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HRH Princess Haya Al Hussein

HRH Princess Haya Al Hussein is calling for an urgent and effective global response to world hunger (© Richard Juilliart)
HRH Princess Haya Al Hussein is calling for an urgent and effective global response to world hunger
© Richard Juilliart

The global food crisis: an urgent need to respond

In a keynote address to the International Fund for Agricultural Development's (IFAD) Governing Council in February 2011, UN Messenger of Peace HRH Princess Haya Al Hussein called for an urgent and effective global response to catastrophic food shortages and world hunger and challenged governments and other donors to fulfil their commitments to food programmes. A shortened version of her speech is given in this Perspective.

On my first field visit for the World Food Programme six years ago, I went to the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi. At that time, 5 million people in Malawi were facing starvation. I remember the first infant I met in this job. Until I saw her, I never knew death could have a presence and a smell. I had never seen its solitude, its utter finality, or the acceptance and welcome of its release. We moved into the next ward. When I walked back past the little girl's bed again, it was empty. She had died and they had carried her tiny body away. The bed seemed untouched: when you starve to death, you become so thin, so light you barely leave an impression on the sheets.

Similarly, the death of the starving leaves little or no impression on the lives of the more fortunate. Somehow, in a world exploding with prosperity and possibility we have lost the sense of compassion and community. We have become morally bankrupt. We can spend over a trillion dollars for armaments yet we let 300 million children starve.

A wake up call for the world?

Man and nature are on a very dangerous path. Floods, fires, drought, corruption, incompetence and greed are converging with the potential to create a devastating global food crisis. The price of food has been one of the driving forces as Arab youth have taken to the streets to demand change from the Maghreb to the Arabian Gulf. Food is the most basic human need. When it is not met, people take action. The events in the Middle East have been described as an alarm or wake up call for the region, but they should be an alarm for the entire world.

In the rural areas of Cambodia that I visited in early February, as much as 70 per cent of household income is spent on food, more than triple the level of a family in Italy. Nearly every country on earth faces some degree of food insecurity. We saw more than 60 food riots from 2007 to 2009 alone, from Haiti to Indonesia. There will be more now that FAO's global food price index has hit a historic high. When we adopted the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 there were 830 million hungry people. A decade later we reached 925 million.

A greater need to invest in agriculture

The obvious solution lies in investing more in agriculture and raising food output. But for decades that has not been a priority for us. If food prices in developed countries are not climbing and no one is protesting or rioting, we just hit the snooze button and drift back to sleep. After the food crisis of the mid 1970s faded, major donors and development banks turned their attention elsewhere, slashing funds for agriculture by more than 70 per cent. It was a brutal error.

To many, hunger is remote, almost abstract. If an eight-year-old girl in Zambia is sickly and anaemic, what difference does that make in our well-fed, Wi-Fi world? She is not our child. She does not live where we live. Well, in fact, she is our child and we all have a stake in her development. Anaemia impairs the mental development of 40 to 60 per cent of children in developing countries affecting roughly 2 billion people. Eradicating it would, according to the WHO, improve national productivity levels by up to 20 per cent.

We have made some progress. Impatient with the lack of progress by the traditional aid agencies and development banks, private donors led by the Gates Foundation have poured funds into Kofi Annan's Alliance for a Green Revolution. With funding of over US$100 million, AGRA is the biggest operational anti-hunger initiative in Africa and it is homegrown.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has doubled its agricultural development budget to US$1 billion. The World Bank has doubled its agricultural loan portfolio. Arab nations are debating a US$65 billion plan to boost food production in light of critical water shortages and huge food imports. Some African Governments have adopted new approaches, and 16 have signed a compact committing ten per cent of their national spending to agriculture. Eight have exceeded the investment target, and ten have reached a six per cent annual growth rate in food production.

Honouring our pledges

I am convinced that we could solve the hunger problem if the international community had the passion and the commitment to prioritise it. That has not been the case. Many of our politicians remain out of touch, uncomprehending of life for those who live at the brink of starvation. They do not deliver funds on the scale we need. Even worse, they fail to honour the pledges they make. That is morally bankrupt.

In 2009, at the G8 Summit in Italy, there were US$22 billion in new pledges of funds for agriculture - FAO tells us less than US$1 billion in new money has actually materialised. We missed the message in the food crisis of 2008 and hit the snooze button. Now the situation has grown even more urgent. Where is our sense of urgency? Where is our passion? Where is our humanity?

If our homes were on fire, we would do absolutely everything in our power to save them. Well, our house is on fire. The fire alarm is sounding and it does not have a snooze button. We must not ignore it.

I mean to insult nobody. I count myself among those who have become morally bankrupt. I feel the shame of that acknowledgement, but I would be more ashamed if I didn't take this opportunity to ask you and others to join me in admitting and facing up to it. Only then can we do better.

For the full transcript of HRH Princess Haya's speech, please visit the IFAD website or HRH Princess Haya Al Hussein's official website

Date published: March 2011


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I am agree with the view of HRH princess. Agriculture invest... (posted by: mehar singh baidwan)


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