Friday, July 16, 2011
Outrage and Inspire

Roger Thurow

The promises made by the leaders of the rich world in L’Aquila, Italy, two years ago were supposed to stop what is now happening in the Horn of Africa.  But those pledges haven’t been kept, and starvation is raging once again.

This week brought a revealing, and tragic, juxtaposition of those facts.  On Monday, ONE, an advocacy organization pushing for policies that eliminate hunger and extreme poverty, presented a report that found that donors are falling far short of their L’Aquila commitment to mobilize $22 billion by the end of 2012 to finance agriculture development in the poorest countries.  And, ONE noted, it isn’t only the money that is failing; the political will needed to prevent future food crises is also lagging.

As the week moved on, newspapers brought us the manifestations of those failures: pictures of emaciated children in hunger refugee camps in Kenya, where masses of desperate people are gathering as they flee drought and famine in Somalia.

Hunger, once again, in the 21st Century while lofty promises and pious pledges go unfulfilled.

Relief agencies report that 10 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda are in dire need of emergency food aid.  That’s a huge increase over the 6.3 million in the region who needed assistance earlier this year.

The leaders who gathered at the L’Aquila G8 summit in 2009, in the wake of the 2007-08 global food crisis, had the right idea: reverse the decades-long neglect of agriculture development and begin the long term task of increasing the productivity of Africa’s smallholder farmers while dealing with emergency hunger crises as they arise.  They promised to deliver the $22 billion within three years.

But what happened to the sense of urgency?  Rather than rushing the L’Aquila commitments out the doors of finance ministries and into agriculture development projects, many of the rich world promise-makers are sitting tight on the money.  ONE’s “Agriculture Accountability” report finds that only 22% has been dispersed so far:

“Canada and Italy have disbursed more than two-thirds of their pledges.  France, the UK and the U.S. need to make substantial disbursements in order to be on track…Meanwhile, Germany, Japan and the EC (European Community) are difficult to assess because they have not yet reported any disbursements, for various reasons.”

In the case of the U.S., the ONE report notes that Congress has appropriated about $2 billion for President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative and other projects for fiscal years 2010 and 2011.  That’s about 60% of the U.S. pledge, but disbursements to the field and future appropriations are in the balance as Washington focuses on slashing the federal budget.  As the report says, “ONE considers disbursements to be the ultimate measure of political will and bureaucratic expediency.”

As the promised money has been bottled up, the hunger in the Horn has been spreading, propelled by drought on top of chronic underproduction of food.  It is the kind of “slow-onset” humanitarian crisis that doesn’t get as much attention as earthquakes and floods or uprisings and wars.  Yet it is precisely the kind of crisis that increased investment in agriculture development would lessen or prevent.

“Rather than waiting for a full-blown, life-threatening disaster that will cost exponentially more in loss of lives, livelihoods and humanitarian interventions, we must act now to save those already suffering from hunger and malnutrition as we build resiliency and food security in the region,” the heads of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Program and Oxfam said in a joint statement.

“The good news is that we know what to do,” they added.  And that mission is to forge “a partnership between countries, humanitarian organizations and the development assistance community to link long-term development efforts with humanitarian assistance to build food security.”

The leaders who made the promises at L’Aquila know this, which is why they christened their effort the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative.  But there they left it, with a nice name and lofty commitments but weak follow-through in the past two years.

“The G8 and other major donors are not approaching agriculture and food security with the urgency they deserve,” the ONE report asserts.  “A major injection of political will and good faith are needed without further delay to leverage support from other donors, recipient country governments and the private sector.”

ONE reminds the leaders that the promises they made were to “real people in peril, real people whose lives and futures depend on better aid for agriculture, food security and rural development.”

They were promises made to the people who are now crowding into the hunger refugee camps in east Africa.

Empty promises lead to empty stomachs.



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