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Ireland should lead fight against hunger

Concern CEO Tom Arnold examines the issue of hunger

(Irish Times 06-Apr-07) We should work together, North and South, against the scandal of world hunger, writes Tom Arnold

The parties and people of Northern Ireland are preparing, in John Hume's words, to "spill their sweat and not their blood and start the healing process". The generosity of spirit shown by long-standing protagonists has surprised many.

The decision to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland has generated enormous goodwill within the island of Ireland and internationally.

Over the coming weeks, the future first minister, the Rev Ian Paisley, and deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, will meet regularly to prepare for effective government from the re-establishment of the executive on May 8th.

The early priorities will inevitably be such short-term issues as the level of British exchequer support for the mitigation of water rates.

The longer-term priorities will include the policies necessary to deal with the structural problems of the Northern economy: how to create a more vibrant private sector and thereby change the balance between the public and private sectors; how additional foreign investment can be generated; what mixture of investment spending and tax policy can stimulate long-term economic success.

Beyond the ideas to build a more successful economy and a fairer society within Northern Ireland, the leaders could usefully lift their sights to ideas which could benefit humanity beyond the shores of Northern Ireland. Something on which they could work together, and work with the Government and people of the South; which would put their own problems in an entirely different perspective and which would also bring long-term strategic benefit to the whole island.

I have a proposal that fits these criteria. It is that Ireland, North and South, should play a leadership role in the fight against the continuing scandal of hunger in the world. Because of our island history of famine in the 19th century, we have a particular legitimacy in providing such leadership.

Norway, another small country, has built an international reputation for contributing to efforts to prevent and resolve conflict. Its government has made this a priority in its foreign policy and its universities, institutes and civil society organisations have developed capacities to contribute both at the level of policy and practical advice.

I propose that Ireland should seek to be the "Norway for Hunger".

A number of the building blocks are already in place for this to happen. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern declared to the UN summit in September 2005 that tackling hunger and improving food security was a key priority of Irish aid policy. The White Paper on Development, published in September 2006, reaffirmed that commitment and, in addition, proposed that a hunger task force be established to "examine the particular contribution Ireland can make to tackling the root causes of food insecurity, particularly in Africa".

The setting up of the executive in Northern Ireland could be another building block. That this is a legitimate and worthy objective is not in doubt. About 850 million people go to bed hungry every night, about 15 per cent of the world's population.

The vast majority suffers from chronic hunger, as a result of deep and persistent poverty. The human costs are enormous. Some 11 million children under the age of five die each year from hunger and associated diseases. That hunger and those diseases stunt millions more, physically and mentally.

Making Ireland the "Norway for Hunger" requires action. We need to develop new capacities. We must build strong partnerships between the official aid programme, the non-governmental organisations, the private sector and third-level institutions. Those partnerships would put us in a stronger position to give policy and practical advice on innovative approaches to improved nutrition, increased food production and rural development.

A similar approach could be used in Northern Ireland. Development assistance could be one of the policy areas to be devolved to the executive. The previous assembly had an active cross-party committee dealing with development issues. Linkages could be built between the respective aid programmes for joint projects to tackle hunger.

Working on a collaborative North-South basis would ensure that innovative lessons learned would be shared and made available to a wider international audience.

Helping countries to eliminate hunger is the right thing to do in a moral and humanitarian sense. But it should also work in the long-term political and economic self-interest of Ireland, North and South.

There is intense international interest in Ireland for two modern reasons: our economic success, and the conclusion of the Northern Irish peace process. Combining these factors with our Famine history and the legacy of goodwill earned by Irish missionaries of different religious traditions, Ireland is uniquely placed to play a lead role in helping other countries to overcome their hunger problems.

Making this a priority and developing the skills, North and South, to deliver on it would allow Ireland to make a huge difference in international affairs. The goodwill which would derive from that would yield long-term political and economic benefits for the whole island.

Providing such international leadership would also be a fitting response to countries that have helped the Irish peace process. The US, the EU and South Africa have played decisive and positive roles. Debts of honour have accumulated.

A decision to work together within the island of Ireland to lead the challenge of eliminating hunger would be one way - a profoundly significant and appropriate way - to discharge those debts.

It would also, in the words of Seamus Heaney, "make hope and history rhyme".