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Source: World Food Programme (WFP)
13 October 2004

Food Day plea for unseen hungry - WFP

In a speech to WFP's Executive Board on the eve of World Food Day, WFP Executive Director James Morris asks the world not to forget the 840 million people in places as far apart as Liberia and Peru whose chronic hunger is hidden from our TV screens.

Rome , October 13 - A few weeks ago I was in New York for a meeting of the General Assembly, looking at more creative mechanisms to fund efforts to overcome poverty and hunger. What I found really encouraging about that meeting is that more than 50 heads of state took the trouble to attend. The particular focus of the meeting on hunger – which we owe to the initiative of President Lula of Brazil – is particularly good news for WFP.

There seems to be a growing awareness in political circles that the progress that has been achieved in overcoming poverty in the world does not always translate into progress against hunger. That is a very important change in thinking.


The Lula initiative for Action Against Hunger and Poverty has received a fair amount of media coverage. The problem is that most of these reports have focused more on politically tinged debates about proposals for international tax schemes and less on some of the more innovative and practical mechanisms proposed, such as debt initiatives, finance facilities and an international lottery. We need to get past the rhetoric and start raising more funds for hungry children.

While we talk, the number of those hungry children is growing. And it is not just as a result of high-profile emergencies like the current crisis in Darfur . Not that I would for a moment play down what the people of Darfur have gone through. They have suffered horrific ordeals and endured the kind of brutality that most of us in the developed world would find hard even to imagine. Their prospects of returning home and picking up their lives are dim at best. The future holds only uncertainty.


But there's one thing they do have going for them. Their plight has shocked the world. Whatever other people call it – genocide, ethnic cleansing, conquest or orchestrated violence – we all know what has been happening in Darfur and we are united in their determination to protect these people and meet their humanitarian needs.

Not that we have yet succeeded. The raids by the Janjaweed militia are still going on and the numbers of displaced people are still growing by the day. But most of them do now at least have places of refuge, where they can receive shelter and food. The World Food Programme provided food for 1.3 million of them in camps inside Darfur last month and for a further 200,000 across the border in Chad . We expect to be feeding two million people in Darfur by the end of the year.

With Darfur still in the news, we can probably continue to feed them over the coming months. For most of these people – and certainly for the most vulnerable, the children, the nursing mothers and the elderly – that's the difference between life and death.


The problem is that for every hungry child who makes the headlines there are millions more who do not. When was the last time we read about hungry people in Azerbaijan , Guinea , Sri Lanka or Tajikistan ? Even in regions that regularly hit the television screens, the hungry do not merit a mention. In all the news coverage of the West Bank and Gaza , when did we last hear about hungry Palestinians?

It is a shocking fact that now in the 21 st century, hunger is still claiming more lives than AIDS, TB and malaria combined. According to the World Health Organization, under-nourishment deprives the world of more productive life years than any other health risk.


On 16 October, we will be marking World Food Day. It's one of those occasions when the 840 million chronically hungry people scattered across the globe have the rare chance to garner a few column inches in newspapers or a few seconds on television or radio. At best. The problem I have with these special days is that all too often, the following day it's back to business as usual.

One might think that crises like Darfur would help to focus more attention on the general problem of hunger in the world. In actual fact, the opposite is the case. Funds for the unseen hungry, the people who are simply too poor to feed themselves and their families, are even harder to come by when the world's attention is seized by a major natural disaster or conflict.


And yet it is precisely these unseen hungry who are suffering most. Out of every 100 deaths from hunger-related causes, 92 are among the chronically malnourished. The problem is made significantly worse by the explosion of HIV/AIDS in some of the poorest parts of the world. Southern Africa , for example, is a region that may be off our radar screens right now, but life expectancy there has plummeted 22 years on average to 35 years.

AIDS has exacted a terrible toll on Africa . But no sector has been hit harder than food production – with seven million African farmers already dead from the pandemic. That's why WFP interventions for those affected by AIDS are so important – well-nourished people who are HIV-positive stay fit and active far longer than those without enough food. That means that they can care for their children longer, and slow down the huge rise in the number of orphans, now already at a staggering 20 million.


When conflicts are resolved and peace finally takes hold in a country battered by years and decades of strife, the donors who were there to help in the war years tend to melt away – just when their help is really needed to support people who have, often for the first time in their lives, a proper chance to secure their futures.

Look at Liberia , Sierra Leone or Angola , where millions of people are returning home, only to find their farms destroyed, their livestock gone, their land inaccessible because of landmines and no infrastructure or employment opportunities to tide them over. They still depend on our support now, just as they did when they were living in camps as refugees or internally displaced. Yet within the next three months, unless major new contributions come in, we are going to have to cut their rations. Those are the facts. But try explaining them to a hungry child.


Or try to tell a malnourished mother in Guatemala – a country where the proportion of under-nourished people soared from 14 percent to 25 percent between 1990 and 2000 – that the world thinks she and her baby matter less than her Sudanese counterpart in Darfur.

Of course we know that all of them matter, equally, that everyone deserves the same chances in life. But while we are now quite confident that we can deliver enough food to keep the Sudanese mother, her children and unborn babies alive, we are far from certain that we can do the same in Peru . In effect, we are starving Peter to save Paul.


Worse still, we are doing even less to help chronically hungry families survive than we were five years ago, just before the UN General Assembly set itself the Millennium Development Goals, the topmost of which was to halve the number of hungry people around the world by 2015. In fact, four of the eight MDGs are hunger-related – achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality and combating HIV/AIDS all depend on improving nutritional levels to succeed. And yet, the volume of food aid over the past five years actually fell – from 15 million tons in 1999 to 10.2 million tons in 2003 – and that included one million tons for Iraq alone. Our core performance globally was actually closer to nine million tons.


Add to that the rising world prices of commodities and freight rates, combined with the declining purchasing power of the dollar, and we see that unless donors intensify their support in 2005, we risk slipping back. We are going to need a much bigger dollar budget just to feed the same numbers as before.

At the same time, the proportion of aid dedicated to agricultural development through our colleagues at FAO and IFAD has also slumped badly. In the 1990s, it went down from 12 to six percent of development aid. So not only are we giving less food, we are also stifling the efforts by the developing world to produce it for themselves.


We can break this spiral. If everyone were to pitch in and help, we would dramatically reduce world hunger, especially among 300 million needy children.

There is enough food already in the world for everyone. We have benefited so much from scientific advances that we can be confident of our ability to continue to grow enough food for the foreseeable future. Science isn't the problem; it's a question of political will and determination, not just on World Food Day, but the following days, weeks and years to come.

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