The UN’s long-awaited Food Summit, which was postponed after September 11, opened in Rome on June 10, only to be snubbed by western governments only sending junior-level delegations to attend it, although UN officials and leaders of African countries regarded it as crucially important when there are currently famines looming in several southern African countries.
Of the leaders of the 29 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the most wealthy and economically powerful countries in the world, only two attended. They were Italian president Silvio Berlusconi, who is hosting the event, and Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, who is obliged to attend as president of the European Union. Other countries sent delegation led by junior ministers or civil servants.
Jacque Diouf, director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which organised the meeting, was forthright in his condemnation of the leading countries. “We have a good indication of the political priority which is give to the tragedy of hunger,” he said.
That is not news, of course. This summit is a follow-up to the UN’s first international food conference (1996), at which world leaders pledged to halve the number of people living in hunger by 2015. Since then the official number of people living in hunger has fallen from 840 million to 815 million. Of these, 777 million are chronically malnourished. Opening this year’s conference, US secretary general Kofi Annan said that 24,000 people still die as a direct or indirect result of hunger every day. He also said that 55 percent of the 12 million child deaths each year are related to hunger and malnutrition.
The refusal of senior Western leaders to attend the conference reflects major differences among the rulers of Western and developing countries on approaches to the problem of hunger. The leaders of developing countries want assistance from the UN, international organizations and Western governments to increase their food production and improve local storage, distribution and trade facilities. They are also angry that, despite their rhetoric about the importance of free trade, the US and the European Union continue to subsidise their domestic farming industries and to exclude imports from the developing world by protectionist policies. Developing countries argue that their food production would increase and be better equipped to meet their own needs if they had access to the revenues available from supplying the developing world.
Most western countries, however, refuse to lower the protectionist tariffs and other trade regulations that are designed to discriminate against produce from the developing world unless it is controlled by Western companies. Last month US president George Bush signed new farming subsidies into law, a policy that even the Canadian agriculture minister criticised in Rome. Few delegates were impressed by Ann Veneman, American agriculture secretary, claiming that her government remains committed to lowering farm subsidies in the long term.
There is also widespread anger at the US’s determination to impose production of genetically modified (GM) food on African countries. In the West, there is intense opposition to genetically modified food on scientific, health and safety grounds, but food corporations are committed to biotechnological research; they claim that it will enable developing countries to produce more food, more cheaply, for everyone.
One of the Africans’ suspicions is that the Western food companies are willing to carry out research and production in African countries that public opinion prevents in Western countries. There are also fears that Western corporations would like to turn African countries into controlled economies run primarily for the benefit of Western consumers and the profits of Western corporations, rather than for Africans. It is these fears that make them distrustful when Western leaders express their dissatisfaction with programmes designed to counter hunger and poverty in African countries, and demand that the prescriptions of Western governments be followed before they cooperate with efforts to fight hunger.
Considering how many people in Europe and the US suffer from hunger and malnutrition, without their governments taking effective measures to alleviate their condition because they do not have political weight, African countries are entitled to be sceptical of Western motives. Several reports have documented a growing dependence on soup kitchens and food banks in the US, and this indifference to their own people’s poverty bodes ill for Africa’s people, should the food corporations get their way there.
The US Conference of Mayors, for example, reported last year that overall demand for food assistance had increased by 17 percent compared to the previous year. For most of those requesting assistance it was the main source of nutrition. Catholic Charities, the US’s largest charity, reported a 32 percent increase in the numbers seeking food assistance from 1998 to 1999, and the Illinois Hunger Coalition reported a rise of between 30 and 35 percent in the number of people seeking emergency food assistance in 2000, compared to 1997. An estimated 31 million people in the US request food assistance at some stage every year, out of a total population of about 280 million.