The SPFS Oversight Panel advises the FAO Director-General on food security issues. It meets periodically to review the progress of the Special Programme, which aims to improve the food security situation of some of the world's poorest countries by rapidly increasing food production, improving people's access to food and reducing their vulnerability to climatic events such as drought and floods.
At this year's meeting, the panel noted the progress made over the past ten years: The SPFS is currently being implemented in more than 100 countries. The related South-South Cooperation programme, whereby countries benefit from the experience and expertise of other more advanced developing countries, is being implemented in 28 countries, with over 1 000 experts and field technicians already working in the field.
The panel supported the increased political and financial commitment in a number of countries over the last two to three years to scale up their SPFS activities and move from pilot projects to nationwide programmes, addressing both the production and access dimensions of food insecurity.
Some 24 countries are currently up-scaling efforts to reduce hunger and a further 18 countries are expected to join them, once financing and policy formulation constraints to such expansion are addressed.
"Many countries were stuck in pilot mode," said Andrew MacMillan, Director of FAO's Field Operations Division, in his presentation to the panel. "Pilot projects encourage small-scale thinking, but the problems facing these countries are enormous. They can't afford 'boutique' projects."
The panel recommended that a similar up-scaling strategy be put in place for the remaining 60 to 70 countries in cases wherever sufficient political will and action was evident. It also recommended that in countries newly applying for assistance to formulate and implement the SPFS, the programme be designed as a national programme, rather than passing first through a pilot phase, as it was felt that sufficient lessons had been learned in a number of countries over the years.
Participants underlined the importance of applying a twin-track approach, which combines efforts to bring about sustainable long-term improvements in the livelihoods of poor people, including small-scale farmers, with safety nets.
"Programmes such as primary school lunch programmes and food-for-work rural development programmes should be promoted, both to cater for chronically food-insecure segments of the population, such as AIDS widows and orphans, the aged, and malnourished children, and to help stimulate markets for domestic agricultural production," said Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, hailed as the father of the "green revolution", in his paper to the panel.
MacMillan agreed that when these two tracks to improved food security are applied simultaneously, especially within the same communities, they can be mutually reinforcing. He noted as well that improvements in food security, especially in food energy consumption, also open the way for faster economic growth and poverty reduction. Measures to reduce hunger thus play a key role in the achievement of a number of the UN Millennium Development Goals, especially those relating to poverty reduction, health and education.
"The challenge is how to translate this twin-track approach to hunger reduction into large-scale but affordable programmes which can be adopted by the very low-income countries in which the incidence of food insecurity is high, markets are narrow, institutions are generally weak and fiscal resources - whether domestic or provided by donors - are horribly scarce," said MacMillan. (To read more about some of the countries rising to the challenge, see link to related article at right.)
Challenges to sustainable growth in Africa
In response to Dr Borlaug's presentation on achieving sustainable agricultural growth in Africa, the panel agreed that restoring the natural resource base is a must and recommended that actions focus on an integrated approach to natural resource management, including:
- better understanding of complex African soils, which are much older than those found elsewhere, particularly in parts of Asia, where the green revolution has been such a success;
- reducing the fertilizer gap - fertilizer consumption is still too low in African countries as compared to other agricultural countries;
- promoting conservation agriculture, nitrogen fixing legumes, green manure cover crops and a more effective use of irrigation water.
Panel members also stressed the need to improve roads and railways to get fertilizers into production areas and to get products out.
"Substantially greater investments in infrastructure - roads, electrical power, and water - underlie all other efforts in rural and agricultural development," said Borlaug. "Unless Africa's infrastructure is improved, there is little hope for real progress in making agriculture the engine of economic growth it can and must become, or in meeting the Millennium Development Goals."
New boldness needed
According to MacMillan, the failure to make significant progress towards hunger eradication since 1996, when governments attending the World Food Summit committed themselves to halving the number of undernourished people by 2015, suggests that either the wrong measures are being used or that the size of interventions is simply too small.
"The fact that some countries have been successful in making rapid cuts in hunger implies that the Summit goal remains attainable," he said. "There is a need for a new boldness and for the balance to be shifted from seemingly endless debates on how to eradicate hunger towards much more direct action with the hungry, doing things which we know can have an impact."
This sentiment was echoed by Norman Borlaug, who concluded his presentation by saying that three things were necessary to eradicate hunger: "action, action, action".
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