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DEVELOPMENT: U.N. Bodies Under Fire for Food Crisis

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, May 5 2008 (IPS) - As the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) readies for a summit of world leaders next month, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Monday defended the Rome-based U.N. agency, which has come under fire for its failure to help meet the growing challenges of hunger worldwide.

The harshest attack came last week from Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who described the FAO as a "bottomless pit of money, largely spent on its own functioning, with very little effective operations on the ground."

Asked to respond, Ban told reporters Monday: "In view of the gravity and seriousness of the situation, I can understand and sympathise with the frustrations of many African leaders, including President Wade of Senegal."

"But I would like to underscore that since its founding in 1945, the FAO has been leading the international community's efforts to help promote the production and productivity (of food), and provide necessary humanitarian assistance to many people affected by food shortages," he added.

Wade said the FAO, headed by Jacques Diouf of Senegal, should be merged with another Rome-based U.N. agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), to establish a single mega agriculture body. Currently, some of the functions of the two U.N. agencies overlap.

If such a body is created, he said, it should be located in Africa, not in a Western capital.

Wade was also critical of the extravagance of U.N. agencies and humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs). He said they "will use (aid money) on all sort of tricks – administration, trips and costs of luxury hotels for so-called experts, instead of on concrete actions on the ground."

Meanwhile, there are several factors responsible for the food crisis, including the shortcomings of international organisations such as the FAO and other U.N. agencies, all of which failed to anticipate the gravity of the current disaster.

The World Bank, a sister institution of the United Nations, also has to share some of the blame for the current crisis because of declining funds for agricultural research over the years.

Asked about the under-sourcing for research, World Bank President Robert Zoellick admitted his institution's failure but also singled out the shortcomings of governments.

"Yes, you know the international community goes through various phases of things," he told reporters in Bern last week.

"The World Bank, and frankly the governments themselves, invested less in agriculture. We have a country-system based approach, where the countries are our clients and they decide where they focus it," Zoellick said. "So, as we ramped up things for HIV/AIDS and malaria and other projects, there was clearly an underinvestment in agriculture."

"I don't think it's really helpful to point fingers at this responsibility, that responsibility. The key question is, having recognised the need – and it's one that I focused on shortly after taking over the Bank – how do we try to deal with it at these various stages," he added.

The FAO hosted the first major World Conference on Food in Rome in 1974, which proclaimed that "every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop their physical and mental faculties."

The goals of the conference included the eradication of hunger, the need for food security and the reduction of malnutrition "within a decade". But the goals were never reached.

In November 1996, the FAO hosted another five-day World Food Summit, which adopted a Rome Declaration on World Food Security and a Plan of Action to eradicate or minimise global hunger.

The current crisis, not surprisingly, has triggered a third Food Summit, also in Rome from Jun. 3-5, where another elaborate plan is due to be unveiled by heads of state and governments.

Still, nearly 34 years after the first FAO conference – and dozens of U.N. resolutions and voluminous reports later – the developing world is facing another global food shortage, along with skyrocketing prices.

The price of rice alone – a staple in many Asian countries – rose to 980 dollars per metric tonne last week compared with 460 dollars in March.

Speaking at the launch of the annual FAO report in October 2006, Diouf said "promises are no substitute for food".

Calling on world leaders to honour their pledges, he said the 1996 World Food Summit promised to reduce the number of undernourished people by half by 2015.

Still, there were more hungry people in the developing countries – around 820 million today – than there were in 1996.

Far from decreasing, the number of hungry people in the world is currently increasing at the rate of four million a year, Diouf said.

The World Bank has estimated that already some 100 million people may have been pushed into poverty as a result of high prices.

At a meeting of 26 heads of U.N. agencies in Bern last week, the secretary-general identified multiple causes for the current food crisis, including escalating energy prices; lack of investment in agriculture over the past years; increasing demand for food; trade-distorting subsidies; and recurrent bad weather.

"This crisis has multiple effects, with its most serious impact on the most vulnerable in the poorest countries," Ban warned.

The secretary-general sourced the problem to "a dramatic escalation of food prices worldwide, which has evolved into what we believe is an unprecedented challenge of global proportions that has become a crisis for the most vulnerable."

"We see mounting hunger and increasing evidence of malnutrition, which has severely strained the capacities of humanitarian agencies to meet humanitarian needs, especially as promised funding has not yet materialised," he added.

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