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January 2003

World AIDS Day Symposium - HIV/AIDS as an emergency

2 December 2002

These welcoming remarks to the Symposium were presented by by Khalid Mehboob, Assistant Director-General, Administration and Finance Department

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests,
Dear colleagues,

As the world enters its third decade of the AIDS epidemic, the evidence of its impact is undeniable. The countries with high prevalence of HIV/AIDS are also the countries with the majority of their populations still living in rural areas and whose livelihood largely depends on agriculture. Here the epidemic is plunging communities further into destitution as their labour capacity weakens, incomes dwindle and assets are depleted. The sustained and long-term impact of the epidemic erodes food security, damages rural livelihoods and exacerbates poverty.

Today, as we speak, sub-Saharan Africa is facing a major food emergency. All the common elements of a food crisis are present - erratic rainfall, drought, poor governance, weakened social sectors, poor macro-economic performance and so on. But it is becoming increasingly evident that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a catalysing factor in such crises. The Special Envoy of the United Nations identified HIV/AIDS as one of the underlying causes of vulnerability in the current food emergency. Perhaps more importantly, not only is HIV a factor contributing to the current situation, but the impacts of the HIV epidemic are long-term and sustained and will represent a major threat to its people and societies for years to come.

HIV/AIDS has seriously compromised the rural sector. But how does the link between the epidemic and emergencies actually operate? HIV/AIDS has caused national-level economic problems, resulting in lower gross national economic output, reduced savings and higher costs of capital, in addition to overwhelmed health services and a crisis in agricultural institutions. FAO estimates that seven million agricultural workers in 25 severely affected African countries have died from AIDS since 1985. You can imagine what impact this has on food production in low income, food deficit countries, where agricultural production is still very labour-intensive.

Rural Africa has not only had to bear the costs of supporting and caring for rural people living with HIV/AIDS, but also have to provide for members of the extended family and care for sick urban migrants who return home. The premature death of adults means that there are fewer adults to support the same number of children. In addition, the nutritional needs of persons living with HIV mean that cutting back on food consumption is not an option, as they will easily fall sick and be unable to work or care for children. Eating less food, a society's most fundamental adaptation to food crisis, is no longer a solution, as food consumption has to be maintained. As a result, communities' resistance to food shortage has been fundamentally challenged by the HIV epidemic and has devastated support mechanisms as well as the wider environment.

Not to be forgotten is the acceleration of HIV transmission in emergency settings. Humanitarian disasters can generate displacement, poverty, powerlessness and instability, with people driven from their homes and left to fend for themselves with hunger and disease. Nowhere are these conditions more extreme than in complex emergency situations which often result in the collapse of social structures, forced physical and gender-based sexual violence, which fuel HIV transmission, and with women and girls particularly vulnerable and at risk of exploitation.

A large-scale and multi-sectoral response to what has become a real development crisis is necessary. The international community needs to forge partnerships and maintain co-ordinated action. The relationship between emergency operations and development initiatives must be strengthened. Long-term efforts must be made to support rural livelihoods. Today's symposium could significantly contribute to this effort by determining what FAO can do to assist our member countries in preventing and mitigating the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the agriculture sector.

Thank you.

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