A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
There is enough food grown in the world for everyone. And yet we remain stuck in a food crisis. Half the world’s food is lost as waste and a billion people – one in every six of the world’s poorest – cannot access enough of the other half and so go hungry every day. Our leaders have another chance to put that right.
Next month at the UN World Food Summit in Rome they will talk about ending world hunger. How are they doing? Not very well. The Millennium Development Goal to halve hunger by 2015 will be missed without more action – and now a new pledge will be tabled to eradicate it totally by 2025.
To do so, leaders must concentrate on helping poor farmers who have been left to fend for themselves on the front-line of hunger, poverty and climate change. Three out of every four poor people depend on agriculture, so that is where global poverty must be tackled. In addition, small-scale farmers hold the key to increasing global food production in a sustainable way that could cope with climate change. The script is pretty straightforward.
All countries must invest more in small-scale agriculture, particularly to women who play a vital role in food security, yet who have less access to land and services and tend to lack political voice. Rich countries must increase their agricultural aid to at least $20 billion a year; it hovers now around 4% of overseas development assistance, just under $6 billion. Developing countries must commit more of their national budgets. African countries, for instance, have promised 10% of their budgets to agriculture. Vietnam invested heavily in its farming sector when it looked for economic growth and food security, and in 12 years turned itself from a country that had to import much of its food to be a major exporter. Last year poverty in Vietnam fell to below 15 per cent compared with 58 per cent in 1979.
This year’s G8 summit pledged $20 billion over three years to poor farmers and consumers. This sounds generous but it equates to just $2 per hungry person per year. Many donors want to move this money around quickly without excessive red-tape. The L’Aquila initiative, the outcome of G8 and G20 summits, and the special meeting by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the UN General Assembly all suggest a renewed concern about the food crisis. This is laudable.
However, the problem of hunger and poverty in a climate-changing world will not be solved simply by throwing more money at fertilizer, higher-yielding seeds and big irrigation schemes. These things are important but are not always sustainable or what small-scale farmers actually need. We cannot maintain increased food productivity in a low-carbon and resource-scarce world simply by further intensifying today’s farming industry. Agriculture needs to be rebuilt along entirely different lines and poor farmers and countries made central to that change. Countries must invest in farmer-driven extension schemes and social safety nets to help the poorest people to buy food locally from small-scale farmers and traders.
Meanwhile, climate change is already causing massive shifts in seasonal growing patterns, especially in the tropics where most poor people live and farm. Agriculture contributes 14% to global carbon emissions, therefore changing the way that farmers use their lands and forests will be important in how we cut emissions and help people to cope to climate harm. Poor farmers must not be left bearing the costs of these changes, which is why climate finance is such a deal-breaker at December’s climate change talks in Copenhagen.
Along with more investment, we need better checks on “boom-and-bust” speculation in food and fuel markets. Countries should settle an improved WTO deal that does more to correct the rigged rules and double standards in global agricultural trade. We need new information systems and technologies that are appropriate to female small-scale farmers, and to regulate companies to ensure their value chains work in the interests of global prosperity and safety. Developing countries must be in charge of their own policies to promote sustainable local production and consumption, and to access the export dollar.
The World Food Summit must hold all governments to their promises. We need an International Public Register of Commitments to monitor every country’s commitments and what they have delivered.
Finally, we need a new global partnership that can capture the power of the G8, guarantee the participation of poor country governments and civil society, develop global policies and coordinate the mish-mash of powerful influences on global agriculture that are now held by various UN agencies, the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO and others. The UN Secretary-General should take leadership and develop a global plan of action for all, with the UN Committee on World Food Security playing a key policy-making role.
This summit will run for two-and-a-half days, during which time 60,000 people will have died from hunger-related causes, 70% of them children. That alone should be enough to focus leaders’ attention on doing the right things.
Oxfam International Executive Director