UN hunger summit a waste of time, Britain says

Crispian Balmer in Rome cbalmer@scotsman.com

The Scotsman www.scotsman.com

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June 12, 2002

BRITAIN has condemned a United Nationsí World Food Summit as a waste of time and said the international body would have to get its act together if it was serious about reducing global hunger.

Yesterday's broadside followed UN dismay at the failure of top world leaders to attend this week's summit, which was called to to urge governments to honour a 1996 pledge to halve world hunger by 2015.

While dozens of developing world leaders have poured into Rome for the conference, most wealthy Western countries only sent their agriculture ministers. Britain did not even do that, only dispatching a junior official to watch proceedings.

"I'm not sending a minister because I don't expect it to be an effective summit," said Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, laying into the UNís Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

"It's an old-fashioned UN organisation and it needs improvement," she said in an interview with BBC radio in London on the second day of the four-day UN meeting.

UN officials said Western powers did not send top level delegations because they were indifferent to the hunger issue.

But summit's standing has not been helped by the appearance of Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwe president, demanding help to deal with rising hunger while brazenly ignoring the impact of his own regime's assault on commercial farms.

The FAO hopes the Rome gathering will encourage wealthy nations to open the purse strings and work harder to cut the number of hungry people to 400 million by 2015 from today's estimated figure of 800 million.

But while delegates renewed their pledges to this goal, they have failed to old arguments over how to go about it.

A senior UN official urged leaders yesterday to stop talking about hunger and start fighting it, warning that up to 13 million people faced starvation in southern Africa without emergency food aid.

"This crisis, coinciding as it does with the summit, challenges us right now to demonstrate to those suffering across the region that we will not forget them," said James Morris, head of the UN aid agency, the World Food Programme (WFP).

The WFP says a mix of drought, poor government and the AIDS pandemic has wrought havoc with harvests in six African countries. "This is the largest single food crisis in the world today," Mr. Morris told a news conference.

He added that the best and cheapest way of tackling the problem of global hunger was to target the estimated 300 million children who go to bed each night underfed.

"We can feed a child in school for 19 US cents [13p] a day. For a very small investment we can change a child's life," he said.

Ms. Short said, by contrast, that if the UN body improved food management in developing nations the hunger problem would ease, arguing that many hungry people lived in countries that had enough food.

"The FAO needs to tighten up its act," she said.

The results of the Rome summit will go forward to the agenda of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August, dubbed "Earth Summit Two."

But the failure last week to agree to a draft action plan for the South African event only added to skepticism over grand gatherings where actions rarely seem to live up to the ideals.

Led by Cuba, developing countries yesterday demanded greater access to international markets and an end to export subsidies in rich countries, saying free, fairer trade was the only way to end hunger.

They called on the United States, the EU and other exporting nations to give poor farmers a chance.

"We are poor. You are rich. Level the playing field!" said Teofisto Guingona, foreign minister of the Philippines.

"Do not impose subsidies for exports. Do not dump products that kill our farmers and fisherfolks," he said. "Do not in the name of free trade deny us time to integrate our resources, and deny us access to your rich markets."

The issue of freer markets has dominated the summit's official agenda. The EU pushed for the summit to consider food a human right. Despite Ms. Short's approach, several EU leaders have acknowledged that high export subsidies, in the EU and elsewhere, were part of the world's hunger problem.