28 October 2005

"Special Event" of UN Economic and Social Council Is Told Hunger Transcends All Main Causes of Loss of Lives in Africa

Enormity of Challenges Outlined; Experts Offer Insights on Likely Solutions, including More Aid, Improved Self-Governance

NEW YORK, 27 October (UN Headquarters) -- Globally, hunger claimed more lives than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined, a special event organized by the United Nations Economic and Social Council to identify the approaches urgently needed to mitigate Africa's perennial food crises was told this morning.

Representatives of the United Nations food-related agencies and departments told the gathering that a lethal mixture of recurring drought, the impact of AIDS, and weakened capacity for governance was contributing to the current food crisis.  They underscored the enormity of the challenges facing Africa and offered insights for solutions from their particular vantage points.

Opening the discussions, Munir Akram (Pakistan), President of the Economic and Social Council, said hunger was the desperate and degrading aspect of poverty; it represented the most serious humanitarian crisis in Africa today.  Chronic food insecurity and the increasing number of emergency food crises remained a critical challenge to survival and to the realization of long-term development goals.

Simeon A. Adekanye (Nigeria), who is Chairman of the Heads of State Implementation Committee of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD)  -- speaking also for the African Union -- said that whatever the underlying factors of the African food crises might be, the continent was in dire need of food to meet immediate and long-term challenges.  A targeted and integrated response would be required to deal comprehensively and effectively with the food crises, he added.

The President of the Council announced that the next special event would be on the "Avian Flu" and would take place next Thursday, 3 November.

Those also taking part today were the President of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson (Sweden); James T. Morris, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP); Lennart Båge, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); Henri Carsalade, Assistant-Secretary-General, Technical Cooperation Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); Mark Bowden, Chief of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; and Julie Howard, Executive Director of Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa.


MUNIR AKRAM (Pakistan), President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), opening the discussions, gave a snapshot of the vastness of the tragedy facing Africa.  Quoting the FAO, he said that since 1998 there had been approximately 20 food emergency cases every year in Africa.  In sub-Saharan Africa, there were currently 24 countries facing significant food shortages, affecting close to 35 million people.  In southern Africa, as many as 12 million people were in need of immediate emergency food following a poor cereal harvest this year.  Malnutrition was another huge threat.  The WFP had estimated that over 45 per cent of the undernourished population in Africa was under 15 years old.  If the desperate and recurring situation was not addressed, the realization of the Millennium Development Goals in a timely manner would remain an unattainable mirage.

He recalled that the recent 2005 World Summit had called upon the Council to support and complement international efforts to address humanitarian emergencies.  The Summit also called on ECOSOC to develop the ability to "respond better and more rapidly to developments in the international economic, environmental and social fields".

JAN ELIASSON (Sweden), President of the General Assembly, said the international community was still not good enough in providing emergency assistance when it was needed.  He said an average of just 16 per cent of funds for "flash appeals" were provided during the vital first month of a crisis.  There were still too many countries needing much more help to find long-term structural solutions to their food insecurity.  There was need to help countries move away from dependence on food aid.  African leadership was vital in that, he said, adding that he was encouraged to see the increasing momentum behind the NEPAD Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme this year.  The timely ECOSOC session was an important contribution to tackling the many challenges ahead.

SIMEON A. ADEKANYE (Nigeria), speaking for the African Union, said solutions for Africa's problems were, regrettably, not within its grasp.  Across the continent there were pockets of food crises attributable to different factors, some of which were natural, while others were induced.  Whatever the underlying factors might be, he said Africa was in dire need of food to meet immediate and long-term challenges.  A targeted and integrated response would be required to deal comprehensively and effectively with the food crises in Africa.  The priorities and projects identified by NEPAD should be implemented without delay.  The Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme, if fully implemented, would usher in the much-needed "green revolution" required to rid Africa of the scourge of hunger.  Similarly, he said, there should be concrete action to address the challenges of health, education, capacity-building, strengthening of institutions, as well as assuring Africa of market access for its products.

He said African Governments were committed to allocating at least 10 per cent of their annual budgets to agricultural development.  Africa was determined to carry through with its commitment to promote good governance, accountability and transparency in the management of its resources and institutions, and, more important, to protect human rights and the rule of law.  Africa's external debt problems must be addressed, pledges of support must be fulfilled, and other urgent steps must be taken to ensure assistance for investments in early warning systems.

"Today our loss reached 2.1 million -- that is the number of young children who have died this year of hunger and related diseases in Africa", said James Morris, Executive Director of the WFP.  One African in three lived in the shadow of hunger.  The WFP was struggling to feed 43 million hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa -- double the number from 1995.

