Douglas Alexander, International Development Secretary speech at World Food Programme
26 January 2010
Just under a year ago, I invited Josette to come and speak to a conference in London. Her speech – entitled ‘One Year on from the Food Crisis’ – was both thoughtful and thought-provoking, and provided us with one of the highlights of our conference.
So I was keen to take up Josette’s invitation to visit the World Food Programme today and address the Rome community – certainly not to measure my speech-making against hers, but rather because the work you do here is so critical to our shared mission.
Of course a great concern today is providing support to the survivors of the terrible tragedy that struck Haiti two weeks ago. One of my earliest decisions following the earthquake was to make a contribution to WFP’s vital logistics effort there.
The efforts of WFP staff in Haiti provide just one example of the life-saving work of the World Food Programme, and I would like to take the opportunity today to thank you for all that your staff do – often in difficult and dangerous circumstances.
Of course WFP doesn’t just respond to natural disasters. All of the Rome agencies have played a vital role in responding to the food crisis – from the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s early warnings, analysis and advice to the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s long term planning for the future.
We value your efforts and will continue to support you. Indeed I’m pleased to be able to announce today that the United Kingdom is providing $8 million for the World Food Programme in Nepal, to help feed 450,000 people for three months.
More than ever, these programmes are urgently needed – because nearly two years on from the peak prices of the food crisis, we know that as many as a billion people across the world today are in the grip of a hunger crisis.
Today I want to take the opportunity to: • Take stock of the current hunger crisis; • Examine what I would suggest are the three dimensions of the crisis; and • Suggest some priorities – and also hear your thoughts – on the collective action we need to take to address this crisis.
Let me turn first then to the extent and nature of the hunger crisis today.
Two years on from their peak, international food prices may have fallen by a half, yet as we know, local prices in many developing countries are still high because of supply and distribution problems.
And as Josette has said before, the simultaneous shocks of food, fuel and finance have combined to cripple the buying power of the poorest people. Even before the crisis, poor people in developing countries typically spent more than half of their income on food – after this triple shock, they have seen prices rise as their incomes fall.
The FAO announced last year that these pressures have now combined to push the number of hungry over one billion. With one in six people on the planet going hungry each day, it’s clear that we need to radically increase our efforts towards tackling this problem. Let’s be honest, ‘business as usual’ wasn’t going to get us to MDG 1 in the good times – and it certainly won’t get us there now.
So this is a growing crisis. There is also a growing understanding of the extent to which the problem of hunger is connected to many of the other global challenges we face today. From conflict to population increase, from resource depletion to climate change. These challenges are interconnected. We cannot tackle them in isolation. Each threatens to push more people into poverty and hunger.
And all of these problems underline the sheer extent of our interdependence today. The past decade has shown us in the starkest terms the consequence of globalisation: that surely we will sink or swim together. For along with the opportunity that has lifted millions of people out of poverty, we have also seen a globalisation of risk – from crime, from disease and indeed from financial contagion.
So in today’s interdependent world, the plight of one-sixth of humanity is no longer a problem that remains ‘out there’. It is a disaster that will affect us all. Acting to address this hunger crisis is not only a moral imperative, but also in our common interest.
In order to act, we need an understanding of the challenge we face. I want to suggest today that the current hunger crisis has three dimensions, each of which must be tackled in order for us to make progress.
The first of those has been the focus of much public and media debate since we reached peak food prices – and that is the challenge of increasing food production.
With the global population set to reach 9 billion in the next forty years, the FAO has suggested that food production will need to rise by as much as 70 per cent to meet demand.
And we can set that increased demand against a backdrop of tougher circumstances as the impact of climate change takes hold, with water supplies projected to decline and agricultural land drying out in many regions of the world.
Increasing food production is a challenge the UK is taking seriously. Just this month my cabinet colleague Hilary Benn launched the UK’s new Food Strategy, ‘Food 2030’, which underlines the interdependence of rich and poor countries in addressing our common interest of food security.
We have commissioned a group of leading experts to produce a ‘foresight’ report into how a future population of 9 billion can be fed healthily and sustainably, and we expect the final report to be available in the autumn.
