Food-crisis anger turns on UN
bodies By Thalif Deen
NEW YORK - As the Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) readies for a summit of world
leaders next month, United Nations secretary
general Ban Ki-moon on Monday defended the
Rome-based UN agency, which has come under fire
for its failure to help meet the growing
challenges of hunger worldwide.
harshest attack came last week from Senegalese
President Abdoulaye Wade, who described the FAO as
a "bottomless pit of money, largely spent on its
own functioning, with very little effective
operations on the ground".
respond, Ban told reporters on Monday: "In view of
the gravity and seriousness of the situation, I
can understand and
sympathize with the
frustrations of many African leaders, including
President Wade of Senegal.
"But I would
like to underscore that since its founding in
1945, the FAO has been leading the international
community's efforts to help promote the production
and productivity [of food] and provide necessary
humanitarian assistance to many people affected by
Wade said the FAO, headed
by Jacques Diouf of Senegal, should be merged with
another Rome-based UN agency, the International
Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), to
establish a single mega agriculture body. Some of
the functions of the two UN agencies overlap. If
such a body is created, he said, it should be
located in Africa, not in a Western capital.
Wade was also critical of the extravagance
of UN agencies and humanitarian non-governmental
organizations. He said they "will use [aid money]
on all sort of tricks - administration, trips and
costs of luxury hotels for so-called experts,
instead of on concrete actions on the ground."
Several factors are responsible for the
food crisis, including the shortcomings of
international organizations such as the FAO and
other UN agencies, all of which failed to
anticipate the gravity of the current disaster.
The World Bank, a sister institution of the United
Nations, also has to share some of the blame for
the current crisis because of declining funds for
agricultural research over the years.
Asked about the under-sourcing for
research, World Bank president Robert Zoellick
admitted his institution's failure but also
singled out the shortcomings of governments.
"Yes, you know the international community
goes through various phases of things," he told
reporters in Bern last week. "The World Bank, and
frankly the governments themselves, invested less
in agriculture. We have a country-system based
approach, where the countries are our clients and
they decide where they focus it. So, as we ramped
up things for HIV/AIDS and malaria and other
projects, there was clearly an underinvestment in
"I don't think it's really
helpful to point fingers at this responsibility,
that responsibility. The key question is, having
recognized the need, and it's one that I focused
on shortly after taking over the Bank, how do we
try to deal with it at these various stages."
The FAO hosted the first major World
Conference on Food in Rome in 1974, which
proclaimed that "every man, woman and child has
the inalienable right to be free from hunger and
malnutrition in order to develop their physical
and mental faculties."
The goals of the
conference included the eradication of hunger, the
need for food security and the reduction of
malnutrition "within a decade". But the goals were
In November 1996, the FAO
hosted another five-day World Food Summit, which
adopted a Rome Declaration on World Food Security
and a Plan of Action to eradicate or minimize
The current crisis, not
surprisingly, has triggered a third Food Summit,
also in Rome from June 3-5, where another
elaborate plan is due to be unveiled by heads of
state and governments.
Still, nearly 34
years after the first FAO conference, and dozens
of UN resolutions and voluminous reports later,
the developing world is facing another global food
shortage, along with skyrocketing prices.
The price of rice alone, a staple in many
Asian countries, rose to US$980 per tonne last
week compared with $460 in March.
at the launch of the annual FAO report in October
2006, Diouf said "promises are no substitute for
food". Calling on world leaders to honor their
pledges, he said the 1996 World Food Summit
promised to reduce the number of undernourished
people by half by 2015.
Still, there were
more hungry people in the developing countries,
around 820 million today, than there were in 1996.
Far from decreasing, the number of hungry people
in the world is currently increasing at the rate
of four million a year, Diouf said. The World Bank
has estimated that already some 100 million people
may have been pushed into poverty as a result of
At a meeting of 26 heads of
UN agencies in Bern last week, the
secretary-general identified multiple causes for
the current food crisis, including escalating
energy prices; lack of investment in agriculture
over the past years; increasing demand for food;
trade-distorting subsidies; and recurrent bad
"This crisis has multiple
effects, with its most serious impact on the most
vulnerable in the poorest countries," Ban warned.
The secretary-general sourced the problem
to "a dramatic escalation of food prices
worldwide, which has evolved into what we believe
is an unprecedented challenge of global
proportions that has become a crisis for the most
"We see mounting hunger and
increasing evidence of malnutrition, which has
severely strained the capacities of humanitarian
agencies to meet humanitarian needs, especially as
promised funding has not yet materialized," he