25 Apr 2008

What Will We Promise the World’s Hungry this Time?


The TImes (online)

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When I was a girl, my father, King Hussein of Jordan, related a story about the last global food crisis and a famous promise made to the world’s hungry by Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State.

Kissinger came to Amman after attending the World Food Conference in Rome in 1974, called hastily as global food prices skyrocketed and widespread hunger threatened to engulf the developing world. Secretary Kissinger related how he had boldly pledged that within a decade, no child would go to bed hungry anywhere in the world.

You have to give him credit for being ambitious and inspired, but sadly, more than three decades later, there are more hungry children than there are Americans. That number grows with each passing week, as once relatively well fed families in Cameroon, Indonesia and Egypt struggle to cope with the rising cost of a decent meal.

Back in the 1970s, global market conditions eventually improved, thanks in part to the dramatic impact of the Green Revolution in south Asia. But the development banks, aid agencies and donors soon forgot the lesson of the crisis, cutting the percentage of aid they devoted to agriculture in half despite repeated warnings by the Food and Agriculture Organization. Developing country governments did no better and failed to invest enough in agriculture. They looked the other way when the number of hungry started to grow again in the 1990s. In short, when it comes to food, the donor community has been asleep at the wheel, or at the very least dosing: they were warned for years by the World Food Programme that rising food and transport prices were cutting into their deliveries on the ground.

The symptoms of an emerging food crisis have been around for a while and visible to anyone willing to see them. First, there were riots in Mexico City over the price of maize and then suddenly the price of farmland in Iowa was rising faster than real estate in Belgravia or Manhattan. The European Union, which for years accumulated surplus lakes of oil and mountains of grains, began asking its farmers to put land back into production and milk was in short supply. Meanwhile, the United States quietly dropped all subsidies of its grain producers and experienced a near explosion in food exports. And finally, consumers across the world have begun to protest as they pay more to buy the family groceries; the riots that began in Mexico City have spread to other cities.

Even if global economic output dips this year as forecast, demand for food will still strain supplies, and as one market forecaster put it, “Food will become the next oil.” And so, we are finally paying attention.

Rising food costs are very worrisome for many, but they are downright dangerous for the 850 million chronically hungry people who do not earn enough to afford this newspaper. Even when food was relatively cheap, these people suffered malnutrition and disease that left them cut out of the global rise in incomes. Their stunted children had little hope for the future and even less now.

So far, the donor response to hunger outside well publicized emergencies like Darfur has been tepid at best. While on the surface, it looks like Official Development Assistance is at historically high levels, topping $100 billion, much of this is debt relief and has little impact on the price of a meal in Africa’s rural villages. Aid transfers to sub-Saharan Africa – where one person in three is chronically hungry – have actually declined recently. Worse yet, food aid has dropped to its lowest level since Henry Kissinger’s famous speech in Rome, plummeting to 6.7 million metric tons in 2006 – less than half the level in 2000. And no one really sounded the alarm bell when it happened.

Now, the World Bank and bilateral donors are scrambling to compensate for the lack of investment in agriculture over decades. But that may not be so easy: just to feed the same number of needy people this year, the World Food Programme has appealed for an extra $500 million.

President Bush’s announcement of a $200 million release from the US emergency reserve will help, but stocks worldwide are at frighteningly low levels. A curb in biofuels production might help too… but economists note this will have little impact on wheat and rice output or address the fundamental issue of growing Asian demand.

So what more can be done? Well, former Secretary General Kofi Annan’s one billion dollar initiative with the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations to create a Green Revolution for Africa is one bright spot on the horizon. It was, after all, the first Green Revolution that helped India so much during the food shortages of the 1970s. But in the meantime, the message to donors – public and private – is simple: Food must come first. The world’s poorest live in farming areas: new seeds, small scale irrigation, and educational services will help them turn their lives around.

Let’s hope there are no more false promises and we do our very best to deliver what Henry Kissinger so proudly promised to the world’s children more than three decades ago – a life free of hunger.