The Human Right to Food
"Several small victories in the struggle agasinst this scourge can be noted. In the 20th century, food production increased more than the world population that more than doubled in the same period. However unequal access to food and means of production results in millions of people deprived of the most fundamental of all rights: the right to food." This article originally published in Le Monde diplomatique is translated from the German.
The Human Right to Food
by Jacques Diouf
[This article originally published in: Le Monde diplomatique, Nr. 6774, June 14, 2002 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.taz.de.]
Over 800 million people starve to death amidst a surplus of food. Thousands of children die daily of the consequences of hunger and chronic malnutrition. While worldwide economic wealth could justify the most beautiful hopes, the old question is still burning: Can hunger be defeated?
Several small victories in the struggle against this scourge can be noted. In the 20th century, food production increased more than the world population that more than doubled in the same period. However unequal access to food and means of production results in millions of people deprived of the most fundamental of all rights: the right to food. Much must be done to assure healthy substantial nutrition for the whole world population.
At the World Food summit of November 1996, representatives from 186 countries including 112 heads of state took the first promising steps. The goal in 1996 sounds both modest and ambitious. The number of malnourished persons should be reduced from 800 to 400 million by the year 2015, 22 million less undernourished persons every year.
Despite all resolutions and the media reaction to the 1996 summit, the problem of hunger remains a dark spot in the conscience of humanity and has even worsened in some regions. The numbers speak for themselves. Roughly 777 million people are malnourished in the developing countries, 27 million in the threshold countries and 11 million in the industrial nations.
Children suffer very intensely in malnutrition. The conditions are most grave in Africa south of the Sahara and in south Asia. 156 million children under five years of age show a protein deficiency and 177 million growth disorders that are food-conditioned. In addition, 17 percent of newborn in developing countries fall behind in growth in their mother's wombs, a consequence of malnutrition of pregnant women.
Can the 1996 goal of containing malnutrition ever be reached? Doesn't the survival of hunger in a world of surplus demand very new global initiatives? How can the evil be defeated and necessary political will and additional resources be effectively mobilized? These questions will be on the agenda when heads of state, parliamentarians, representatives of international, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, representatives of international credit institutions and the private economy meet in Rome in June 2002 for the "World Food Summit - Five Years Later".
The G* summit organized by the UN organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO) in Genoa in June 2001 proclaimed in a unanimous resolution that the main goal of a common strategy for combating poverty must be access to adequate food and development of rural regions. All efforts have to be directed at advancing agricultural productivity as a considerable part of public economic assistance.
Thus supporting national agricultural policy and training agronomists were declared the highest priorities. The G8 summit advocated South-South cooperation as the decisive presupposition for transferring technologies styled to the socioeconomic needs of poor farmers and simultaneously witnessing to the ecological necessities. The summit granted precedence to the most intensely affected regions in South Africa and South Asia.
Agriculture is the decisive factor since it can secure survival for the large part of the malnourished. In 1999, 60 percent of the total population of developing countries lived in the countryside and 60 percent did agricultural work. In many states with a high percentage of undernourished persons, agriculture amounts to 25 percent of the gross domestic product and supplies directly or indirectly 70 percent of the poor and people whose food is insecure. The majority of the needy in the cities emigrated from rural regions because they could no longer support their families.
More investments are necessary in the agriculture of developing countries. Inadequate resources are often invested in agriculture though agriculture is a motor of the economy. Industrial countries and the international credit institutions have reduced aid earmarked for the agricultural sector. Some industrial states did not always favor the upturn of agriculture in developing countries. According to estimates, subsidies granted agriculture by the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) could amount to $161 billion, 1.4 percent of the gross domestic product of all OECD states. In 1998, only $7.4 million was spent officially as aid for the agriculture of poor countries. On the other hand, grants to farmers of the industrial countries amounted to 48 times what was allotted to farmers in poor countries. This situation corresponds to the agreements of the World Trade Organization (WTO) but its equity may be questioned.
The follow-up economic costs of hunger are exorbitant for individuals and societies. Food deficiency leads to sickness and death forcing families to spend their meager funds for nursing. Food deficiency damages the cognitive abilities of children, stifling people in the full unfolding of their natural gifts. Food deficiencies check economic growth and prevent whole societies from reaching an acceptable level of development. Without food deficiency, the gross domestic product per inhabitant in southern Africa was between $1000 and $3500. Actually it only reached $800.
Aids spread very quickly in the rural regions of developing countries. The epidemic endangers food supply and productivity. The numbers are alarming. Since 1985, 7 million persons have already died of Aids in Africa's 25 most strongly affected countries, persons earlier employed in agriculture. By 2020, another 16 million will die. Some countries will lose up to a quarter of their agricultural workers.
The struggle against hunger in the world is not only a moral command. This struggle also advances the economy and promotes the stability and security of all societies. Hunger is not only the result but also the cause of conflicts and anxiety and contributes directly to rural exodus or drift to the cities and emigration.
As a result, the international community of states must understand overcoming malnutrition as an integral element of global solidarity. The international community is obligated to do everything to fulfill its commitments. Industrial nations must increase their financial aid, promote the transfer of appropriate technologies, reduce the debt burden, open markets, avoid dumping surplus goods and guarantee just trade conditions. Developing countries must spend an adequate part of their budget on poor farmers, promote agrarian production and frugal relations with water, create incentives for local private investments and improve access to land, resources, education, markets and credits, especially for women.
In the struggle against hunger and malnutrition, there are no panaceas or simple solutions. But when states and the international community convert their commitments into concrete actions, the results will be manifest. This will be a hard battle but with the help of public opinion and engaged supporters in the whole world the elementary human right to adequate food can be secured.
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