Global Policy Forum

Hunger Summit’s Failure Exposes Grim Reality


By Paul Virgo

November 19, 2009

There are two main ways the flop of this week's United Nations World Food Security Summit in Rome - which has been snubbed by the world's top leaders, has failed to deliver binding aid commitments, or to set a target date for the eradication of hunger - is being read.

At best it reflects the limits of the U.N. and its flagship body in the fight against hunger, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), activists say.

At worst, they say it shows wealthy countries' leaders lack the political will to really to put their backs into solving a problem that - no matter how unjust and scandalous, in a world with more than enough to feed everyone - generally does not directly affect the voters who put them into office.

Either way it is probably bad news for the 1.02 billion people, almost one sixth of the global population, who go to bed every night with empty stomachs.

FAO Director General Jacques Diouf tried to make the best of it Monday after the approval of a toothless declaration. He pointed out consensus had been achieved on the need to end the long- running decline in agricultural investment, which is one of the major reasons many people in rural areas of developing countries struggle to feed themselves. But, Diouf admitted "regret" that countries had failed to commit themselves to wiping out hunger by 2025 and that developed nations had not agreed to allocate 44 billion dollars in aid to agriculture per year.

That figure sounds like an awful lot of money, but it was not such an ambitious target if one considers other ways money is spent.

"Eliminating hunger from the face of Earth requires 44 billion dollars of official development assistance (ODA) per year to be invested in infrastructure, technology and modern inputs," Diouf told a news conference. "It is a small amount if we consider the 365 billion dollars of agriculture producer support in OECD countries in 2007, and if we consider the 1,340 billion dollars of military expenditures by the world in the same year."

Besides, Diouf was not suggesting rich countries shell out 44 billion in fresh cash - much of the money could simply come by diverting already-assigned resources to increase agriculture's share of ODA from the current level of around five percent to about 18-19 percent.

But the FAO does not have any battleships or financial sanctions to use to coerce nations into taking action. Before the summit Diouf said that the FAO budget does not permit it to do much alone about such a huge problem, pointing out that individual states, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the regional development banks are the ones with the serious money.

Furthermore, a large portion of the hunger problem is related to unfair international trade conditions - caused in part by First World support of domestic agriculture - where the FAO has no role. It is up to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to engineer a deal to iron out these distortions.

The FAO can seek to keep food security on the international agenda and the summit will have contributed.

But beyond that, it is basically a forum that is only as good or bad as the member nations make it, which opens up questions about the political will of the rich countries.

The summit was skipped by all but one of the leaders of countries in the Group of Eight leading world economic powers - Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who only had to take a short drive from his office to reach the FAO's headquarters.

The G8 pledged to devote 20 million dollars to agricultural aid over the next three years at the L'Aquila summit in July. So some believe the no-shows here imply they want to implement their food security policies via G8 organs or other bodies, such as the World Bank, which has frequently been accused of infringing national sovereignty by trying to promote models of development imported from the West that are not appropriate in poorer countries.

"The absence of the G8 leaders is a clear message that the rich countries are still trying to impose their policies on poor countries," said Sergio Marelli, head of the association of Italian non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

"Agro-food policies and management of resources for their implementation can only be the competence of the specialized United Nations agencies, above all the FAO and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and should not be handed to the World Bank," Marelli said. "We believe assigning the World Bank the role of policy-maker would mean giving it back to the institution that has the greatest responsibility for the current food crisis."

Solomon Islands Agriculture Minister Selwyn Riumana was alarmed at not seeing the likes of U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Rome.

"It's normal when you get so many nations together that the result is a compromise. You have to be realistic. But it is a great concern that G8 countries did not attend because in this world we share the same environment, we breathe the same air, we are global family members and we should be supporting each other," Riumana told IPS.

"We talk about democracy, institutional strengthening and good governance and this is an area to put that into practice. Everybody participates at this organization, everyone feels part of it," Riumana said. "They must support the FAO in this drive. It's part of the United Nations. It was formed by these big nations. This was their baby, where are they escaping to? They should give milk to their baby."

But some see the missing leaders as an even more worrying sign - that the wealthy nations are barely committed to tackling the problem at all.

"Obviously for those of us in developing countries the results of this summit are a great failure," Julia Marlene Cconojhuillca Quispe of the Confederacion Nacional Agraria del Peru told IPS.

"The G8 leaders' absence shows definitively that they are not with the peoples who really suffer hunger and who are often the ones who produce food for the rich countries. They are clearly showing that they want to keep the poorest marginalized," she stressed.


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