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The fate of the hungry amid high food prices

"With soaring food and fuel prices, hunger is on the march and we must act now," World Food Programme executive director Josette Sheeran told a UN summit in Rome last June.

As the world continues to grapple with rising food prices, questions abound about what may be the way out of the crisis. At the close of the Rome Summit, various pledges were made. The UN announced an additional US$1.2 billion in food aid for 75 million people in 60 nations hardest hit by rising food prices. The Islamic Development Bank pledged US$1.5 billion in aid to farmers in the poorest countries, the World Bank weighed in with a US$1.2 billion assistance package, while the US government offered US$770 million.

Pledges and goodwill yes, but how much of that money has reached and fed the hungry, is the question. The summit committed itself to “eliminating hunger and to securing food for all". This is quite ambitious, given the current state of things.

The first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) aims to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. Although there have been fears that most countries were in danger of missing on the millennium goal targets, the UN is upbeat in its assessment.

Progress

“There has been sound progress in some areas, even in some of the more challenging regions, and a number of targets are expected to be reached by their target dates,” states the UN’s MDGs 2008 Report. “The overarching goal of reducing absolute poverty by half is within reach for the world as a whole,” it adds.

The Zambian government’s assessment, according to its version of the MDGs Progress Report 2008, is no different and says that goal number one will “potentially” be met. 

What’s causing the high prices?

The causes of the high food prices have by now been well documented: conversion of food to bio fuels, trade policies, famine in some parts of the world and lack of political will – which has led to a resonant call to world leaders to do more to address the crisis. 

Millions more at risk

Under international law, everyone has the right to food but that does not mean everyone has access to it. Already, over 800 million people do not have enough to eat. With soaring food prices, it is estimated that this crisis will push 100 million more people into poverty, most of them in sub-Sahara Africa and Southern Asia, already the regions with the largest numbers of people living in extreme poverty, according to the UN.

It has been argued that farmers could take advantage of the rising food prices by producing more for sale. But if they cannot afford to produce or buy for household consumption, asking them to benefit from such a phenomenon may smack of mockery.

In Zambia, anti-poverty advocates have been sounding warning bells, calling on the government to be elected this month to address the high levels of poverty.

While addressing this enormous challenge may not be a one day wonder, those in whose hands the fate of the hungry lies ought to act in the just interest of the poor and starving masses. Will they?

This article was written by Concern’s Reginald Ntomba and first appeared in the Zambian Sunday Post on October 19, 2008.