We have also committed some £400 million towards agricultural research over five years – and I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the vital work that Bioversity is doing to underpin the development of new crops.
Some of our research is supporting efforts for a green revolution for Africa – the continent with perhaps the greatest potential for increasing yields. Indeed if the question 25 years ago was how can the world feed Africa, we need to look increasingly at how Africa can not only feed itself, but one day feed the world.
But we cannot allow the focus on food production - and meeting the needs of future generations - divert us from the urgent needs of our own generation.
Because as we all know, there is enough food in the world today. Indeed the last two years have brought the biggest cereal harvests the world has ever seen – nearly two billion tonnes of wheat, maize and rice.
This is enough to provide each man, woman and child with well over their daily calorific needs. Yet a billion people are hungry – not because there is a shortage of food, but because they don’t have the means to buy it.
We have seen this before. Perhaps a million people died in Ireland during the potato famine in the 1840s, while wheat continued to be exported to England.
The Bengal famine of 1943, which claimed perhaps 3 million lives, resulted not from lack of food, but because rapid price inflation in wartime meant that millions of people suddenly could no longer afford to buy the rice they needed.
Indeed, as Amartya Sen has said: ‘Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.’
So this leads me to the second dimension of today’s hunger crisis – access to food. We must urgently address the availability and affordability of food for the poorest.
Increasing availability will mean ensuring that more food is grown near to where it is consumed – that will require not only agricultural investment, but also infrastructure investment and trade reforms.
Increasing affordability is vital when poor families spend an average of 70 per cent of their household income on food.
That is why the UK is aiming to reach 50 million poor people in twenty countries with social protection programmes – which we know can help increase the quantity and quality of the food that people eat.
Just look at the success of the Ethiopian Government’s productive safety net programme. Until five years ago, millions of Ethiopians unable to afford or grow enough food for their families relied on emergency food aid – and were often forced to sell their assets before such aid arrived. Lives were saved - in many cases thanks to the World Food Programme.
Today, thanks to the largest social protection scheme in Africa, some 8 million Ethiopians are protected from food and other shocks. In return for cash or food for work, schools and clinics are built and land is irrigated. Three quarters of all households covered by the scheme now consume more and better food. And 60 per cent of households have been able to avoid selling off their assets to buy food, so they can be productive again when the most difficult times pass.
This year, with many Ethiopians still suffering the economic consequences of the global recession and after three years of erratic rains, such help will be a vital lifeline.
That is why I am announcing today that the United Kingdom will provide more than £200 million over the next five years to help the Government of Ethiopia continue and improve that much-needed safety net – saving lives and safeguarding futures.
Such safety nets give people an opportunity to buy not only more but also better quality food. This focus on quality brings me to the third – and perhaps the most neglected - dimension of the current hunger crisis: under-nutrition.
The facts are stark. A child dies every ten seconds from malnutrition. A third of all children under five are stunted.
Even more powerful than these stark figures is the experience – that I’m sure many of you will have shared – of walking into a classroom in an area that suffers from malnutrition and seeing 6 year olds that look like 3 year olds.
We know that we are not on track to halve hunger by 2015. And we know too that poor nutrition doesn’t just imperil progress towards the first Millennium Development Goal, but also on many of the others – from maternal mortality to child health, from education to gender equality.
Twenty per cent of maternal deaths are associated with malnutrition. A third of child deaths in the developing world are as a result of malnutrition. Poor nutrition costs an average of 10 per cent lost earnings over a lifetime.
Indeed it is hard to see how we can meet MDGs without tackling under-nutrition.
That is why I will, in the coming weeks, launch the Department for International Development’s first nutrition strategy, which will outline our response to this third dimension of the hunger crisis.
We will invest in the direct interventions – support for breastfeeding, vitamin and micronutrient supplements, treatment of acute malnutition – that are proven to provide among the most cost effective ways to save a child’s life.
But the evidence shows that we need to go beyond treating symptoms, and address the causes of poor nutrition.
So we will also work to ensure that families have access to clean and safe drinking water and better sanitation.
We will support access to primary health care in order to break the vicious circle of disease and malnutrition, and we will ensure that our investments in social protection and agriculture go further in tackling malnutrition.
