"We estimate already some 100 million people may have been pushed into poverty as a result of high prices over the last two years. This is not a natural disaster. Make no mistake; there's nothing natural about it. But for millions of people, it is a disaster." he added.

But the World Bank itself has to share some of the blame for the current crisis because of declining funds for agricultural research over the years. Asked about the under-sourcing for research, Zoellick admitted his institution's failure but also singled out the shortcomings of governments.

"Yes, you know the international community goes through various phases of things," he said. "The World Bank, and frankly the Governments themselves, invested less in agriculture. We have a country-system based approach, where the countries are our clients and they decide where they focus it.'

"So, as we ramped up things for HIV/AIDS and malaria and other projects, there was clearly an underinvestment in agriculture. I don't think it's really helpful to point fingers at this responsibility, that responsibility. The key question is, having recognized the need -- and it's one that I focused on shortly after taking over the Bank -- how do we try to deal with it at these various stages?" he asked, wriggling out a pointed question.

To remedy the shortcomings of the past, the FAO has proposed an emergency initiative to provide low-income deficit countries with the seeds and inputs to boost production, and is calling for $1.7 billion in funding. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is already making available an additional $200 million to poor farmers in the most affected countries to boost food production and the World Bank is considering the establishment of a global crisis response facility for this purpose.

The UN has also called on the international community, and in particular rich nations, to urgently and fully fund the emergency requirement of $755 million for the World Food Programme, and honour outstanding pledges."Without full funding of these emergency requirements, we risk again the spectre of widespread hunger, malnutrition, and social unrest on an unprecedented scale," the world body warned.

Whether donor nations and international institutions will learn from their past failures remains to be seen.

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