Starvation can be banished so why are millions still dying? SARAH STUART-SMITH of Christian Aid reports from Rome on the first important world gathering on hunger in more than 20 years
AS THE WORLD Food Summit opened on a glorious sunny day in Rome, flags flying, Pope John Paul H renewed old controversies from previous UN summits by speaking out against population control.
In the opening speech launching the five day summit called by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Pope said population on its own did not suffice to explain hunger.
"We must renounce the sophist view which holds that to be many is to condemn ourselves to be poor," he told the 187 heads of state and government ministers gathered at FAO headquarters.
"It would be illusory to believe that an arbitrary stabilisation of the world's population, or even its reduction, could solve the problem of hunger directly."
"But, he added, there could not be 'unlimited growth' and, in one of the summit's strongest statements, condemned poverty inequality.
"Over 800 million people are still suffering from malnutrition and hunger. We must find solutions... so that we no longer see side by side people very poor and people living in luxury. Such contrast between poverty and wealth cannot be tolerated."
The conviction that hunger can be ended lies behind the FAO's call for the World Food Summit, the first major international gathering on world hunger since the 1974 conference at which US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger promised that no child would go to bed hungry in a decade.
Twenty years later, there are still hundreds of millions of people without enough to eat in a world of increasing abundance.
uP To 840 million
people, 200 million of them children, go to bed hungry every night in the developing world, says the FAO. They are not dying of famine an absolute lack of food as the television images so familiar to British viewers suggest, but they are dying of hunger nonetheless.
Of the 6.6 million children who die of hunger-related causes each year, only a million actually starve. The rest, says the FAO, die of chronic malnutrition of food so insufficient that the body becomes weak and vulnerable to disease. Many people survive on less than 1,600 calories a day, less than half that consumed in Europe. Even the tiniest deficiency can kill. Up to half a million children go blind each year, two-thirds of whom later die, because they cannot get enough fresh fruits and vegetables to give them the Vitamin A they need.
Poverty is the single greatest cause of hunger, says the FAO. It says, moreover, that the hunger is needless. World food production has outstripped global population growth. And although world population growth, slated to rise by 70 per cent in the next 50 years, is the main cause of increased demand for food, it claims that production will keep pace. The problem is access to food for the poorest.
DR JACQUES Diouf, FAO DirectorGeneral, says that it is possible and necessary for world leaders to end this hunger. Whisked through the city streets, past the Colosseum and Forum, by carabinieri in cars with flashing blue lights, almost 200 heads of state and government ministers met from last Wednesday through Sunday to make this commitment.
At the plenary session on Wednesday, governments ratified the Rome Declaration affirming people's right to food and pledging their commitment to end hunger. The declaration set the target, to be met by the year 2015, of halving the number of the world's hungry.
They also put their names to a plan of action including a series of seven 'commitments' to take steps in their own countries to end hunger through investment in agriculture, trade liberation, support for women's education, research, sustainable agriculture and the provision of a stable, democratic and peaceful environment.
Speaking to the plenary, the British Overseas Development Minister Baroness Lynda Chalker said that the key was "alleviating poverty finding solutions to the food people need to survive so they can lead a decent life in dignity".
"Implementing the Plan of Action must be at the top of all our agendas not more summits," she said, noting that is was time to "put the words of Rome into effective action. There are more people dying of chronic malnutrition around the world than dying in Zaire." Twenty-two years after the World Food Conference, she said, "we must not fail the world's hungry again."
Bi.n. ABSENT from her speech was any mention of the UK Plan of Action. British overseas aid to help countries with the greatest levels of hunger and poverty has declined steadily to less than 0.03 per cent of GNP, well below the UN-recommended level of 0.07 per cent. Christian Aid's Clive Robinson says: "At a summit with only one target, and no new money on the table, we may have to wait until budget day to judge the real extent of Britain's commitment to the world's hungry."
The summit has alsd been criticised because the Rome Declaration and plan of action are non-binding, with any follow-up being voluntary. They have also been substan tially watered down, say aid agencies such as Christian Aid. Proposals to invest specified amounts in agricultural development, for instance, were removed after months of negotiation to finalise the documents.
Even as governments were publicly voting to ratify the Plan of Action, many were filing 'reservations' qualifying their support, although details have not yet been released about who is lodging them.
And there has been no new money pledged. Although the FAO is entrusted with the task of helping the world's 841 million hungry, its budget has just been cut, noted Jacques Diouf to less than what nine developed countries spend on dog and cat food in six days, and less than five per cent of what the inhabitants of one developed country spends each year on slimming products.
If developing countries spent 12 per cent less on military spending, calculates the FAO, moreover, they could pay for immunisation for children, provide safe water and primary health care for all, and eliminate severe malnutrition and halve moderate malnutrition.
"The words of Rome are excellent," said Clive Robinson, "hut the real commitments are scarce."