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Fighting hunger in a time of crisis

Florence Nakaweesi, whose plight was watched by conference delegates (Concern Worldwide)
Florence Nakaweesi, whose plight was watched by conference delegates
Concern Worldwide

An African woman is boiling water for her family's meal. But Florence Nakaweesi is not intending to cook anything; the water itself is the meal. "We have no food today," the subtitles read. "This is all I can give the children, to keep them from crying for a while." This shocking picture of poverty was watched by hundreds of high-profile delegates at Concern Worldwide's 'Fighting Hunger' conference held on World Food Day (16th October 2008). The timing of the conference, amidst frantic international efforts to prevent economic meltdown, brought global inequalities into the sharpest focus.

In 2007, Wall Street bankers received more money in bonuses than the entire continent of Africa received in development assistance. And in two weeks, governments had raised more money to bail out failing banks than they had given to developing countries in the previous decade. Meanwhile, the crises in food and financial markets had made the fight against hunger a lot tougher. The overall message of the conference in Dublin was clear: ending hunger is not just desirable, it is the bedrock on which all other progress must be built.

The depth and persistence of global hunger provokes outrage and despair, and few in Dublin seemed more outraged than Jeffrey Sachs, advisor to the UN Secretary General. While OECD countries have committed themselves to giving 0.7 per cent of their gross national income (GNI) to developing countries, only a handful have actually honoured their commitment, he reported. His own US government allocates just 0.16 per cent of GNI to international development. He called on governments to publish timetables for achieving the 0.7 per cent commitment, timetables to which they should be accountable.

We know what to do...

Jeffrey Sachs addresses the conference in Dublin (Concern Worldwide)
Jeffrey Sachs addresses the conference in Dublin
Concern Worldwide

Lack of political will to fight hunger is an undeniable reality, but there is no shortage of ideas for what needs to be done. 'Big picture' policies presented in Dublin included establishing a UN High Commissioner for Hunger, and a global minimum grain reserve, permanently stocked and ready to respond to emergencies. Joachim von Braun, head of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), called for a programme to ensure that all children receive adequate nutrition in their first two years. Laudable ideas, but all too likely to fall on deaf political ears, suggested Jeffrey Sachs.

Any grounds for optimism in Dublin were rooted in examples presented by African leaders. Agnes Kalibata, Rwanda's agriculture minister, reported that agriculture's share of state expenditure had doubled from three to six per cent with an aim to increase this to ten per cent. Rwanda has seen a 15 per cent increase in agricultural production this year, having followed Malawi's example to subsidise seed and fertiliser for smallscale farmers. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, was also praised for her impressive leadership, not least in her engagement with the development community, and her insistence that donations and activities are co-ordinated in line with government policies.

AGRA believes empowering women in agriculture is essential (Christopher Herwig)
AGRA believes empowering women in agriculture is essential
Christopher Herwig

Long-term solutions to hunger are not a mystery; implementation is the problem, stressed Bibi Giyose, food and nutrition security advisor to the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). She called for scaling up of projects and an end to the 'pilot project mentality', but acknowledged that Africa currently lacks the capacity to do this. Akin Adesina of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) offered a wish list of desirable policies: lower taxes on agro-processing equipment; loan guarantees for smallscale farmers and agro-dealers; improved infrastructure for the agricultural heartlands; and coordinated research. AGRA chairman, Kofi Annan, emphasised the importance of empowering Africa's women, who "do the lion's share of the work but are given the mouse's share of support." This "policy of neglect" he said, must be reversed.

Time to get serious

The danger is that these good ideas and intentions will ultimately prove to be more hot air and empty promises. Those who doubt that hunger will be halved by 2015 have good reason for their fears. Climate change, rapid population growth and shrinking farm sizes are reducing food production in Africa, which AGRA claims has fallen by 12 per cent since 1980. Investment in the world's poor currently stands at US$1 per person, per year, stated Agnes Kalibata, adding that even a hundred times that amount would not be enough to radically transform African agriculture.

But allowing hunger to persist unchecked will not only condemn a billion or more people to blighted health and unproductive misery. It will also create social unrest and large-scale migration from rural areas to cities, and ultimately to the shores of the very countries which have abandoned the hungry to their fate. "It is our primary responsibility to make the world a safer place for our children," pleaded Sachs. "We need to get serious about our future."

Date published: November 2008


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