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Food Crisis Will Need Increasing Aid For Some Time

ECOSOC/6364

Economic and Social Council
2008 Substantive Session
33rd Meeting (AM)

Current global food crisis will require increasing amounts of humanitarian assistance for some time to come, Economic and Social Council told

Council Suspends Three-Day Humanitarian Segment, As Panel Addresses 'Humanitarian Challenges Related to Global Food Aid'

The current global food crisis would require increasing amounts of humanitarian assistance for some time to come, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs told the Economic and Social Council today during a panel discussion on humanitarian challenges related to global food aid.

Following the discussion, the Council suspended its humanitarian affairs segment, expecting to reconvene and take action on a draft resolution related to humanitarian affairs before the conclusion of this year's substantive session on 25 June.

Moderating the panel, which was entitled 'Humanitarian challenges related to global food aid, including enhancing international efforts and cooperation in this field', John Holmes, who is also Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the world faced not just a food price crisis, but 'a food production crisis, a food aid crisis and a food security crisis'. Those interlinked problems had to be tackled comprehensively, both to meet immediate hunger needs and to address the crises' deeper roots.

To be effective, the response needed to extend beyond traditional humanitarian boundaries, by targeting nutrition, agricultural development, health and livelihoods in addition to food aid, he said. It was also becoming clear as information on the severe and growing hunger among the poor became available, that the international community needed to act immediately, with urgency and in concert to have the right effects.

Opening the discussion, Council Vice-President Park In-kook of the Republic of Korea said the large increase in the prices of food and fuel were having a devastating impact on food security worldwide, resulting in the most acute global food security crisis of the past few decades. The humanitarian implications of that crisis were far-reaching as food-related unrest swept across many countries, growing food insecurity undermined gains made in nutrition, health and education, and the cost of humanitarian assistance -- particularly food aid -- became markedly more expensive.

The panel featured the participation of Ismat Jahan, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations; John M. Powell, Deputy Executive Director, World Food Programme (WFP); Louise Cord, Sector Manager, Poverty Reduction Group, World Bank; Jama Gulaid, Representative of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Swaziland; and Jim Butler, Deputy Director-General, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

'The starting point for this conversation is hunger,' said Mr. Powell, who added that skyrocketing food prices threatened to push a further 100 million already vulnerable people below the poverty line. He also stressed that most of those people did not live -- or die -- in situations that were commonly referred to as 'humanitarian crises'. Rather, they lived in situations described as 'development'.

'If you are hungry and desperate and there is a flood, drought or civil conflict, then the international community is there; if you are merely hungry and desperate, we may not be,' he said. Sadly, hunger and its pernicious effects did not follow the international community's orderly definitions.

He said that the global food and fuel crises, combined with natural and man-made disasters had had a 'layering effect,' resulting in unprecedented needs that would require new tools to deal with the attendant hunger and poverty challenges. WFP was using the 'opportunities' provided by the parallel crises to launch broad scale responses to meet the food and nutritional assistance needs for populations that were overwhelmingly made up of women and children.

Last month, the agency's board had approved a strategic plan that included a more robust and nuanced set of tools to address hunger, while recognizing that, in many situations, like in Sudan's vast western Darfur region, the provision of food in the form of commodities might be the more appropriate response. WFP was also launching a pilot programme, Purchase-for-Progress, designed to connect small farmers to markets.

It was also going to reach out to new partners, especially since funding needs were tremendous -- WFP's emergency requirements alone had doubled in 2008 from $3 billion to $6 billion. 'The basis of humanitarianism is changing and humanitarian assistance must change with it,' he said, stressing that, in a globalized world, the response must try and leverage humanitarian assistance to promote economic development.

Mr. Butler said it was important to recognize that the soaring food prices were also being affected by spiralling transportation, livestock feed and agricultural production costs. In addition, over the past 18 months, prices for fertilizer and seeds had jumped 98 and 72 per cent, respectively.

To cope with those and other challenges in the short term, he said that coordinated action by the United Nations and other partners should aim to provide technical information, policy advice and economic analysis; help reduce losses by promoting better processing and storage techniques and facilities; and help diversify production and facilitate contracts with agricultural companies.

Looking ahead, he said, with the world population predicted to hit 9.2 billion by 2050, massive and unprecedented investment –- and cooperation -- to improve agricultural productivity and enhance livelihoods and food security in poor rural communities would been needed. Efforts to protect and conserve natural resources, focusing on plant and animal genetic resources, as well as fisheries, freshwater sources and forestry, would also have to be boosted.

Turning to the aggravating effect the energy crisis was having on the food crisis, Ms. Cord said that any integrated response to rising food prices had to factor in rising oil prices, which was a major driver behind growing macroeconomic disequilibria. While food price increases were a larger concern in terms of poverty at the household level, taken together, fuel and food prices were driving inflation up and restricting the options countries had to respond to widening hunger.

To date, the most popular Government responses to these twin crises had been market interventions, she said. But while they were easy to do and often politically expedient, over the long term they could be quite costly. For its part, the World Bank was looking to expand its funding for humanitarian assistance by providing resources to safety-net programmes. It was also extending 'smart' subsidies for small farmers, while projects that would expand irrigation and the use of higher-yield seeds, particularly in Africa, were being implemented. It was also increasing its overall lending for agriculture, agribusiness and social protection from $4 billion to $6 billion.

