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Food aid saves millions but world hunger lingers PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 03 June 2008

AP, ROME — Ferried in by helicopters and boats or loaded on the backs of yaks and elephants, massive amounts of food aid have reached millions of homeless or hungry people after disasters in the last few years.

But while the world rises to the challenge of saving those survivors from starvation, hundreds of millions go hungry from a catastrophe that has stubbornly lasted for decades: the failure of agriculture in much of Africa and some parts of Asia and Latin America to ensure enough food for their own.

World leaders convening in Rome on Tuesday to grapple with skyrocketing food prices will have to make progress on this problem if they want to eradicate chronic hunger, say U.N. experts, nonprofit aid groups and economists.

As the recent outpouring of nearly $1 billion to help the U.N. purchase emergency aid during the current food price crisis might show, the world can be more willing to take on dramatic emergencies than to invest in helping poor countries to feed themselves.

"What we've seen is we're getting better at emergencies, but getting worse at tackling chronic hunger," said Duncan Green, director of research at Oxfam, a British aid group.

"Even in 2006, which was a good food (harvest) year, 850 million people were hungry," said Raj Patel, a political economist who testified earlier this month before Congress about the food crisis. "It's part of a chronic crisis which has recently become acute" because of soaring prices.

Agricultural development "has gotten horrendously neglected," Oxfam's Green said in a telephone interview from England ahead of the June 3-5 U.N. summit in Rome.

"I'd say it's three decades of neglect," said Jim Butler, deputy director-general of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, which is hosting the summit. He said his agency will encourage aid to small farmers in the form of seed, feed, supplies, fertilizer and technology.

An internal report by the World Bank, which wealthy countries finance to help poor ones, concluded last year that the institution had long neglected farming in sub-Saharan Africa.

Congressional investigators said last week that African-bound food aid, particularly from the United States, has increasingly been sent for short-term emergencies rather than to help long-term agricultural development.

"We tend to deal with what is happening now, today, tomorrow or next week, and insufficient attention is given to more fundamental processes such as population growth, or the need to invest in agriculture research for people living in difficult environments," said Timothy Dyson, an expert in agriculture and famine issues at the London School of Economics.

Agricultural development aid dropped by one-half between 1980 and 2005, said another Oxfam official, Tricia O'Rourke.

In 2006, $4 billion was spent on agricultural development, a pittance compared to the $25 billion worldwide on subsidies to farmers by governments of developed countries eager to keep home products competitive, said O'Rourke.

Many argue that subsidiaries hurt small farmers abroad, since imported subsidized products compete for homegrown products in their countries, while proponents argue that subsidies will encourage more food for mouths worldwide.

Last week, the World Bank pledged to boost support for both agriculture and food aid. It calculates that food prices have increased by 83 percent over the last three years.

The dizzying escalation has been blamed on fuel hikes, changing diets, urbanization, expanding populations, climate change, bad weather, growth in biofuel production and speculation, as well as the legacy of flawed food policies.

The previous two decades saw pressures from international banks and governments in the developed world to get the state out of poor countries' economies.

"The argument was that the state institutions were inefficient, and the private sector would do it better," said Oxfam's Green. But "the private sector goes where it can make a decent profit" leaving out those "farmers in the middle of nowhere with no access to markets or roads."

Patel criticized U.S. policies of purchasing U.S.-produced food for disaster emergencies halfway around the globe instead of providing funds so poor nations can buy the aid food from their own struggling farmers.

"When the ship comes in loaded with grain from Kansas, that wipes out domestic agricultural production," said Patel in a phone interview from San Francisco.

U.S. lawmakers recently ignored an administration request to allow 25 percent of U.S. food aid funds to be used to purchase foreign supplies near crisis areas. Instead, congressional negotiators set up a small pilot program to allow for limited local foreign purchases using U.S. aid money.

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