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close this bookOvercoming Global Hunger (WB)
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View the documentSpecial address - ending hunger: a global concern

Special address - ending hunger: a global concern

Boutros Boutros-Ghali

The topic of this conference should not be controversial. No one seriously disputes that hunger is an evil that should be eradicated. Nevertheless, hunger exists despite our consensus that it should not, and despite all our efforts Many famines still afflict our world, and in some parts of the world, whether harvests are good or bad, hundreds of millions cannot afford the food they need. Population trends raise the specter of an increase in hunger and malnutrition in the comming decades.

We are here to discuss what should be done. Before we can do that, we must be dear about the causes of hunger. Basically, there are three:

· Hunger that arises during a sudden crisis
· Endemic hunger that comes from poverty
· Hunger caused by an imbalance between population and food supply.

The world now produces enough food to feed its population. The problem is not simply technical. It is a political and social problem. It is a problem of access to food supplies, of distribution, and of entitlement. Above all, it is a problem of political will.

The most obvious manifestation of hunger comes with a sudden crisis, when large numbers of people are deprived of access to food. The crisis could be a drought or a flood, or it could be a military confrontation or a civil war.

Weather-related famines are not new, but because of population growth, many more people are affected today, and modern communications see to it that we are all made aware of each crisis more vividly than before. Many more countries today have the capacity to cope with weather related crises. India provides an example. There, an efficient system of early warning, drought relief, and food distribution has been established.

Southern Africa gives us the example of the famine that did not happen In 1992, when 18 million lives were at risk governments of the region mobilized their own resources for food and emergency aid, and the humanitarian program launched by the United Nations (UN) attracted timely support Tragedy was averted.

However, famines are not caused by natural disasters alone. They arise all too often from managed causes. War and civil unrest are the most common causes of large scale hunger in many of the humanitarian crises in which the United Nations is involved. Often entire populations are displaced from their homes or seek refuge in neighboring countries, and sometimes famine is used as a weapon in civil or ethnic conflict.

When populations are displaced or forced to flee, food production suffers. Military operations often target the most fertile areas of a country. They leave barren desert where once green fields and farms provided food for thousands. Once proud food producers crowd in makeshift camps awaiting international aid. However, aid is often stopped by the second scourge of war: attacks on ports and food collection centers, and on food relief workers themselves. In Somalia nearly half a million people, most of them children died because food relief was not able to reach them. United Nations food convoys, as well as those of nongovernmental organizations, were impeded by brutal gangs Anarchy reigned, and the weak suffered the most But today even the most unfair critic of the United Nations can testify to the fact: nobody dies of hunger in Somalia.

The second cause of hunger is endemic poverty. If hunger caused by crisis requires emergency relief, hunger caused by poverty should be the target of development efforts. Here a great deal has been achieved. Let us take heart from the fact that the number of hungry people in developing countries has been falling during the last fifteen years As a proportion of the world's population, fewer people are hungry today than at any other time in history. Except in Sub-Saharan Africa, nutritional trends have improved in all regions of the world.

This brings me to the third cause of hunger: an imbalance between food requirements and food production. Hunger is often the result of development models that tended to favor the urban economy and life style at the expense of the countryside and agricultural production. In some cases, the priority given to the production of export crops to generate hard currency caused food production to decline Because of falls in commodity prices and the resulting decline in export revenues, many countries are now vulnerable to food shortages and crises.

The answer is to raise agricultural productivity Farmers should be given the incentive to invest in food production However, attempts to raise production at all costs may be counterproductive. In many countries food production is endangered because of damage to the environment Land degradation, water scarcity, and a growing vulnerability to stress are real threats to food security Agricultural development should therefore be sustainable.

Careful attention should be paid to the market for food, and hence to the price of food Economic reform, which includes the removal of bureaucratic pricing mechanisms, is necessary In the short to medium term, however, the result can be prices higher than most people can afford. When this happens, hunger and malnutrition may appear among lower-income groups Adequate safety nets for the poor are, therefore, an essential component of any economic reform program.

Hunger is a global issue Its existence violates that most basic of human rights, the right to survival, and it is our responsibility as an international community to guarantee that right The United Nations is central to this task because the solutions must be comprehensive. Food security requires an across-the-board effort Its political, social, economic, and technological factors must ale be involved and integrated. Above all, food security must be guided by a political consensus on the need for action, as well as on its nature and scope.

