Last week, another 1 million children under the age of five were declared dead because of malnutrition. This was not the result of a famine or a new disease, but simply because an eminent panel of doctors and academics working for the London-based Lancet, a weekly general medicine journal, published findings showing that existing research on child mortality had got it wrong.
So the tens of thousands of anti-hunger campaigners who met in central London’s Hyde Park on Saturday should not have been spreading 2 million paper petals for each of those dead children, but 3.1 million, and the awful campaign headline statistic — that a child dies from hunger every 15 seconds — should have been “every 10 seconds.”
These tragic figures are a big disappointment to a world that believes it is doing rather well on profound poverty. The numbers of humans living on less than US$1.25 a day will be halved by 2015, a success for a UN Millennium Development Goal target set in 2000. However, it turns out that, contrary to the wisdom of a generation of economists, economic growth does not necessarily reduce hunger, especially among the world’s poorest.
Child malnutrition has increased in India in the past decade, despite its economic boom. The world still has more than enough food to go around — but distributing it fairly, or even humanely, is not simple at all.
The Lancet report was released to give a push to the half-day summit on nutrition and growth called by British Prime Minister David Cameron on Saturday ahead of the G8 meeting in Ireland later this month. Food security is an item on the agenda item there, though it has been pushed lower than it was at the beginning of the year.
The London mini-summit — attended by no significant G8 figure other than Cameron — was more evidence that the ability of grand, red-carpet summits to address issues such as world food supply may be over. Both the G20 and the G8 have proved big on promises, but not so hot on delivery.
In 2009, at the Aquila G8 summit, US President Barack Obama launched a plan to boost the world’s poorest farmers as a route to improving world food security. The G8 nations lined up to pledge an impressive US$22 billion to the plan, but analysis by the One anti-poverty campaign now shows that two-thirds of that money was “double spending” — aid money already committed — and the G8’s own analysis shows that 26 percent of the money committed has not materialized.
Despite all the talk, in the years since Aquila, aid spending on African agriculture has gone up only a couple of percentage points.
When it comes to addressing the systemic problems that threaten world food security, the big powers now seem puny. One key cause of the food price increases seen in 2008, and from 2010 to 2011, was the panicky bans on grain exports imposed by Russia and others when their harvests looked doubtful. That spooked the commodities markets, excited the speculators and sent prices soaring, despite no underlying lack of food.
Meanwhile, the WTO’s talks have been stalled for five years, offering no mechanism for a global trade initiative to stabilize food prices.
It is interesting that against this muddle and lack of accountability — another issue on the G8 agenda — one couple at Saturday’s summit, Bill and Melinda Gates, are provably spending US$370 million a year on the poorest farmers — providing technical help and developing new, climate-change-tolerant crops. These are the measures that all analysts agree can make a real difference to hunger, while also reducing Africa’s dependence on food imports.