Hunger summit passes toothless declaration

The following article by the Inter-Press Service (IPS) was published in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #6817, 18 November 2009 and is reproduced here with permission.

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South-north Development Monitor (SUNS) #6817 Wednesday 18 November 2009

Development: Hunger summit passes toothless declaration

Rome, 16 Nov (IPS/Paul Virgo) -- Fears that the United Nations World Food Security Summit would fail to deliver effective measures to defeat hunger were borne out Monday when world leaders and government officials approved a toothless declaration on the first day.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is holding the three-day summit after the number of hungry people crossed the one-billion mark for the first time this year, meaning that almost a sixth of the global population does not have enough to eat.

Despite this, almost all of the planet's most powerful leaders, including United States President Barack Obama, snubbed the event. The FAO failed in its bid to establish a target of eradicating hunger by 2025 and to get rich countries to commit to spending $44 billion a year in agricultural aid.

"It's a bit of a damp squib," Sarah Gillam of anti-poverty organisation ActionAid told IPS. "There is positive language on the right to food, promoting sustainable agriculture and the Committee on Food Security," she added, referring to the FAO body which is being reformed to broaden the stakeholders involved, and boost its role in coordinating efforts to combat hunger. "But the declaration does not have any teeth."

States reaffirmed their commitment to the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015, and promised "to take action towards sustainably eradicating hunger at the earliest possible date."

They also pledged to "substantially increase the share of ODA (official development assistance) devoted to agriculture and food security," although no target figure or time-frame was given.

"Taking out the date of 2025 for the total elimination of hunger and cancelling the need to allocate $44 billion a year to support agriculture... render this declaration a document devoid of any concrete instruments to make the fight against hunger effective," said Sergio Marelli, chief of the advisory panel for the parallel forum staged by NGOs from around the world.

FAO director-general Jacques Diouf insisted that approval of the declaration was a success, as the member nations have endorsed a new strategy to fight hunger by pledging to end the long-running decline in agricultural investment, one of the main culprits for the high levels of undernourishment, and to focus on the plight of small-holder farmers.

"The declaration was approved this morning unanimously. This is a good sign for us," Diouf told a news conference. "I totally believe that it was a significant step forward towards the total eradication of hunger in a generation's time."

However, he did not hide his disappointment about the failure to obtain binding goals and commitments.

"I'm satisfied with the fact that we arrived at a consensus on a declaration. I'm satisfied also with the thrust of what is in the declaration," he said.

"But I'm not satisfied with the fact that some of the concrete proposals I made, based on the fact that if we set a target we must quantify it in terms of a date, (were not accepted). The negotiations were not able to fix a date for the eradication of hunger... There was no consensus and I regret it. It was the same (with agricultural aid)... But I was not the one who negotiated the document."

Diouf wanted $44 billion in aid for agriculture each year, primarily to enable small-holder farmers in developing countries to feed themselves as well as helping 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.

The FAO argues that much of this money could come from raising the share for agriculture in ODA, which totalled $119.8 billion in 2008, to 18-19 percent from the current level of around five percent.

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 and take their goods to market.

They also need help to adapt their practices to climate change, with impacts in terms of falling yields and extreme weather expected to hit developing countries hardest, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

"This summit announced a new strategy to tackle hunger by focusing on the poorest farmers - but it is un-costed, unfunded and unaccountable," said Oxfam's Gawain Kriple. "The sentiment is honourable but that alone does not put food on a billion empty plates."

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the meeting built on progress made at July's G8 summit in L'Aquila, when the world's top economic powers promised $20 billion in aid over three years to help farmers in developing nations grow and sell food.

"At the G8 summit, we defined the principles of a global partnership (for agriculture, food security and nutrition) that unites all private and public forces for food security to form a winning strategy, the success of which everyone can and should contribute to," said Berlusconi, the only leader of a G8 country to come.

"This awareness has already started... to translate into deeds. Now, there is the concrete willingness of everyone to pursue with tenacity and the right tools the goal of guaranteeing hundreds of millions of human beings dignity, freedom and hope, as well as nutrition."

Developing nations were concerned that the eloquent talk would not be followed up by action and that their food sovereignty could be threatened.

"We are pleased that this conference has centred on such an important problem," Ecuador's agriculture minister Dr. Ramon Espinel told IPS. "But we think that what has been declared is not enough, even though some contributions are in the right direction, such as the $20 billion from the L'Aquila summit.

"We think this is not enough because it may stay just a declaration. If we follow the path of what has happened before, this (money) may come as food aid, which is not what our countries need.

"We need agricultural aid to build the capacity to produce our own food; aid that is managed by the countries themselves within their own policies. We don't want to have programmes that are built and directed from foreign areas. This is the important thing we feel is lacking."

Some reports have claimed that less than a quarter of the money the G8 promised will actually be new, and ActionAid said the failure to set up a mechanism that monitors whether such pledges are respected is another major let-down.

"We need a bit of transparency. No one knows how much money is given and how much money is new," Gillam said. "So we need accountability for people to have faith in the process."

The nations' refusal to commit to eradicating hunger by 2025 may in part be down to the fact that this commitment might sound hollow given that the target of halving hunger by 2015, first set at the 1996 Food Summit in Rome when around 825 million did not have enough to eat, is unlikely to be reached.

Indeed, the world has moved in the opposite direction, with some 100 million people joining the ranks of the hungry this year alone because of the effects of the financial crisis and of still high food costs after the 2007-08 spike in the price of staples like wheat and rice.

One of the most hotly awaited speeches was that of Pope Benedict XVI, who criticised speculation in food commodities that contributed to the soaring prices, and said hunger can only be beaten by tackling poverty and social injustice.

"There is a continuing disparity in the level of development within and among nations that leads to instability in many parts of the world, accentuating the contrast between poverty and wealth," the Pontiff said.

"If the aim is to eliminate hunger, international action is needed not only to promote balanced and sustainable economic growth and political stability, but also to seek out new parameters - primarily ethical but also juridical and economic ones - capable of inspiring the degree of cooperation required to build a relationship of parity between countries at different stages of development.

"Hunger is the most cruel and concrete sign of poverty. Opulence and waste are no longer acceptable when the tragedy of hunger is assuming ever greater proportions." +