No more World Food Summits please

I try my best in these articles to conjure up something original to say about longstanding world poverty issues. An unusual fact or juxtaposition, however modest in scope, might just expose a chink in the armour of global injustice.

When it comes to hunger, the ultimate dysfunction of our divided world, I’m less inclined to cast about for novelty. Instead I make no apology for blunt repetition of what others have already expressed.

The failure of last week’s World Summit on Food Security to commit to a timescale for the eradication of hunger was a morally delinquent denial of human rights. It also threatens to torpedo areas of human development which enjoy more enlightened commitments to progress.

At the first of these Food Summits back in 1974, the US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, declared that global hunger would be eradicated by 1984. By 1996, far from fading to zero, the hunger figure had nearly doubled from 435 million to 830 million people.

The second Summit, held in that year, moved the goalposts and adopted a more pragmatic target of halving the 1996 figure by 2015.

Just four years later, the Millennium Declaration accelerated further in reverse gear by realigning the target to the percentage of the population experiencing hunger, as opposed to the absolute number.

This spineless chronology of diminishing intent leads inexorably to its nadir in 2009. Firstly, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization announces that hunger has crossed the one billion threshold. Secondly, the so-called Summit on Food Security throws out a draft text committing leaders to eradicate hunger by 2025 at an estimated cost of $44 billion pa.

Meanwhile, agricultural subsidies paid to farmers in rich OECD countries amount to $365 billion pa. And the world banking system has been rescued at a capital cost of over $2,500 billion, according to the IMF.

The lack of joined-up strategy is particularly galling. The target for universal access to primary education is one of the few Millennium Development Goals showing prospects of success. Malnutrition increases risks of illness and learning difficulties – the number of children affected may be approaching 200 million. Spending money on schools makes less sense if children are unfit to attend.

Encouraging progress has also been made towards the goal to provide universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS. Rising hunger will be a setback because a regime of anti-retroviral medicine is especially difficult to sustain for patients whose diet is poor.

How can we expect India and other developing countries to adjust the trajectory of their carbon dioxide emissions before 2020 without first helping them to eliminate hunger? All the advice about adaptation to a changing climate for poor farmers stresses the urgency of achieving existing food security and livelihood goals as a first line of defence.

I know that many people are cynical about poverty reduction targets because so often the method of calculation appears to deny the possibility of success. But hunger is different. The FAO defines an absolute calorie benchmark and the world already grows enough food to provide this average for everyone.

It boils down to the old marketing mantra of providing what people want, in the right place at the right time at the right price. I understand that’s what they teach in all those great business schools. If only food security could be the compulsory first module of MBA courses, then we might be spared these dispiriting and wasteful world summits.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK