Will World Food Summit be another disappointment?

The following article was published in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #6815, 16 November 2009 and is reproduced here with permission.

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south-north development monitor (SUNS) #6815 Monday 16 November 2009

Development: More promises to eat

Rome, 13 Nov (IPS/Paul Virgo) -- Next week's United Nations food security summit is in danger of becoming a massive missed opportunity, experts and non-governmental organisations say. Fears mount that top leaders will not show up, and binding new commitments will not materialise.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is holding the summit to give fresh impetus to the fight against hunger, a scourge it says now affects over a billion people - almost a sixth of the global population.

United States President Barack Obama is not expected to attend the event, which will run from Monday to Wednesday at the FAO's Rome headquarters, and so far, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is the only leader of a G8 country to confirm his presence.

"It's a tragedy that the world leaders are not going to attend the summit," Daniel Berman of health and humanitarian assistance NGO Medecins sans Frontieres told a news conference.

Many experts are also concerned that, as often happens at such meetings, after lots of fine talk, there will be little that ties nations down to taking action at the end of the summit. Indeed, the first such food summit in 1996 set the goal of reducing hunger by half from around then 825 million sufferers at that time by 2015, but instead, the world has moved in the opposite direction.

"We may get more good declarations, but what is the substance behind it? I doubt there will be specific financial commitments next week," Markus Giger of the University of Bern's Centre for Development and Environment tells IPS.

"The number of hungry and malnourished people is rising. Countries must do more. We are far from reaching our targets. It's unacceptable."

A draft of the summit declaration contains little that was not stated by the G8 group of the world's leading economic powers at the L'Aquila summit in July.

In L'Aquila, the G8 promised to "act with the scale and urgency needed to achieve sustainable global food security", among other things, by reducing trade distortions in negotiations at the World Trade Organisation and mobilising $20 billion over the next three years for sustainable agriculture in developing countries.

But diplomatic sources told Reuters news agency that less than a quarter of that eye-catching figure will actually be fresh cash.

"The declaration is just a rehash of old platitudes," said Francisco Sarmento, the food rights coordinator of ActionAid. "It says hunger will be halved by 2015 but fails to commit any new resources to achieve this or provide any way of holding governments to account... Unfortunately, the poor cannot eat promises."

Even if the $20 billion figure were all fresh money, it would still fall short of what is required to address the problem, according to the FAO.

FAO director general Jacques Diouf said this week that $44 billion in official development assistance was needed each year for investments in agriculture and rural infrastructure, adding that developing countries themselves must allocate more of their budgets to these areas.

This money is needed to increase farmers' access to irrigation systems, modern machinery, seeds and fertilisers, as well as improving rural infrastructure and roads so they can obtain the inputs they need to up production and then take their goods to market.

Jean-Philippe Audinet, director of the policy division of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), is more upbeat than some of the NGOs about what will come out of next week's summit.

Rural poverty agency IFAD, part of the threesome of UN food organisations based in Rome along with the FAO and the emergency-relief-providing World Food Programme, champions the cause of small-holder farmers and their families, who number two billion people, or about a third of the world's population.

IFAD says their plight should be paramount not only because three-quarters of the world's hungry live in rural areas, but also because investing in them will help the world achieve the goal of increasing food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of a population likely to reach 9.1 billion by 2050.

So Audinet is pleased to see that the importance of agriculture in general, and of small-holders in particular, is now getting universal recognition. "In terms of substance, we know what will come out of the summit and, unless there are surprises, the contents of the declaration are not new," Audinet tells IPS. "It is very much in line with what was endorsed by the G8 at L'Aquila.

"But the fact that the same principles are being endorsed by all countries, including countries where hunger is a major problem, at the UN level, is an achievement. It is a sign of a larger, worldwide consensus on how to tackle food security."

Audinet admits, however, that he is worried about the prospect of many political heavyweights being absent.

"We are concerned that a number of G8 and OECD countries will not be present at the highest levels," he said. "This would be worrying because after L'Aquila, there is a need to ensure the commitments are confirmed and the money flows so this can be translated into action. But we'll see. We hope they will be present.

"It's a concern, although it would not necessarily mean that these countries do not want to respect their commitments. Maybe, they think they can implement them in other ways than at an FAO summit."

The presence of over 60 heads of state or government in Rome next week, including Pope Benedict XVI and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, should at least help keep food security in the international public's field of vision.

"We really welcome the fact that the World Food Summit is taking place and that so much preparation has gone into it," Action Against Hunger's Natalie Duck told IPS.

"It's fundamentally important that heads of state and government come together to discuss hunger. We are pleased hunger is regaining its rightful position among the priorities," she said, adding that it was also crucial for the international community to recognise that tackling hunger is not just a question of agricultural production.

"We also have to look at health, livelihoods and nutrition. The quality of food people receive is important. The health actors are important to take the lead in treating children dying of hunger. We also have to look at livelihoods and making sure people have money to gain access to food.

"So it's about getting the UN agencies and the international community to understand the need to coordinate all areas - health, nutrition, livelihoods and social protection, as well as agriculture."

Duck also believes that a big step forward would be the creation of a mechanism to monitor whether promises like those made by the G8 in July are respected.

"There have been many declarations from summits in the past that have failed to translate into national action," she said.

"We need a system that tracks donor pledges and commitments to ensure in-country investments so that policies to fight hunger and under-nutrition can be implemented at the national level. A body needs to be given the mandate of holding people accountable to the pledges made at these summits."

For his part, Diouf seems to be doing all he can to mobilise public support behind the fight against hunger and stir world leaders into action before the summit.

This week, FAO launched an online petition (www. 1billionhungry. org) demanding that the issue be made a priority, and Diouf has called for a "global day of hunger strike" this weekend as a way of showing solidarity with the undernourished.

His message mixes optimism that "eradicating hunger is no pipe dream" - as shown by countries such as Brazil, Nigeria and 29 other states that have achieved significant progress - with warnings about the price of inaction.

"One in every six people suffer the pain of hunger, every six seconds a child dies of hunger, and this enormous tragedy is not only a moral outrage and an economic absurdity, but also represents a serious threat to our collective peace and security," Diouf told a news conference Wednesday.

"This hunger summit cannot afford to fail. Without immediate, decisive action, the hungry billion could rise still higher, and with it death, disease, despair among the world's poor.

"Remember hungry people are also rightly angry people, a serious potential source of conflict and forced migration, as we saw in 2007 and 2008 when riots broke out in 22 countries in all continents due to rapid increases in food prices.

"Unfortunately, the high interest seems to be fading away, with other issues coming to the forefront of the international agenda. What is more sad is that concrete actions are lagging despite all the promises." +