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Shameful progress on reducing hunger

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK– The World Food Summit in Rome underscored the severity of malnutrition around the world. More poignantly, it showed how slow the progress has been so far toward eliminating hunger and malnutrition. According to some estimates, 800 million people worldwide — among them 300 million children — suffer from hunger every day, and every 4 seconds one dies as a result. In spite of this situation, almost all leaders from the main industrialized nations refused to attend the meeting, sending instead lower level delegations.

Dr. Jacques Diouf, the director general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, stated, “With few exceptions, the number of leaders from the rich countries who didn’t attend the summit is a good indicator of the political priority they give to the struggle against hunger.”

The summit this year follows one that took place in 1996, which vowed to drastically cut the number of hungry people from 840 million. However, since then, it only cut it to 815 million. The number of undernourished has fallen by 6 million per year instead of the 22 million needed to attain the goal set in 1996. According to Diouf, at this rate the target will be met 45 years behind schedule.

In the developing world, according to FAO, 17 percent of the population was undernourished during 1997-1999. At the regional level, sub-Saharan Africa had the highest proportion of undernourished (34 percent) during that period. Asia and the Pacific followed with 20 percent (excluding China), followed by Latin America and the Caribbean with 11 percent and the Near East and North Africa with 9 percent. In Africa, at least 200 million people suffer from chronic hunger, and 13 million people are on the verge of starvation in six southern African countries.

Why has progress been so slow in world’s efforts to eradicate hunger? One of the causes repeatedly stressed by leaders in developing countries are unfair conditions of trade as a result of farm subsidies to farmers in industrialized countries. According to U.N. estimates, the world’s rich countries spend $300 billion a year on farm subsidies. This leads to depressed world prices and makes it almost impossible for farmers from developing countries to compete in the global market.

On May 13, U.S. President George W. Bush signed a farm bill whose estimated cost is $190 billion over 10 years, increasing by two-thirds the payments for grain and cotton farms, mostly benefiting large operations. This bill is a striking reversal of the position taken last October by the White House. As the U.S. agriculture secretary stated last November, this bill creates pressure for more government payments and leads to a self-defeating and ultimately unsustainable cycle.

According to the FAO’s director general, the global market for agricultural commodities has continued to defy any notion of fairness. It is estimated that hunger causes a 1-percent-per-year loss in the rate of economic growth through reduced productivity.

And hunger and malnutrition significantly affect people, particularly children, in their health and quality of life. Malnutrition affects children not only in their physical growth but also in their psycho-social development and in their school performance and quality of life.

Eliminating hunger is also in the interest of the industrialized countries. As United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan recently stated, “Fighting hunger makes economic and social sense and is a key step toward achieving all the Millennium Development Goals. In a world of plenty, ending hunger is within our grasp. Failure to reach this goal should fill every one of us with shame.”