And we will help to empower women and girls, because as Hilary Clinton said recently, “teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. If you teach a woman to fish, she’ll feed the whole village.”
We will focus our support on six countries that collectively account for half of the world’s under-nourished children under five. Overall we expect to improve the nutrition of at least 12 million children over the next 5 years – which amounts to 10 per cent of all undernourished children around the world.
So these are, I would suggest, the three dimensions of the hunger crisis that urgently need to be tackled.
With a growing global population, we must work together to grow more food in tougher circumstances.
We need to ensure that the poorest among us have access to that food.
And we need to ensure that the most vulnerable – pregnant women and young children in particular - get the quality of food they need not only to survive, but to flourish.
Each of these imperatives can be met where the political will exists. But they will not be met without a collective decision to truly put hunger on the global political agenda, and they will not be met unless we can improve the effectiveness of our global effort.
I believe we have a great opportunity now. Momentum is building – from the commitments at L’Aquila to the five Rome Principles agreed in November. Recognising the urgency of the situation, the UN Secretary General has created the new Special Representative on Food Security and Nutrition.
We need now to take that momentum through to the Millennium Review Summit in September and create a global agreement that will truly shift the balance on hunger.
The United Kingdom is committed to this effort. But in order to get global endorsement of a ‘new deal’ to tackle hunger, and in order to deliver it, we will need to take a hard look at improving the effectiveness of our international effort.
That will require the Rome agencies to truly embrace the United Nations reform agenda. In the United Kingdom, we are increasingly taking a ‘whole of Government’ approach to the challenges we face – including development. Recognising the overlap between development, defence, diplomacy, trade, health – the list goes on.
The delivering as one agenda gives the opportunity for a ‘whole of UN’ approach. I support the moves you have already made to collaborate on the response to the food crisis, both here in Rome and also at country level – more work needs to be done, for example through the REACH pilots.
But we all recognise the need to go further and faster. The reforms at the FAO should be implemented swiftly and fully. WFP is reforming and I would encourage President Nwanze to build on IFAD’s current platform of reform in order to meet the challenges we face today.
Of course the UN member states and shareholders also have a responsibility to ensure that we collectively build a United Nations that is equipped to deal with the global challenges of the coming century. The ongoing crisis in Haiti is a timely and tragic reminder that the poorest and most vulnerable need a strong UN that is able to lead, coordinate and respond swiftly and effectively in the most extreme circumstances.
I want to give you my personal assurance that the United Kingdom is committed to playing its part in the process of reform – and I’d be genuinely interested in your thoughts as to how we can collectively take this agenda forward in the months and years ahead.
I believe we have both the moral duty and the mandate to act. The extent of the worldwide response to the earthquake in Haiti has shown that common humanity is not merely an enlightenment dream, nor simply an empty slogan of globalisation.
When we see a mother grieving for her lost child, or a father desperate to find food and water for his family, it is our deepest human instinct to respond with compassion. Indeed the world has responded – not only through aid agencies and the UN but also through an extraordinary charitable effort.
The images from Haiti have reminded us of the very basic needs of human life. Shelter. Water. Food. And when the cameras leave Haiti, we need to collectively ensure that aid and assistance do not.
Yet today’s hunger crisis happens far away from the cameras. Its victims are dispersed in towns and villages around the world. Tens of millions of mothers, struggling to feed their children – yesterday, today and tomorrow. But their need for food reflects the very basics of human life.
And with the global population set to grow to 9 billion by the middle of this century – the equivalent of adding another two Chinas to the world - our responsibility to help is even more urgent.
The question that history will ask of our generation is this: faced with a contemporary hunger crisis, and in the knowledge of greater challenges to come, did they act?
Did they have the will to not only see the world around them as it is, but imagine how it might be – and work to fulfil that vision?
Because hunger is not inevitable today – any more than slavery was two hundred years ago, or segregation fifty years ago, or apartheid twenty-five years ago.
The question facing all of us here this evening is not: can we end this hunger crisis? But rather, will we apply our science, our skills and our political will to be the generation that finally banishes hunger?
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