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Why the Poor Stay Hungry
by Rene Wadlow
2008-05-09 08:35:58
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As the United Nations Secretary-General said on 29 April 2008 at the end of a high-level meeting of UN Agencies in Bern, Switzerland devoted to the world food crisis “The food crisis threatens to undo all our good work. If not managed properly, it could touch off a cascade of related crises — affecting trade, economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world.”

In fact, it was political instability which brought food issues to the top of the world agenda. Food riots in Haiti brought the issue of hunger to the front gates of Haiti’s presidential palace and death to a UN peacekeeper from Nigeria who was shot by the crowd surging from a slum area of Port-au-Prince. The Prime Minister, Jacques-Edouard Alexis, was forced to resign for having failed to act despite sharp increases in the price of food over the past several months, pushing people who are already poor into deeper poverty.

The President of Haiti, René Préval, who was trained as an agronomist and should have recognized the consequences of food shortages earlier, nevertheless, promised to use foreign funds originally destined for development projects to lower the price of rice. This short-range policy can mean the difference between eating and going hungry for many families.

Rising food prices are a global concern and have led to riots against high food prices in a growing number of countries such as Egypt, Senegal and Cameroon. Using government funds to lower prices can only be a short-term policy. Egypt already spends more on subsidies, including gasoline and bread, than on education and health combined. The United Nations food specialists indicate serious food shortages in many countries of Africa: In East and Southern Africa: Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Mozambique, and Eritrea. In West Africa: Mauritania, Senegal, Liberia, Sierre Leone, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Cameroon.

There are serious food shortages in war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq as well as in the Gaza Strip. There are chronic food shortages in North Korea. The Somalis, who live largely on grain distributed by the UN World Food Programme, are under serious threat as the high price of rice and other grains cut into the WFP budget and increased violence makes food delivery difficult. The same is true of the internally displaced and refugee camps of the Darfur conflict in Sudan and Chad. The World Food Programme estimates that there are 100 million people who are acutely short of food today.

The irony of the situation is that some 70 per cent of the world’s poorest people live as small farmers. Despite the fact that millions of peasants and landless laborers suffer from hunger and malnutrition, the issue of food production, distribution and costs had fallen off the world agenda except for specialists. From time to time, questions of export subsidies of agricultural products or production quotas would be taken up by the World Trade Organization or in the all-night negotiations of the Agricultural Ministries of the European Union, but the complexity of the issues and the political power of the large farm associations in the USA and Western Europe kept agricultural policies outside of active political debate.

Now, the food riots are bringing to light the fact that a true world food program requires action at the world, the regional, the national, and the local level. In order to plan both short term and longer term measures, a High Level Conference on Food Security has been called for 3-5 June in Rome, headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

It is not likely that the hungry poor or the small farmers will be invited. Yet we need more radical thinking about redesigning the world food system. Food as a human right is central to the political, economic, and social aspiration of all people. Food security is an understandable concept. We need inspiration and vision to make it a reality.

René Wadlow is the Representative to the UN, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens and the Editor of the journal of world politics: www.transnational-perspectives.org.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-05-09 09:50:25
Indeed, radical thinking that goes to the root of the problem and generates inspiration and vision is what is needed to make food security a reality. The root of the problem does not lie in know how and push button technology. We have that and it could eliminate hunger tomorrow. What is lacking is the political will to change one's paradigms of reality. As the Nobel Laureate and poet Octavio Paz said to his his scientist colleagues at a congress of Nobel Laureates hosted by Robert Frost some years ago: gentlemen the issue is not how to eliminate hunger, we know how to do that, but why knowing how to do it we fail to do it, we let thousands of children die of starvation every day and do not ask ourselves what that does to our humanity.

Emanuel Paparella2008-05-09 09:51:59
Errata above: the host was Sir David Frost, not Robert Frost.

Dimitra Karantzeni2008-05-09 11:36:31
It reminds me of an old chinese proverb that use to say: "Really helping poor people who are starving to death doesn't mean offering them some fish.. On the contrary, it means teaching them how to fish" So, it is important that these nations that suffer from poverty and lack of food, ought to be given the chance, the possibility and of course the necessary goods, technology, money, knowledge, in order to rebirth and evolve into growing and perhaps self-sufficient societies. The question again is.. who really cares..? Let us wish that at least the political and economical crisis of well-growned, industrialised countries, due to food crisis, is going to motivate the powerful of the world to act fervently before it is too late for our planet.

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