On behalf of the Director-General of FAO, Jacques Diouf, my colleagues and on my own behalf, I have the special pleasure in welcoming you all to the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific for the commemoration of this year’s World Food Day.
This is a special venue. To quote from the plaque outside, unveiled by the then Prime Minister of Thailand on 16 October 1981, on the occasion of the first World Food Day:
"These buildings, provided through the generosity of the Royal Thai government, symbolize a universal commitment to the basic human right to adequate food – a precept enshrined in all living faiths of our world – so people everywhere may rise to more humane standards of living in dignity, justice and peace”.
We are especially honoured by the presence of Her Royal Highness, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, whose gracious presence amongst us is a testimony to her and the Kingdom of Thailand’s true commitment and inspiration to our collective fight against hunger.
FAO has chosen the Right to Food as its World Food Day theme this year to draw attention to this essential, yet often overlooked, human right. Eleven years ago, at the 1996 World Food Summit, Heads of State and Government reaffirmed “the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”. They urged FAO "to propose ways to implement and realize these rights as a means of achieving the commitments and objectives of the World Food Summit, taking into account the possibility of formulating voluntary guidelines for food security for all."
The "Voluntary Guidelines on the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security” was adopted by the members of FAO in 2004. In the seven years that it took to arrive at the Voluntary Guidelines, our Asia Pacific region registered phenomenal success on the poverty alleviation front. Between 1996 and 2004, the prevalence of poverty in East Asia and the Pacific fell from 16 to 9 percent whilst in South Asia it came down from 36 to 31percent. However, in spite of such significant gains, Asia is still home to the majority of the world’s hungry people. FAO estimates that some 527 million people in our region suffer from non-acute hunger and are still deprived of their right to food – 300 million in South Asia, 163 million in East Asia and 64 million in South East Asia.
The persistence of under-nourishment in the region, despite rapid economic growth, can mainly be attributed to the growing inequality in income and consumption in the majority of the countries in the region. Apparently the rich are getting richer faster which means that relatively poor individuals and households are not benefiting from or participating in economic growth to the same extent as richer individuals and households. The rise in inequality, of incomes as well as non-income dimensions such as education and health services, especially in rural areas of Asia, is a major cause for concern.
Clearly there is a need to address the policy bias against sectors and individuals in which the poor are engaged in. The low priority accorded to the rural sector, in particular low investment in human resources in agriculture-related employment opportunities, combined with growing degradation of natural resources, has led to stagnating productivity and earnings in the rural economy on which a large proportion of Asia’s population and even larger proportion of Asia’s poor depend. The situation has further exacerbated inequalities between the rich and the poor, rural and urban dwellers, creating adverse consequences for social coherence and harmony.
Circumstance based inequalities, which arise from social exclusion, lack of access to productive resources, educational services, health care, and lack of access to income and productivity enhancing employment opportunities for the poor need to be tackled urgently. It calls for a focus on improving governance, the improved delivery of basic health care and education services to the poor, strengthening social protection programmes and safety nets, and raising significantly the employment opportunities for and incomes of the poor if we are to ensure the progressive realization of the right to food.
We urgently need visionary economic policies and a conducive environment that promotes people-centred development, pro-poor growth; and encourages reforms related to rural institutions and laws; facilitates trade and investment as well as technology transfer that would dramatically reduce deprivation in the poorer countries. There is no better solution for securing the right to food for the poor other than empowering them with the capacity to enhance productivity and to eliminate poverty. We can no longer afford the gap, let alone further enlargement.
As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has noted, progressive realization means that States must move as expeditiously as possible towards the realization of the rights. To this end they must use “the maximum of available resources,” which refers both to the resources available within a State and those available from the international community through international cooperation and assistance. In the Declaration of the World Food Summit: five years later, adopted in June 2002, world leaders called for an International Alliance Against Hunger (IAAH) to reinforce the efforts of all actors---governments, international organizations, academics, civil society organizations and the private sector-- to achieve the World Food Summit target no later than 2015. This alliance should be invoked to launch an all out war on hunger in Asia, and elsewhere, so that the right to food can soon become a reality for all.