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As food summit opens, NGOs call for more cash

Latest update : 2008-06-03

As the three-day UN summit of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) opens in Rome, agricultural and humanitarian organisations take stock of the food crisis, calling for more funds for poor countries. (Report: T. Grucza)

Humanitarian organisations are worried about the rising prices of food products. Even if the situation is not yet critical, the association Action Contre la Faim (ACF) has been intensifying its communication campaigns vis-à-vis the international community. Last Friday, during a press conference, François Darel, ACF’s Director, emphasised the integral role of agriculture, but stated that it was insufficient to eradicate the spectre of famine that is looming over 800 million people.

“One must tackle the problem in a general manner and not only from an agricultural point of view," said Darel. "An international fund must be created. A fund that is capable of halving the number of malnourished people in the world over 15 years. Governments need to adapt their policies to the social reality, and to the health strategies of the affected countries.”

Famine and political tension

Liberia provides a good example of this difficult reality. The country, barely out of 14 years of armed conflict, is threatened with a real crisis according to Bérangère Panaster, head of ACF’s mission in Monrovia.

A survey conducted by ACF in February 2008 shows that out of a population of 71,000 children, 400 suffer from malnutrition, and 12,000 more from moderate nutrition in the Liberian capital.

“All the signals are red,” says Panaster. “ACF is preparing for an acute nutrition crisis. The causes are several – the end of wheat stock in August, the increase in oil prices and the fact that local rice is more expensive than imported rice.”

The situation is identical in Afghanistan and Burkina Faso. Famine and political tension will create a food crisis with unimaginable consequences, according to Bertrand Baraqueville and Claire Fioni, ACF’s heads in Kabul and Ouagadougou respectively. Public sector strikes and deterioration of the quality of life all point to an imminent catastrophe, according to studies carried out by the two social workers.

High prices and preventive strategy

At Médecins Sans Frontières (or MSF, the French abbreviation for Doctors Without Borders) the situation is being closely followed. Stéphane Doyon, one of the association’s directors, told FRANCE 24 that he preferred waiting in order to measure the real effects of the crisis. But as far as food prices are concerned, figures show that the levels are higher than last year but lower than in 2005. For example, during the week of May 16, a 100-kilogram sack of millet cost around 16,500 CFA francs (23.90 euros), whereas in 2007, the price at the same time was 12,000 CFA francs. The same for the price of rice, estimated at 15,000 CFA francs in 2007 and 18,000 CFA francs in May 2008.

To avoid any surprises, MSF has put into place a preventive strategy that consists of distributing nutritional complements to children less than three years of age, in particular in Niger, a country that suffered an unprecedented food crisis in 2005.

“In this country, we count 40,000 cases of malnutrition,” says Frédérique Doyon, who is preparing MSF’s medical centres for 100,000 child famine victims. “In Sudan, the situation is bad,” Doyon continues. “In Darfur, the lack of security creates routing problems, and Ethiopia is not spared either.”

But Doyon praises the stability of milk prices, a basic element in the production of "plumpy-nut",  an enriched, therapeutic food developed to fight malnutrition.

MSF’s director accuses the United States of having indirectly created tensions in the international cereal market by transforming 40% of its maize to biofuel.

The guilt of International institutions

The World Food Programme (WFP) is also gravely concerned about the situation. In a press release on its Web site, the organisation calls on the international community to increase its aid to poor rural communities in West Africa that have been prey to the effects of global warming, price hikes and  population increases.

The appeal was partially heard, as Saudi Arabia contributed 500 million US dollars out of the 750 million dollars that the WFP asked for. The objective was to counter the immediate effects of the food crisis. However, the measure is considered to be a mere drop in the ocean. An increase in agricultural production, especially in poor countries, would require 19 billion dollars a year, according to FAO’s president, Jacques Diouf.

Date created : 2008-06-03