19 Feb 2011

IFAD Governing Council

President Nwanze,

Your Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning. It is a privilege for me to address this distinguished gathering.

Serving under Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon as a UN Messenger of Peace for Hunger and Poverty has been one of the greatest honors of my life.

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 can only fit one of them into this speech. She was 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. I had never seen death through the eyes of an infant.

Of course she could not squeeze my finger like babies do. And I was almost ashamed to see that my fingers were about the size of her arms.

Her mother was very calm and patient. She too had the vacant look of impending death. I’m sure she knew better when she was told that I was there to bring — of all the absurd things — “hope.”

She was dying of AIDS, and her five other children were wasting away in the adjoining beds. Her husband had already passed on. We moved along the beds and into the next ward. Then I heard wailing. I asked what had happened and received the obvious answer: “Someone must have died.”

When I walked past the little girl’s bed, it was empty. They had carried her tiny body out in a small, black plastic bag. The bed seemed untouched. It was as if she had never existed.

I learned something strange on that first field visit: When you starve to death, you become so thin, so light you barely leave an impression on the sheets.

I thought about that infant as I considered how to best serve those in need today. And, as I often do, I looked for advice from my late father, His Majesty King Hussein. I took out my late father’s speeches, which I keep in a little box at home, and the first one I picked up was a UN address from 1967.

“Today the United Nations is indeed facing a serious challenge,” he said. “Whether it can preserve its moral authority will in no small measure depend on what action it takes.”

He went on to say, “I will not speak to you only about peace. For the precondition of peace is justice. When we have achieved justice, we can achieve peace. There is much talk in these chambers about peace, but there is little talk about justice… There is no peace when it’s called for by a successful aggressor, nor when it is achieved through the submission of the victim.”

Those words, written in another context more than four decades ago, accurately describe hunger today. We the well fed are the successful aggressors, and the victims of this war of greed are those who die of hunger.

Thanks to my father, I am now brave enough to admit to myself – and to you – a terrible truth. I am praying you will hear me.

Somehow, in a world exploding with prosperity and possibility we have forfeited our moral authority. We have lost the sense of compassion and community that makes life worthwhile. We are morally bankrupt. We can spend over a trillion dollars for armaments as we fight over land, ideology and religion and, yet, we let 300 million children starve.

This organization is just a year older than I am. IFAD does not often make the news, but your work has never been more timely or urgent, 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. You can argue about how much of the turmoil was about economics or politics, but 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. The Middle East is well fed when set against the daily suffering in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

In the rural areas of Cambodia that I visited last week, as much as 70 percent of household income is spent on food. That is more than triple the level of a family here in Italy.

Hunger and malnutrition remain the biggest single threat to public health worldwide -- more than heart disease, cancer or any other malady. 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 optimistically adopted the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 there were 830 million hungry people. A decade later we reached 925 million.

I am standing here asking for solutions with none in sight.

The obvious solution lies in programs like IFAD's — investing more in agriculture and raising food output. But for decades that has never really been a priority for us.

Some poor countries live with perpetual food crises. But if food prices in developed country markets 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 percent, especially after the Green Revolution took hold in South Asia.

Perhaps it seemed reasonable then — assuming you were not among the hungry — but it was a brutal error.

Let's face it, farming has never been all that fashionable among economists or developing country politicians — airports, massive dams, and factories have greater political cache. General economic growth and job creation were supposed to end hunger — no need to bother about the farmers.

No one really paid that much attention to the hungry again until the food crisis of 2007-2008 sent prices spiraling globally.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to mobilizing action is that hunger is becoming invisible in some parts of the world and the number of overweight people — 1.6 billion — far exceeds the number of hungry.

To many of us, hunger is remote, almost abstract. When you live in comfort it is all too easy to forget the suffering of others. If an eight-year-old girl in Zambia is sickly and anemic, what difference does that make in our well-fed, Wi-Fi world? The occasional humanitarian appeal in The Economist, Time or a television spot does not make her real.

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. Anemia impairs the mental development of 40 to 60 percent 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 percent.

Imagine all that buying power. Healthy children make for healthy economies and markets from which we all eventually benefit. Those who are indifferent to the suffering of the hungry should at least recognize the economic value in ending it.

We have made some progress in some areas.

Impatient with the lack of progress by the traditional aid agencies and development banks, private donors led by the Gates Foundation have moved into the hunger arena and poured funds into Kofi Annan's Alliance for a Green Revolution. With funding of over $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 $1 billion. The World Bank, recognizing past errors, doubled its agricultural loan portfolio. Arab nations are debating a $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 10 percent of their national spending to agriculture. Eight have exceeded the investment target, and 10 have reached a 6 percent annual growth rate in food production.

President Nwanze, IFAD deserves great credit for taking a focused approach to development, recognizing the true profile of hunger and targeting youth and women. More than 80 percent of IFAD's micro-finance portfolio is loaned to women.

IFAD projects offer an avenue to cope with massive rural unemployment, especially among the young. Youth unemployment is a tremendous challenge globally, but even more so in the Arab world where half our population is under 25 years old.

In another welcome sign, food aid is becoming more focused on child nutrition. MSF, UNICEF and WFP have spearheaded efforts to broaden the use of ready-to-use therapeutic foods to combat the destructive effects of malnutrition on children under the age of two.

This is so important. Hungry babies face handicaps that last all their lives. We have the technical expertise and the money to end hunger. So why is the outlook today so grim? What is missing?

I am absolutely convinced that we could solve the hunger problem if the international community had the passion and the commitment to prioritize 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 for real progress. Even worse, they fail to honor the pledges they make.

Promises are made, but not kept. That is morally bankrupt.

In 2009, for example, at the G8 Summit here in Italy, there were $22 billion in new pledges of funds for agriculture -- FAO tells us less than $1 billion in new money has actually materialized. ACTIONAID concluded there was no gain in investment in agriculture at all. Increases by some donors were simply offset by cuts by others.

We missed the message in the food crisis of 2008 and hit the snooze button. Now the situation has grown even more urgent. The G20 is focusing on food security under the French presidency and that is most welcome. But where is our sense of urgency? Where is our passion? Dare I ask: Where is our humanity?

If my house were on fire, no matter how tired I was, no matter what I was doing, I would fight with all my might to save it. I know that all of you are the same. If your homes were on fire, you would do absolutely everything in your power to save them.

Well, Your Excellencies, our house is on fire.

The alarm clock on hunger went off a long time ago. We cannot hit the snooze button any more. If we do, you must realize that every tick of the “second hand” is a child’s life. We should act as if those threatened children are our children — because, in every sense, they are.

No more false promises. No more empty pledges. That infant girl in Malawi might be with us today if we had done more than issue declarations and communiqués. We’re too late for her, but it is not too late to save millions of other children just like her.

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 it. Only then can we do better.

All I ask is this: Make sure your governments honor their pledges.

I began with the words of my late father, His Majesty King Hussein of Jordan, and so I will close with them as well: “May God grant that out of your discussions the path to a just conclusion becomes clear, and that you will be brave enough, and wise enough to act on it.”

Thank you.