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The food crisis: are we making progress?

Written by Simon Maxwell

If every word written about the global food crisis were a grain of rice, hunger in the world would be a distant memory. But let’s not be cynical - there is cause for cautious optimism. Progress is being made on the policy front and the commitments are beginning to stack up. That does not mean the crisis is over. Events in the Horn of Africa remind us that weather-induced famine is a risk for the poorest, quite independently of what is happening to international grain markets. Nevertheless, the food crisis has been testing our capacity for collective action this year, and we have not been entirely disappointed.

It took time to gear up. My own blogs and articles on the subject track the calendar. From the early warnings issued by people like Josette Sheeran of WFP early in the year at Davos, through the Summit held in Downing Street in April, to the FAO Summit in Rome, the EU Council in June, and the G8 in July, the momentum has slowly begun to build. In May, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, established a High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis. The Task Force is coordinated by Sir John Homes, the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, with David Nabarro as his Deputy. The Task Force reported to the General Assembly on 18 July, with a Comprehensive Framework for Action.

The Comprehensive Framework, known as the CFA, is not a blueprint and certainly not a costed plan of action. It repeatedly emphasises the importance of national leadership and action, with country level ‘partnerships for food’ at the centre of the response agenda. That’s good. I’ve made the point several times that almost everything about the food crisis is contested, which means that a domestic political process is required to adjudicate between competing interests.

What the CFA does is provide three of four pages of context, and then lay out the options for dealing with the three priorities: first, meeting the immediate needs of vulnerable populations; second, building longer-term resilience and food security; and, third, supporting information systems. It concludes with a chapter on how to achieve the desired outcomes.

On the context, there is information about the rise in food prices and the impact on hunger, but also on budget deficits, inflation, the balance of payments – and also on the political repercussions. It is correct and important that the crisis not be understood simply as a narrow ‘food’ problem, let alone a humanitarian problem, important as those aspects are.

The short-term programme focuses on emergency food assistance, boosting smallholder food production, adjusting tax policy, and dealing with the macro-economics: a country-specific combination of action and policy change, and aid in the form of food, cash and foreign exchange. Safety nets and social protection receive a boost. Input susbidies look like a good bet. Caution is recommended on export bans or other measures which might make things worse for other countries or prove to be expensive and difficult to reverse.

In the longer term, the CFA again recommends an expansion of social protection, with further support to smallholder agriculture, and coordinated action to make international food markets work better. There is a carefully neutral paragraph and a box on the much-discussed issue of whether the rise in food prices is driven by speculation. The controversy on biofuels is recognised, with a call for an international consensus.

As to implementation, the emphasis is on country-level leadership, as noted, with a strong commitment from the UN Agencies and the Bretton Woods Institutions to work more effectively together. No precise figures are given as to cost, but estimates of between $US 25 bn and $US 40 bn per annum are cited, with roughly one third for short-term response and two-thirds for the longer term. The Report emphasises that this money should be additional, and not provided at the expense of other Millennium Development Goals, especially on the social side.

Meanwhile, commitments are non-negligible – though not necessarily additional, as I discussed in my blog on 6 June. Back in June, FAO was able to announce that total commitments in response to the food crisis amounted to $US 18 bn. The EU has added another billion euros to this total, with its announcement that unused payments of farm subsidies will be devoted to tacking the global food crisis in 2008 and 2009.

Is all this enough? No. Is the analysis complete? Obviously not. There are some big issues still to sort out: biofuels, obviously, but also speculation, and some new proposals, like internationally held food stocks. Don’t worry. There’s the MDG Call to Action Meeting still to come, on 25 September.