Moving forward, policies that had contributed to the crises should be re-examined, she said. Among others, the policy framework for biofuel production in developed and developing countries should be assessed, while coordination across key exporting and importing countries should be improved. The Bank was also building foundations of a better functioning international trading system to avoid recurrence of future crises.

Ms. Jahan said that the international community's intense focus on crafting immediate and long-term responses to the global food crisis was indeed welcome, especially to those living in the developing and least developed worlds, where decades of hard-earned socio-economic gains could be wiped out by soaring prices for grains and other basic commodities.

Moreover, she said, if price hikes persisted, there would be no counter-measure to minimize the adverse effects in many of those countries. Thus, it was imperative to look at policy options that facilitated timely import of rice and other grains, to maintain and bolster stocks and ensure food security for those living in abject poverty.

It was also crucial to address market distortions, including subsidies, tariffs and restrictive export measures. In addition, partners needed to expand food-related development aid, and immediate action was needed to develop efficient agricultural production across the developing world. Research and development, technology transfer and knowledge-sharing were also critically important. She added that proposals for the establishment of an international food bank and associated food fund should also be given more consideration.

Speaking on behalf of UNICEF in Swaziland, Mr. Gulaid said the country faced a 'triple threat' from recurrent drought conditions, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and escalating food prices.

Looking at those threats and the various efforts by the Government of Swaziland to meet them, he said it was clear that food prices were likely to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities, and there was a need to scale up the response to meet those additional vulnerabilities. To do that, national Government systems had to be strengthened and collaboration with the United Nations system and the donor community had to be enhanced. Nutrition security should be given sufficient attention within the scope of broader food security. Finally, a new paradigm to asses the compounding effect of slow-onset crisis such as the HIV epidemic, climate change and escalating food prices was urgently need.

For its part, UNICEF was also supporting and scaling up national programmes on health and nutrition through therapeutic feeding centres, child health days, efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and focusing on schools as centres of care and support, he said. It was also strengthening access to water, sanitation and hygiene systems. The potential use of cash transfers to ensure that children's basic needs were met was being explored.

During the discussion that followed, Economic and Social Council members and other participants expressed diverse concerns, including the need to increase the capacities of developing countries to not only produce more food, but to purchase more food and commodities from local or regional sources to ensure that supplies reached desperate populations in a more timely and predictable manner.

One speaker wondered if, with all the intense focus on rice and grains, humanitarian actors had missed the fact that worldwide fish stocks were also being rapidly depleted, which was a cause of great concern for small island and archipelagic States. He also asked if international actors were looking into ways to address political issues that had led to some of the social unrest sparked by the food and fuel crises. Others expressed concern about the need to raise agricultural production and explore more comprehensive and innovative social protection measures, especially if the food crisis persisted.

Responding to questions and comments, Mr. Holmes said there was widespread recognition that international institutions and national Governments had, for a long time, underestimated the importance of investing in agriculture. At the same time, however, while those failures and recent food-market price speculation had made the current situation worse, they were not the sole drivers of the current problems, which were rooted in dramatic changes and lingering imbalances in supply and demand, among other things.

On accessing local goods and services to cope with the food crisis, Mr. Powell said WFP had set up a few programmes, including in India, to buy locally grown micro-nutrient and vitamin-fortified foods. Those programmes not only met beneficiary needs in a timely manner, but also bolstered the local food production and markets. WFP would like to see such projects expanded more broadly. Calling again for similar agencies to pursue, and national Governments to support, more innovative and creative solutions, he noted that WFP was in the trial phase of a partnership initiative -- 'Sprinkles' –- that aimed to develop a vitamin mix that aid recipients could simply put on their foods to raise their nutritional value.

On capacity-building among small farmers, Ms. Jahan said it was important to keep them informed about market prices, among other things, because a lack of knowledge meant they might not gain from rising prices for agricultural products, with those profits going to middlemen instead. She also stressed that, while helpful in responding to events such as natural disasters, nutritional emergency feeding could not be part of a long-term response to sustained, widespread famine.

Responding to a question on social protection efforts, Ms. Cord underscored that social protection was becoming a bigger part of global response to food insecurity, as the vulnerabilities highlighted in today's discussion reinforced each other. She went on to say that, because today's high prices were part of a structural shift following the low prices of the 1990s and the ensuing lack of investment in agricultural sectors, they were expected to remain high through 2015.

Giving more details about UNICEF's response to the crisis, Mr. Gulaid stressed that, when children were malnourished, the composition of food aid was quite important to provide them with the right nutrients. He further emphasized that UNICEF preferred to work within Government systems, because working through and establishing parallel systems did not provide long-term benefits.

Mr. Butler said he hoped that today's panel had stimulated thoughts for tomorrow's General Assembly meeting on the Comprehensive Framework for Action developed by the Secretary-General's High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis. He added that current demands for food exceeded supply and that mismatch was a main driver of rising food prices. In addition, he stressed that private investment in agriculture was also increasing around the globe and it was essential for the private sector's efforts and goodwill to be harnessed by organizations like his.

Source: United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

For Information Media
Not An Official Record

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