Mere sticking plasters

By Kevin Watkins, senior research fellow at Oxford University’s global economic governance programme (THE GUARDIAN, 02/06/08):

Thomas Malthus, the 18th-century cleric, must be chuckling in his grave. As world leaders gather in Rome for the UN summit on hunger, his grim prediction that humanity faced a future of rising food prices and mounting malnutrition has finally arrived at the centre of the international agenda. Unfortunately, the summit itself has all the hallmarks of a sideshow to the real crisis in malnutrition.

Maize and rice have almost doubled in price over the past year. In Britain, higher food prices cause pain on the high street. For the roughly 1 billion people living on less than $1 a day, many of whom spend 80% or more of their income on food, they threaten malnutrition and ill-health. The impact of rising food prices on vulnerable populations is real. In countries such as Bangladesh, Haiti, Nigeria and Ghana it is already driving up poverty levels. But the panic is diverting attention from some other unpalatable truths.

One of those truths is that world leaders have been turning a blind eye to the real hunger crisis for too long. Each year, some 3.5 million children lose their lives as a direct result of malnutrition. Around a third of children in developing countries aged under five have their minds and bodies impaired by hunger.

Some of plans under discussion in Rome are sensible palliatives for higher food prices. The $1.2bn facility proposed by the World Bank president Robert Zoellick for investment in social safety nets, rapid delivery of seeds and fertilisers for small farmers, and balance-of-payments support to help poor countries manage higher food import costs makes sense. What is missing is a concerted effort to tackle the real drivers of the crisis.

The $7bn spent annually in the US in federal subsidies for maize-based biofuels has brought windfall gains for American farmers, with zero benefits for reduced carbon emissions. The diversion of maize from international markets accounts for around one-third of the international price increase, supplementing the pressures associated with rising demand in India and China. The flipside of the subsidy fest in the midwest is higher food prices for slum dwellers in Ghana and Haiti.

Then there is the issue of agricultural trade. One of the reasons so many of the world’s poorest countries are facing an interlocking hunger and balance-of-payments crisis is their dependence on food imports. Across Africa, local production of crops such as rice and cassava has been displaced by imported food, depriving farmers of markets – and leaving vulnerable populations exposed to the vagaries of a volatile world food market.

Reduced self-reliance is driven by many factors. The neglect of smallholder agriculture by national governments and aid agencies is one factor, reflected in the shocking state of transport and marketing in poor rural areas. But domestic neglect has been encouraged by what was until recently the ready availability of food dumped in African markets courtesy of US and EU subsidies. The World Bank’s reckless support for rapid import liberalisation and the dismantling of state support, exposing African farmers to subsidised competition, abetted the demise of smallholder markets.

Putting in place a WTO agreement that stops rich countries dumping surpluses, opens up their agricultural markets and allows poor countries to protect their producers is a vital ingredient for any viable long-term recovery strategy. We urgently need a “new deal” on malnutrition and the global food crisis, addressing the long-term problems that hold poor farmers back, marginalise the poor and perpetuate hunger. The sticking plasters and daft advice on offer in Rome are not fit for purpose.