While Africans at war got far more attention than Africans at peace, more than nine out of 10 deaths from hunger and malnutrition occurred among the chronically hungry, not in a conflict zone, he said.

MARK BOWDEN, Chief of Policy Development Branch at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, noted that only a fraction of the millions who died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were killed from violence.  Today, three quarters of the population there were undernourished.  Humanitarian crises often overshadowed the chronic food insecurity in many countries.

He called for investments in early warning systems and contingency planning, and also rapid response mechanisms, saying that prompt responses to crises not only saved lives, they were cost-effective, as well.  He also recommended that encouragement and support be given to Africa's own efforts to reduce disaster risks and build up its existing capacity to address vulnerabilities.

The world should not give into pessimism over Africa; it could become a famine-proof region if the right attention and resources were devoted to it, speakers stressed.

The FAO and IFAD advocated a two-pronged approach of immediate relief assistance and greater long-term investments in the agricultural sector to build food security and eradicate rural poverty.

LENNART BAGE, President of IFAD, said, "One of the reasons why Africa's development has been disappointing and the effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals is not on track is the failure, over many years, to give agricultural and rural development the resources and the attention they merit."  He added that if the recent initiatives on the agricultural trade regime led to a successful outcome of the Doha Round, the prospects for Africa would improve greatly.

HENRY CARSALADE, Assistant Director-General, Technical Cooperation Department of the FAO, said the organization was working with countries to tackle the root causes of the food crises and chronic food insecurity.  There were currently 24 countries in sub-Saharan Africa facing significant food shortages, affecting 35 million people.  Successful projects in the past attested to the impact that investments in agricultural and rural programmes had on helping people manage food insecurity and, hopefully, eventually to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger.

JULIE HOWARD, Executive Director of the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa, an independent United States-Africa coalition, noted that 70 per cent of Africa's population lived and worked in rural areas, and said there was a large gap between the policy-level embrace of agriculture-led economic growth in Africa and the actual investments to make it happen.  Levels of growth-oriented assistance lagged badly behind recent increases in assistance for health and education.  While increased expenditures for health and education were important, agricultural development could not be allowed to drop off the radar screen.  Food, health and education were all high priorities and highly interdependent.  "Without adequate food", she said, "people will never be healthy and children will not be prepared to learn.  And without growing their rural economies, African nations will always be reliant on external assistance to sustain their health and education systems."  She drew attention to the recommendations of the March 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness as a way of changing practices to make aid more effective.

Interactive Debate

In the interactive debate that followed the statements by the principal speakers, the representative of the United Kingdom, speaking for the European Union, said the food crisis in Africa was getting worse and not better.  The European Union believed efforts should be made to prevent the crisis in Africa.  African Governments should be given increased support to tackle the cause of the continent's food crises.  He stressed the need for safety nets.  The European Union was supporting new approaches and initiatives, such as improvements in land policy, agricultural inputs and early warning systems.  The European Union was working with the African Union to improve conflict-resolution mechanisms.

The representative of the European Community also outlined the assistance the community was giving African States to help mitigate their economic problems.  He stressed the importance of aid coordination.  He said developing countries should be helped to meet their own food needs.  He said about half of the development assistance of the European Community to the developing world went to Africa.

The representative of Malawi, one of the African countries currently facing severe food shortages, gave an overview of the situation.  He said the country was experiencing the worse food crisis ever, which had put more than half of the population at risk.  They needed food aid.  To demonstrate their own attempts to help themselves, he said a "Nation Fund" had been established so that citizens could contribute towards meeting the crisis.  Donor support was invaluable in many areas, including water resources development.

Speaking on behalf of the "Group of 77" developing countries and China, the representative of Jamaica said the topic of the session was timely, since the food crisis was a recurring issue.  He recalled a similar forum which had been recently organized by the Group at which it had been stated that the Millennium Development Goals could not be achieved unless the food security question was addressed.  Food was fundamental to development, he said.  He also spoke about the importance of finding solutions to the problem of post-harvest losses in many developing countries, and stressed the need for research in that area.

The representatives of Mozambique and Namibia also spoke about their current food situations.  The representative of Mozambique said her country faced a fourth successive year of drought.  An appeal for help had been launched by the Government.  The food crisis combined with HIV/AIDS meant the country needed more  assistance.  Namibia's delegate said African countries were seriously tackling their economic problems.  The NEPAD was leading the efforts to get African Governments to focus on agricultural programmes.  Foreign investments were required.  He wondered why the international community was not more responsive to African needs.  Namibia remained vulnerable to natural disasters and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, he said.  He appealed to donors for more support to African programmes.

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