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The global emergency of hunger

Freedom from hunger, as set out in international human rights instruments, is a fundamental right, but it is one of the most extensively violated rights. Taking into account the fundamental ethical commitment of FAO to ensure humanity’s freedom from hunger and the access of everyone to adequate food, the Panel expresses its deep concern over the global emergency of hunger. The world today is richer than at any earlier time in human history in terms of global productive output, and more possibilities exist now than at any earlier stage in the past; yet devastating inequality continues to cause massive hunger in many parts of the world.

More than five years after the World Food Summit held in Rome in 1996, the commitments made then have not been matched by effective action. While important progress has been made in China and a few other countries, in many other parts of the world the lack of access to sufficient food is as serious now as before, and in some regions it has become even worse than it was in 1996. There is cause for serious concern that hunger and malnutrition persist at nearly the same level as in 1996. There are at least 777 million chronically undernourished individuals in the developing world, including 180 million children under the age of five. Undernourishment among children could even worsen.

Without rapid progress towards eradicating hunger, global political and economic stability, together with the natural resources upon which future world food supplies depend, will continue to be threatened. Hunger creates or sustains a climate for recruitment to violent conflicts and local wars, violent acts of desperation and terrorist acts. Without effective access to adequate food and to constructive engagement in development, many people fall into despondency or become easy prey for violent movements. The existence of hunger and malnutrition is in clear conflict with the visions underlying the world order that it was hoped would be established after the Second World War with human rights and with human development. Evidence also clearly shows that in societies where hunger is widespread, sustainable economic growth is impossible to achieve.

The Panel considers it an ethical imperative that this global emergency be urgently and fully addressed. Undernourishment and starvation in a world of plenty should be considered as no less serious than blatant violation of any other human right. The panel holds that hunger can be eliminated altogether if there is the necessary will and commitment by governments for responsible national action and international cooperation, provided there is appropriate use of the global resources now available.

The Panel recognizes that the causes of hunger are multidimensional and that the obstacles to overcoming hunger are numerous. Elimination of hunger will therefore require action on many levels, including massive and comprehensive efforts to combat diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, the prevention or resolution of devastating local conflicts in developing countries, socially responsible management of economic policies, the elimination of discrimination and exclusion and the empowerment of those who have been barred in the past from effective economic participation. Part of the problem is that many poor women in developing countries are denied effective reproductive rights. Being unable themselves to ensure responsible child spacing, these women have to share their limited time between frequent pregnancies, unsatisfactorily caring for their many children, struggling to feed the rest of the family, and trying to earn some kind of income in whatever way possible, be it tilling the land, petty commerce or other activities. The result is not only overpopulation, but also many malnourished children, who are unable to cope in educational institutions and are therefore likely to end up in the same poverty as their mothers. This situation is exacerbated by the lack of equal access to education and economic opportunity for women.

It is essential to ensure that the concern with freedom from hunger be taken into account in contemporary policies and decisions in all fields concerning food and agriculture, keeping in mind that freedom from hunger is not only a vague future ideal but also a procedural requirement in contemporary daily life. Although every individual and organ of society in a particular area of activity must be considered morally bound not to cause hunger for others, the formal and legal responsibility rests on states, which must ensure, through regulation and administration, that freedom from hunger be taken into consideration in food and agricultural policies within their territory. The regulatory policies of some states are deficient in this area, thereby endangering food security for vulnerable groups and resulting in a less than optimal reduction in the overall number of hungry people.

States cannot manage such responsibilities solely on their own. Lack of resources or actions taken by another state may negatively affect a state’s ability to ensure freedom from hunger within its territory. Collaboration between developing and developed countries should in large part be channelled or coordinated through the multilateral system, in which the different United Nations agencies will have to take the lead within their respective areas of competence: FAO, IFAD and the WFP for access to food; WHO for the reduction and elimination of malaria, HIV/AIDs and other diseases; and UNESCO for education, by promoting full and equal access to education for all, and in particular women everywhere.

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