Amidst the jubilation over higher dairy prices that are boosting our flagging economy, spare a thought for those who are suffering. It has been a bad year for the 44 million people in poor countries who slipped into hunger since the surge of food prices in June 2010.
That’s four million every single month – nearly the population of New Zealand. For those of us who have seen the pain of chronic hunger and the effect that it has on children, even one hungry person in our world is too many.
The tragedy is that there is enough to feed every human being on earth – yet we have nearly a billion people who are persistently hungry, and an equal number who are obese. Hunger is a result of injustice, not a result of food shortages. People are hungry because their land has been stolen and their water allocated to others. Local farmers cannot compete with subsidised imports from rich nations. Women are denied credit and education. Developing country governments and donors alike have not invested in small farmers. Moreover, climate change has created unstable weather conditions leading to crop failure.
Food prices are once again on the rise, passing the levels reached during the crisis of 2007-08 that pushed the number of hungry people in the world over one billion in 2009. In the past year prices of many crops have risen dramatically, such as maize, wheat and sugar, which have all increased by more than 70 percent. For people who spend over half their income on food, this is a disaster. Consider deciding between getting enough nutrition, sending your kids to school or being able to visit a doctor. These are not choices that anyone should be asked to make.
This week, there is an opportunity to start dealing with systemic problems in the world’s food system, along with related issues of poverty. The Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) – the 48 poorest and most vulnerable nations – is being held in Istanbul on 9-13 May. Many world leaders are there, including Ban Ki-Moon, Helen Clark and 39 heads of state, mainly from the poorest countries (the New Zealand government is sending the head of our aid agency). Together, they plan to map out an action plan for the coming decade. The aim is not only to ensure the world’s poorest people have enough to eat, but also access to water, jobs, education, basic health care and other essential human rights. Oxfam is calling for at least half the LDCs to graduate out of this category of poorest countries during the next decade, as a step towards ending the LDC category altogether.
It is a big challenge. In 1971, the UN identified 24 LDCs. Four decades later, the rich countries have become far richer and the number of countries branded “least developed” has doubled. Unsurprisingly, 33 are in Africa, but there are also nine in Asia, one in the Caribbean and five in our neighbourhood – Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Samoa. As a good neighbour, proud of our Pacific identity, we should be determined to ensure that all these Pacific nations move out of the LDC category during the next decade.
How to do so is one of the key questions that face the conference. It is crucial that these countries – with populations heavily weighted towards young people – create jobs and economic opportunities. Even though the LDCs are home to 15 percent of the world’s population, they account for only one percent of global exports. In some cases the data shows good economic growth, but much of this has resulted from digging up minerals and oil, felling old growth forests and plundering fish stocks. These commodities are then exported in unprocessed form. This pattern of growth is neither sustainable nor equitable. The rush for exploitation of resources has fuelled corruption, exacerbated conflicts and done little to benefit poor and disadvantaged people.
The international community has a role to play. It is a scandal that rich countries still subsidise their agriculture and displace impoverished producers of crops like cotton. The conference could reform trade rules to discriminate in favour of LDCs, instead of rigging the rules against them.
The LDC conference could also send a strong signal that the world’s poorest people will be devastated by the impacts of climate change if there is not a fair, ambitious and binding agreement soon. The clock is ticking for the expiration of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, while greenhouse gas concentrations accumulate ever faster in the atmosphere. It is not only our Pacific neighbours and other small island states that will suffer. Runaway climate change will seriously hurt agriculture production in the developing world, with predictable effects on global hunger.
Transformation is in the air. With a flowering of democratic movements, the Middle East has joined a process that has been happening in Africa and across much of the developing world for the past decade. But lasting change also requires a willingness from rich nations to remove the blocks to progress and provide real assistance. With vision and courage, leaders meeting in Istanbul could mark a turning point.
We live in a world of stark inequality. Do we want to reach down to those who have been marginalised, or continue trampling on them? It is time to lift the floor.
Barry Coates is the Executive Director of Oxfam New Zealand and is currently on the advisory group for International Development for the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, New Zealand.