When world leaders gather in New York for the world summit this week, they will be subjected to a barrage of pleading and advocacy.
But the voice they probably will not hear is the most important one -- that of the poor and hungry struggling to raise and feed their families on a parched patch of land in the developing world. They are among more than 850 million chronically hungry people worldwide. And their plight is what it is really all about.
Can we continue to live with the scandal of great wealth and conspicuous consumption coexisting with misery, malnutrition and early death? Can we really be surprised if such injustice produces a lost generation bent on violence and destruction?
The leaders will be reviewing progress towards achieving the eight millennium development goals agreed five years ago. The first is the reduction of extreme hunger and poverty. It is the critical one because unless it is achieved, the others will fail too.
Hunger and poverty are inextricably linked. Hunger is not only the most obvious manifestation of poverty but also one of its principal causes. There is a vicious spiral at work that condemns millions of people to short, stunted, unfulfilled lives.
The key battleground in the fight to eradicate hunger and poverty is the countryside. After all, three-quarters of the 1.1 billion people living on less than US$1 a day live in the rural areas of developing countries and depend on agriculture. The logic is therefore inescapable: invest in agriculture and rural infrastructure.
Yet, over the past 20 years official development assistance going to these sectors in the poorest countries has been cut by more than half, from US$5.14 billion to US$2.22 billion.
Despite this, more than 30 developing countries, with a total population exceeding 2.2 billion people, have managed to cut the proportion of their undernourished by more than 25 percent. And all achieved significantly higher growth in agricultural GDP than the developing countries as a whole.
But this success is threatened by continuing injustices in the world trading system. With industrialized countries supporting their agriculture to the tune of nearly US$1 billion a day, international commodity prices are driven down and farmers in the poor countries find themselves undercut in their own markets.
In Hong Kong in December, trade negotiators will seek to address these issues, focusing on the risks of liberalization and the justification of protectionism. There has been much talk of level playing fields -- but there is a long way to go before we achieve this.
Meanwhile, the plight of children dying because of drought continues. After the usual blame game, we rush in food aid, at huge logistical cost. Then we wait for the next crisis, without addressing the root causes of the problem by building the essential water control systems and rural infrastructures.
The cost of doing nothing about hunger is tremendous. If hunger persists at current levels, the related loss of productivity in developing countries will total a staggering US$50 billion while each year without progress will cost 5 million children their lives.
Jacques Diouf is secretary-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
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