At the dawn of the 21st century we are still a long way from achieving what has eluded humanity for thousands of years, a world free from hunger and poverty. The past thirty years, however, have brought us closer to reaching this goal in a large part of the developing world. The lives of millions have been transformed at a pace unparalleled in human history and to an extent that would have seemed unthinkable only a generation ago.
However, there is no room for complacency. Even today, close to 1.2 billion people - a fifth of the world's population - continue to live in conditions of abject poverty. Almost 800 million people in the developing world are chronically hungry. A basic right, the right to adequate and nutritious food, which most people take for granted, remains a distant dream for those who fight with food shortages every day of their lives. The presence of deep poverty and hunger on such a vast scale in a world of apparent opulence is a moral outrage.
What is encouraging is that the international community has adopted the reduction of poverty and hunger eradication as overarching goals for development. Starting in the early 1990s, targets have been agreed upon for the reduction of poverty in its various forms and dimensions. Goals have been set for reducing poverty, raising school enrolment, moving towards gender equality, cutting infant and maternal mortality, improving access to reproductive health services, and adopting national strategies for sustainable development. In addition, at the World Food Summit, held in Rome in 1996, all nations committed themselves to the goal of halving the number of undernourished people from around 800 million to 400 million by 2015. Together, these targets have been adopted in the Millennium Development Goals which offer the promise of making the world a better place for the whole of humanity.
The dimensions of hunger and malnutrition are alarming and cannot leave anyone indifferent. An estimated 174 million under-five children in the developing world were malnourished in 1996-98, and 6.6 million out of 12.2 million deaths among children in that age group are associated with malnutrition.
Hunger is an important cause as well as an effect of poverty. The effects of hunger go beyond its terrible toll on those who suffer from it. Hunger has substantial economic costs for individuals, families and whole societies. Labour, often the only asset of the poor, is devalued for the hungry. Mental and physical health is compromised by lack of food, cutting productivity, output and the wages that people earn. Chronically hungry people cannot accumulate the financial or human capital which would allow them to escape poverty. And hunger has an inter-generational dimension, with undernourished mothers giving birth to underweight children. In societies where hunger is widespread, economic growth, an essential element in sustainable poverty reduction, is severely compromised.
Who are the poor and what is the principal source of their livelihoods? Nearly three quarters of the poor in developing countries live in rural areas. And the rapid increase in urban poverty can be explained by the decline of agriculture and the rural sector. The rural face of poverty, human misery and hunger indicates that the battle for hunger and poverty alleviation will be won or lost in rural areas.
Many of rural poor are small farmers who are at the edge of survival or they are land-less people seeking to sell their labour. They depend on agriculture for their earnings, either directly, as producers or hired workers, or indirectly in sectors which derive their existence from farming. Trading, transportation, processing, involving large numbers of small entrepreneurs, are necessary for agriculture but at the same time they depend on farming activities for their survival.
If we are to bring about a rapid reduction in poverty and hunger this will require a two-pronged strategy. On one hand, direct measures have to be taken to enhance the access of those in extreme poverty to the food they need for an active life: this empowers them to break out of the hunger trap and allows them to participate fully in development processes. At the same time, efforts must be stepped up to promote broad-based agricultural and rural development which will create the opportunities for a sustainable exit from poverty. These two elements of the proposed strategy are essential for rapid, substantial and sustainable reduction in poverty and hunger. They are also mutually reinforcing since advancement in one improves the effectiveness of the other. When feeding programmes and food-based safety nets are supplied from local production, this leads to a double benefit: not only are the hungry fed but local markets for food expand, opening income earning and employment opportunities for the poor.
The responsibility for escaping from hunger and poverty rests first and foremost with the individuals themselves, and then with their families, communities and governments. Under international human rights legislation, governments have an obligation, when private action fails, to ensure that people can enjoy their right to adequate food. The proportion of public expenditure which developing countries now devote to agricultural and rural development and food security is, however, far from adequate, especially in countries where food deprivation is highest, implying a need to adjust public finance priorities.
However the international community has important roles in supporting national endeavours, not least to help governments, especially those of low income countries, to meet the costs of the necessary investments to the extent that these cannot be met by their own resources.
And yet there remains a conspicuous gap between the implied acceptance of global responsibility for eradicating hunger and poverty and the extent to which concrete action has been taken nationally and internationally. In spite of the obvious benefits, resources for programmes related to food and nutrition to benefit the needy, seem to be only a fraction of what is required to make a substantial difference. There is a visible and worrisome downward trend in the resources, private and public, directed towards agricultural and rural development, especially in those countries where hunger and poverty are widespread. This trend has been particularly pronounced in the programmes of the international financing institutions as well as in those of many bilateral donors and national governments, in spite of reiterated commitments to expand investment in agricultural and rural development. For the most part, instead of meeting their declared goal of increasing their support for agriculture and rural development, most donors have been partners to a progressive decline. For poor countries with low capacity to mobilise sufficient amounts of either domestic savings or foreign direct investment, substantial flows of Official Development Assistance including multilateral lending are required to create the conditions (capacity building, infrastructure, public goods and institutions) for attracting private capital into agriculture, whether domestic or foreign.
International trade offers opportunities for developing countries to expand into new markets and products and to improve growth and food security prospects. While there are potential gains from freer trade in farm products, the actual progress made in the ongoing negotiations has been limited so far, and the benefits remain modest. If further liberalisation focuses too narrowly on a removal of OECD subsidies, the lion's share of gains will accrue to developed country consumers and taxpayers. More important for developing countries are: a removal of trade barriers for products in which they have a comparative advantage and a reduction or reversal of tariff escalation for processed commodities; more and deeper preferential access for the poorest of the least developed countries; open borders for long-term foreign investments (FDI); and improved quality assurance and food safety programmes that enable developing countries to compete more efficiently in markets abroad. The resources gained by trade liberalisation and reductions in domestic protection could be channelled into additional development funding.
Serious consideration must be given to possible new financing mechanisms, given their potential importance in transferring resources between developed and developing countries and hence the extent to which they could supplement Official Development Assistance. While the call for a significant rise in ODA is very welcome, measures have to be taken to ensure adherence to agreed targets. Proposals have to be made which would ensure smoother and more dependable replenishment arrangements especially regarding concessional loan funds administered by the IFIs. It is important also that credible recommendations are made on the financing of an expanded flow of the global public goods - now in desperately short supply and competing with ODA - required to ensure the smooth operation of the processes of globalisation and the sustainable management of the world's resources
The Rome-based UN Organisations concerned with poverty, food and agriculture believe that the International Conference on Financing for Development must identify the extent of funds, whether domestic or international, needed to achieve the internationally agreed goals, especially those for hunger and poverty reduction. We firmly believe that it is fundamentally wrong to consider assistance to the poor and hungry an act of charity. Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is a moral imperative, but it also makes great economic sense. Our work and the work of others clearly demonstrate that it is in the self-interest of the international community, rich and poor countries alike, to eradicate hunger and poverty wherever it appears. Eradicating hunger and poverty is an investment with high payoff in terms of peace and political stability, overall development and prosperity.
The slow progress in meeting the internationally agreed goals points to the need not only for increasing the volume of resources devoted to this effort, but also to target them more effectively. International funding for hunger eradication and agriculture and rural development needs to rise to a scale commensurate with the problem and be advanced under affordable terms and conditions which do not lead to increases in developing country indebtedness.