31 May 2012

Africa: Is the UK Hunger Summit Anything More Than an Olympic PR Exercise?


London — Let's hope the UK's unexpected lead on tackling world hunger is a genuine effort to address the problem of feeding the planet

Mouthwash is the nutritional equivalent of greenwash, an approach to ending hunger that is more about fragrant PR than finding long-term solutions to feeding the planet without destroying it.

And the mouthwash test will be ready and waiting for the recently announced hunger summit, to be hosted by Britain during the Olympic Games.

But before we descend into full NGO curmudgeon mode, let's step back and appreciate the significance of the announcement that David Cameron intends to use the Olympic spotlight to debate world hunger (his spin doctors can't have been happy at him harshing the national mellow in this way).

This is not an isolated gesture - the UK is one of the few European countries to stick to its promises to spend 0.7% of national income on aid from 2013 onwards, and is pushing hard for a tough international treaty to regulate the global arms trade.

This kind of leadership earned the prime minister an invitation from the UN to chair (along with the presidents of Indonesia and Liberia) a high-level panel to explore how the world can set collective long-term targets for reducing poverty and achieving sustainability.

And leadership is desperately needed. In a world that produces enough food to feed everyone, one in seven of us goes to bed hungry. In Yemen, the number of food-insecure people has doubled since 2009, and Oxfam is about to scale up to reach one million of them. In west Africa, more than 18 million people are at risk. The crises are cyclical and deepening - this is a systemic issue, not a one-off.

As to why Britain is taking the lead, explanations run the gamut from a continued effort to detox the Tory brand (ie mouthwash), to a broader push to use aid to pursue national security goals, to a search for international statesman glory, to (shock) the government actually understands and is committed to the importance of ending hunger and world poverty.

How will we know which of these is true when the hunger summit comes around? By whether it is a one-off event, or the launchpad for a genuine effort to tackle the global storm of climate change, pressures on land and water, high and erratic food prices, and rising consumption. Next year, Britain chairs the G8 group of the world's most powerful economies, providing Cameron with the chance to repeat the developmental coup of the Gleneagles summit of 2005, when a combination of political leadership and mass campaigning produced breakthroughs on debt and aid.

Early signs also suggest that the summit will echo the Obama administration's reliance on private sector solutions. Although some private sector companies are showing a real lead (Unilever is aiming to involve 500,000 smallholders in its supply chains by 2020), companies can be nasty as well as nice. The state has a crucial role in regulating private sector behaviour, as well as a hands-on role in agricultural development. Whatever the fiscal temptations, the summit needs to avoid passing the buck.

NGOs will be looking for concrete commitments in several areas: putting a stop to the spate of land "grabs" in poor countries by large international companies lured by high commodity prices and the prospect of future scarcity; tackling the perverse impact of biofuels, which in the name of rich-world energy security are ousting hundreds of thousands of small farmers from their land, deepening poverty and hunger; greater investment in the 500m small farms that 2 billion of the world's more vulnerable people rely on for their sustenance, and reforming an international tax system that allows western tax havens to actively encourage capital flight and tax evasion, sucking billions of dollars out of poor countries' economies.

Without such progress, the hunger summit will not be nearly enough.

Tackling hunger today is welcome, but the prospect of rising hunger for future generations has to be on the table too.

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