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The view from Davos - Part two: Hunger and malnutrition – the forgotten MDG?

Written by Simon Maxwell

Last week, I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos. This is the second of four blogs with my reflections and predictions on how the debates will be taken forward in 2008. (for the other blogs, visit 'ODI on... Davos 2008')

Substantively, my enduring memory is of the profile given to hunger and malnutrition, with Robert Zoellick (WB) and Josette Sheeran (WFP) both mounting major public initiatives on the ‘forgotten MDG’.

Elsewhere in these Davos blogs I consider the power of story. Stories featured very much in the hunger discussions, and I must say that Josette Sheeran is probably the most savvy communicator and one of the most charismatic UN agency leaders since Jim Grant. When Josette had done the stories, and was introducing Ban Ki Moon, she produced a red plastic cup, of the kind used to distribute porridge to children in feeding centres. ‘I’ve kept this on my desk’, she said, ‘to remind me every day of why WFP matters to the world. Mr Secretary General, I want you to have it and keep it on your desk, to remind you about the importance of hunger and malnutrition’.

I talked at that event about food as a social matrix (citing George Orwell on tea), about leadership, and about the opportunities in 2008. Josette Sheeran and others made a big thing at Davos about food prices being so high, and the hardship this will cause, and the geopolitical risks. I said (on advice from colleagues at ODI) that we should expect a supply response, that prices would come down and that long-term rises might not exceed 10%. The World Bank, I think, has the same advice, but I was taken to task by others, including Jacques Diouf, the DG of FAO (China/India meat consumption, biofuels, climate stress the long term drivers). In fact, I checked the futures market earlier, and the prices for end-2009 are not much lower than spot, only 5 or 10%. But of course, a good harvest would allow stocks to rebuild and would reduce the pressure.

Apart from raising the profile of WFP, and raising a lot of private money, Josette Sheeran is moving WFP from being an agency which distributes foreign food to one which uses cash resources to buy food locally and wherever possible provide resources to enable people to buy their own food, in ‘normal’ situations as well as emergencies. The latest proposal is to help the poor cope with high food prices in Bangladesh by supporting a voucher scheme. I’m entirely supportive of this huge cultural shift. HPG work on needs assessment and on cash distribution has been influential here.

What I would like to see is a ‘one-UN’ initiative on hunger, with WFP, FAO, IFAD, UNCEF, and WHO - and maybe the Bank – making a joint statement on hunger and setting something up for the MDG Summit in New York September and the Financing for Development meeting in Doha at the end of November. The model is the International Health Partnership, launched by Gordon Brown last year, which very deliberately did not set up a new funding mechanism. In this case, we would want to make sure that additional funding was channelled to the core budgets of the participating agencies. FAO are planning a high-level conference/summit on food price and related issues in the near future. Also relevant is a big WEF initiative called the ‘Business Alliance Against Chronic Hunger’.