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Rome, March 15 -- Six international organizations will join in the largest-ever cooperative effort to improve sustainable food production and promote food security in Africa, according to a joint announcement made today. Participating in the effort are: the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Meteorological Organization.

The announcement comes in support of the United Nations System-wide Special Initiative on Africa launched today by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn. The initiative will be based on new modes of cooperation, not on the creation of new institutions, UN sources say.

A major thrust of the Special Initiative on Africa will be to increase food security on the continent. More than six UN-system agencies were involved in preparing the food security segment of the initiative under the chairmanship of FAO. This segment will include: land degradation and desertification control, soil quality improvement, water for food production, increasing emphasis on the importance of women in providing food security and support for sustainable livelihoods in environmentally marginal areas. Attention will be paid to problems of current hunger as well as the long-term food needs of the continent.

A report prepared for the launch of the special initiative said: "Africa, which was a net food exporter, has become a net importer since the early 1960s. Per capita food production has declined because the population has been growing faster at an average of 3 per cent per annum than food production, which has been increasing at an average rate of 2 per cent per annum."

According to the report, "The causes of slow growth in food production include political instability and civil wars, low priority to agriculture in general and food production in particular, which receives around 10 percent of government's public spending, the low status of women who produce the bulk of food, and land degradation, droughts and desertification. The capacity to import the balance to meet total food requirements has been constrained by the external debt problem."

"Since the 1970s, African economies have performed poorly. Unemployment has increased drastically. Consequently, a large share of the African population has become absolutely poor...Forty percent of the population does not have enough food. Hunger and undernutrition are widespread, particularly among children and women. The number of undernourished has nearly doubled from around 100 million to nearly 200 million since the late 1960s. The incidence of food insecurity is more severe in rural areas where 90 percent of Africa's poor live."

Inadequate access to safe drinking water further exacerbates the poor nutritional status of women and children because they have to walk long distances every day to collect water. This time consuming chore also limits both the time women have to care for their children and to work in income generating activities such as community farming. The need for household water is often in direct competition with the need for water to use in small scale food production.

Africa's overall food problems will figure prominently in the World Food Summit convened by FAO for November 1996, the first meeting of Heads of State or Government exclusively on food security.

The UN System-wide Special Initiative on Africa will strengthen efforts expected to emerge from the Summit, which will meet at FAO Headquarters in Rome to renew the commitment of world leaders at the highest level to the eradication of hunger and malnutrition and the achievement of food security for all, through the adoption of concerted policies and actions at global, regional and national levels.

FAO's mission in Africa is to help Member States improve their agricultural production in order to alleviate hunger, improve nutrition, enhance food security and ensure that food and agriculture play as broad and sustainable a role as possible in the social and economic development of the population. The FAO Special Programme on Food Production in Support of Food Security in Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries promotes food self-reliance in poor countries dependent on food imports. There are 44 such countries in Africa. The Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal and Plant Pests and Diseases -- another FAO programme -- initially focused on the desert locust and rinderpest, two especially virulent scourges in Africa.

In 1995, more than 50 percent of WFP's global food resources were dedicated to development and relief work in sub-Saharan Africa.

Collaborative UN action under the initiative will seek to halt desertification through land degradation control, promoting the widespread adoption of low cost and effective technologies for water harvesting and soil and water conservation. The effort will build on improved versions of traditional systems. The initiative also aims to assist African institutions in the implementation of the Convention to Combat Desertification and the decisions emanating from the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

In order to identify ways and means to support concrete action on the ground, IFAD and the Interim Secretariat of the Convention to combat Desertification, in close collaboration with FAO, will convene in June 1996 an International Forum on Local Area Development Programmes in the implementation of the Convention.

According to the report, support will be mobilized for actions on integrated plant nutrition systems and related improvements in soil conditions. This will necessitate monitoring the soil-plant system for environment preservation and sustainability of soil fertility. To this effect, collaborative efforts are being made to apply advanced technologies within the framework of the Special Programme on Food Production in Support of Food Security in Low Income Food Deficit Countries. Pilot cross-sectoral investments will be undertaken in selected countries to strengthen the availability at reasonable price and delivery of fertilizers.

With water shortages recorded regularly in a growing number of countries in Africa, the Special Initiative will also focus on improving management of available water resources used in food production.

National water resources development and irrigation policies and strategies will be reviewed and where necessary reformed. National information and monitoring systems on natural resources development would be established, farmers would be encouraged to adopt appropriate technologies and management practices to increase water use efficiency, and governments would be encouraged to introduce economic incentives and other institutional measures. According to the report, this will be accomplished through dissemination of publications and guidelines, training manuals, pilot projects in the field, formulating and implementing water pricing policies and encouraging the transfer of water management responsibilities to farmers.

The special initiative will also "support government efforts to reform the laws that have facilitated the subordination of women," said the report. "Activities will focus on reviewing existing laws and practices and how they have disadvantaged women, and supporting efforts aimed at the enactment of laws and changes of practices to empower women regarding land ownership, access to credit, technology, extension services, etc., all of them designed to improve their productivity, incomes and, in turn, eradicate their poverty which has been one of the main causes and consequence of food insecurity and environmental degradation."

The initiative also "aims at sharing knowledge at the local, national and international levels to formulate policies and develop community-based action leading to sustainable livelihoods in environmentally marginal areas."

Governments will be taking the lead role in assessing and implementing the majority of activities, say UN officials, while the UN role will be one of capacity building, strengthening and financial support. The overall aim of the Special initiative is to ensure that Africa is much more able to nurture its own food security in the 21st Century.