Often, in responding to hunger the dividing lines between relief and development work have become blurred. Some agencies are involved on both sides, others only on one. The General Assembly, in its Resolution 47/150 of March 31, 1993, dealt with the issue of coordination. It affirmed the critical importance of establishing the most effective arrangements for managing and coordinating the UN response to world food and hunger problems. Within the United Nations Secretariat the responsibility for coordinating work on humanitarian crises rests with the Department of Humanitarian Affairs; responsibility for developing policy and coordinating action on poverty, hunger, and malnutrition rests with the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development.

In situations of humanitarian crisis, the United Nations system has responded to some of the worst manifestations of hunger in recent years The World Food Programme (WFP), the High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), and the World Health Organization are involved in this effort I pay tribute to the dedicated men and women who work for the relief of hunger, often risking their own lives.

To attack endemic hunger, we must address its underlying causes The real answer to hunger lies in measures to eradicate poverty. The system is therefore targeting endemic poverty, low agricultural productivity, and deficiencies in food production and distribution. The FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the UNDP, and UNICEF, among others, are working to these ends World Bank lending for agriculture and rural development, for antipoverty programs, and for social development plays a central role.

The World Food Programme the food aid organization of the United Nations—provides relief food aid to victims of natural and man-made disasters It also supplies food aid in support of development in general. During the past three decades, the WFP has invested approximately US$13 billion, which included more than 40 million tonnes of food, to combat hunger and promote economic and social development The WFP now handles more than one-quarter of all food aid moved globally Most of the food is donated by industrial nations or is purchased from developing countries. WFP assistance is specifically targeted to projects assisting the poorest people in the poorest countries, with the objective of long-term improvement in their lives, but the balance between development and emergency assistance has altered considerably in the past three years as conflict and civil strife have increased throughout the world.

The United Nations Development Program is following an integrated approach to hunger The UNDP seeks to address all aspects of development that have a bearing on food and hunger These include providing drought relief, helping in disaster mitigation, halting desertification, tackling crop disease, promoting agricultural self-reliance, and improving the infrastructure required to move farm products to the people The focus of the UNDP's work is on building national capacities in all these areas.

UNICEF is another major actor in this sphere At the World Summit for Children in 1990, heads of state and government made important pledges They accepted far-reaching goals, to be achieved by the end of this decade, to reduce hunger drastically and to mitigate its impact on children's nutrition The world's children are the world's future Today, UNICEF is carrying those goals forward through its three way concept household food security, the health environment and health services, and care for the well-being of the next generation.

From the experience of the past and the improved study of the present, some lessons emerge:

Coordination at the field level and at head quarters is of the essence. The need for coordination is particularly acute where relief operations are conducted in conflict situations. Hunger relief efforts must have safe access to populations in need.

· Methods of relief delivery must take into account the need to ensure a continuum from relief to rehabilitation, reconstruction, and development.

· Hunger is not a single, uniform scourge. Several types of hunger can be identified. One solution will not solve them all, but all of them are easier to pursue in a growing economy

· Although economic growth is necessary to eradicate hunger, it is not sufficient-. Greater attention to poverty alleviation, health, education, and human fertility is necessary. If solutions are not to produce added hardships, taking the social factor into account is essential

· Many problems of hunger, including famine, require building sound institutions particularly at the community level—for food production, storage, and distribution. Food security at the household level must therefore become a guiding principle for agricultural policies and antipoverty programs

· Action must be taken in good time All too often the international community has reacted at a very late stage, when a famine has reached catastrophic proportions. Similarly, malnutrition can be swiftly reversed by targeting aid toward vulnerable groups: children, women, and the aged.

Today, some 800 million people suffer from insufficient or poor nutrition We have the experience and the resources to feed them all We do not always have the political will to do so. However, I am most encouraged that the political will is emerging. I have just received a letter from President Carlos Menem of Argentina He suggests setting up an international volunteer corps for the fight against hunger [his is certainly an initiative that merits serious consideration.

Economic growth and prosperity will help eradicate hunger

Peace and stability will help eradicate hunger. Institution building will help eradicate hunger Targeting assistance will help eradicate hunger Sustainable development policies will help eradicate hunger.

We have the understanding' we have the means, we have the tools to remove the shame of hunger from the world. with political will we can' together, do so.