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SCANSANO, Italia, Nov 10 2009 (IPS) - It is scandalous that in a world of ample food supplies, over one billion people face constant hunger -and the number is still rising. What makes matters worse is that we know how to end hunger, and yet few governments are doing so.

Brazil’s Zero Hunger programme shows that it is possible to make very rapid progress towards eliminating hunger and malnutrition.

While the world committed itself to halving hunger by 2015, Brazil set out to eradicate it as quickly as possible. The halving target condemns millions to a lifetime of utter misery, ill-health, and social exclusion. Going for eradication creates a sense of urgency and triggers immediate action.

From his first day in office in January 2003, President Lula made hunger eradication his top priority. The full impact of Zero Hunger will only be felt when today’s children grow up. But there are already many signs that it is moving in the right direction. Brazil tops the list in ActionAid International’s recent scorecard of countries fighting hunger. It is not only improving nutrition on a vast scale but also stimulating economic growth where it is most needed, in the poorest corners of the country. And it is enabling millions of Brazilians to begin to play their full part in the life of their nation.

In just 6 years, infant mortality fell by 73 percent and the number of people in extreme poverty dropped by 48 percent.

Brazil’s success shows what can be done by combining strong political commitment to an unambiguous goal; institutional reforms that lead central, state, and local governments to work together within a common strategy; and the full engagement of civil society.

Zero Hunger balances immediate measures to relieve suffering with fundamental reforms to address the underlying reasons for people being hungry in the first place. Lasting solutions are based on the formal recognition of the human right to food. They involve managing the economy more equitably, improving income distribution, broadening employment opportunities, raising minimum wages, and enabling more people to have access to land.

Zero Hunger, however, also recognises that, as in many other countries, the immediate cause of hunger is not lack of food. It is the fact that, even when economic growth is strong, many families simply cannot buy it. This recognition led to launching a monthly cash transfer programme that enables almost 12 million of the country’s poorest families to buy the food they need for a healthy life. By linking these grants to children’s school attendance and regular health checks, it ensures that the young are better fed, educated and healthy. An expanded school meals programme reinforces these effects.

Brazil is showing how the twin-track approach to hunger reduction, recommended by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), can be put into practice. It calls pairing immediate measures to improve access to food with an expansion in food output, especially by small-scale farmers. The increased demand for food stimulated by cash transfers is expanding markets for the output of Brazil’s family farmers, including the million who have benefited from land reform and are themselves vulnerable to food insecurity.

This support for small-scale farming is reinforced by targeted credit programmes and by state-run food procurement for emergency and institutional feeding programmes.

Zero Hunger demonstrates the vital role that direct action against hunger can play in reducing poverty and increasing the resilience of the poor to shocks. This has been very evident during the current economic crisis. Zero Hunger has enabled almost all Brazilians to enjoy a guaranteed income and access to essential food. It has also helped to sustain domestic consumption levels, which is one of the reasons why Brazil was able to overcome the crisis more quickly than many other countries.

The World Summit on Food Security, convened by FAO in Rome from November 16-18, will provide an opportunity for all governments to follow Brazil’s example and commit themselves to eradicating hunger -for once and forever.

In the last two Food Summits, in 1996 and 2002, heads of state made bold promises, but most have failed miserably to deliver on their commitments. Hopefully this time, when the presidents, queens, kings and prime ministers go home, they will, like Lula, launch their own Zero Hunger programmes and help other countries to do likewise.

But history suggests that unless their people demand urgent action on hunger, many leaders will forget their pledges. There is thus a need for a global campaign built on growing popular understanding of the scandal of hunger and malnutrition to galvanise leaders to declare their commitment publicly and agree to be held accountable.

If they do, the world will be a better -and safer- place for all. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Andrew MacMillan, rural economist and former Director of the Field Operations Divison of FAO.

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