Human Rights

World Food Summit aims to halve the number of hungry

Meeting in Rome, nations seek to build on the new international framework set by other recent UN conferences. The decision-making process, however, left some in the cold.

ROME - Building on the international framework of integration and cooperation that has been established at recent United Nations world conferences and summits, governments at the World Food Summit here endorsed a broad-based program to halve the number of hungry people in the world by the year 2015.

Saying that it is "intolerable" that more than 800 million people "do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs," delegations from the some 187 national governments agreed to a seven-point "Plan of Action" that embraces concepts of sustainable development, the importance of women's advancement, and participatory governance in an effort to apply new international thinking to the arena of food production and distribution.

"We reaffirm that a peaceful, stable and enabling political, social and economic environment is the essential foundation which will enable States to give adequate priority to food security and poverty eradication," says the 11-point "Rome Declaration on World Food Security" that precedes the 33-page Plan of Action. "Democracy, promotion and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development, and the full and equal participation of men and women are essential for achieving sustainable food security for all."

Sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and held from 13 to 17 November at its headquarters here, the World Food Summit sought first and foremost to refocus international concern on the issue of hunger by bringing as many heads of state and government as possible to its conclave.

Some 82 top leaders came, somewhat fewer than have attended recent United Nations summit meetings. Yet government statements were generally optimistic about the Summit's Declaration and Plan of action.

"Finding a solution to the question of food security is a prolonged and arduous mission before mankind," said Li Peng of China, Premier of the State Council. "Viewed as a whole, however, the opportunities outweigh the challenges... We believe that so long as countries around the world join their efforts and work in close cooperation, the goal of world food security is entirely achievable."

UN development specialists, too, said they believed that the Plan of Action is largely workable - providing that national governments follow through on the commitments made in the plan.

"Hunger has always been with mankind. The difference today is we have all the resources we need and we have the knowlege to put agriculture on a sustainable basis."

--Anders Wijkman, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

"Hunger has always been with mankind," said Anders Wijkman, director of the Bureau for Policy and Program Support at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). "The difference today is we have all the resources we need and we have the knowledge to put agriculture on a sustainable basis."

A Different Process

Unlike other recent UN world conferences and summits, no negotiations took place during the final gathering. Instead, government delegations were asked to talk about the commitments that they would make to the plan, which had been agreed to in preparatory negotiations some two weeks before the Summit itself.

Many NGO representatives have become accustomed to an increasing degree of involvement and consultation in the final negotiations at such conferences.

For example, at both the Fourth World Conference on Women, held September 1995 in Beijing, and the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), held last June in Istanbul, NGO representatives were allowed high level access to government negotiations in the final rounds and were given license to submit specific comments on the language used in the final documents.

Although the FAO did solicit comments from NGOs in a series of six regional NGO consultations held in March, April and June, as well as a final NGO consultation held here in September, many NGO representatives present at the Summit said that they nevertheless felt cut off from the Summit action and the decision-making process.

Part of this sense of isolation, it should be noted, stemmed from heavy security procedures instituted by the Italian government, whose security services instituted a color-coded pass system that kept government delegations, NGOs, and the media in separate sections of the FAO headquarters building, extensively limiting interaction among all parties.

Still, many NGO representatives questioned why they had been invited if the Summit negotiations were finished and they had no chance to influence the outcome.

"We are a bit dissastisfied because we feel we have not been given time to give our views. Therefore, we don't feel it was worth all our effort traveling all this way."

--Venus B. Kimei, secretary general of the Tanzanian Association of NGOs

"We are a bit dissatisfied because we feel we have not been given time to give our views," said Venus B. Kimei, secretary general of the Tanzanian Association of NGOs, which is based in Dar-es-Salaam. "Therefore, we don't feel it was worth all our effort traveling all this way."

And NGO participation at the Summit was indeed substantially reduced in relation to recent UN Conferences. In all, some 629 NGO representatives were accredited to the Summit - and another 1,200 attended a parallel NGO Forum held a few kilometers away at a temporarily refurbished train terminal. By comparison, more than 30,000 people participated in the NGO Forum in China at the Fourth World Conference on Women, some 20,000 at the Global Forum in Rio and more than 5,500 at the NGO Forum for the Social Summit in Copenhagen.

FAO officials defended the process by which documents were fully negotiated in advance. "The advantage you have in coming here is you know what is the basis for action," said Jacques Vercueil, who, as the FAO's Officer-in-Charge of its Agriculture and Economic Development Analysis Division, followed the government negotiations throughout the Summit process. "The disagreements are all behind. So the summit is a point of departure, not the point of arrival."

Call for NGO Partnership

Mr. Vercueil pointed out that each of the seven commitments in the Plan of Action specifically states that governments should act to implement them "in partnership, as appropriate, with all actors of civil society." Indeed, the word partnership appears in the main document more than 20 times.

"So everything is understood that nothing successful and durable can happen without the involvement of all of the actors," said Mr. Vercueil. "The NGO Forum is likewise the point of departure and implementation for NGOs."

"Clearly this is a document built on previous conferences," said Mr. Vercueil. "There is no doubt that what happened in Rio and Cairo and Copenhagen and Beijing is very relevant to food security. But this Summit and its document is all about food security - it gives a focus on it. It affirms that food security is a priority problem. And that there is a dimension to sustainable development, which is primarily agricultural in nature."

Many of the NGO representatives present in Rome did praise the final document itself for its efforts to promote the concept of partnership and for its specific efforts to include women and indigenous peoples as important groups in carrying out the Plan of Action. That the Plan of Action stresses the importance of sustainability, biodiversity and land reform were also seen as positive steps in the NGO community.

An NGO declaration produced by the 1,200 representatives at the NGO Forum, however, diverged on questions of whether free market and liberalized trade policies hurt or help food security and over the degree to which industrialized agriculture should be promoted.

"Industrialized agriculture, intensive animal husbandry methods, and overfishing are destroying traditional farming, poisoning the planet and all living beings," said the NGO statement, which was titled "Profit for Few or Food for All," and was read to government leaders on the Summit's final day. "Subsidized exports, artificially low prices, constant dumping, and even some food aid programs are increasing food insecurity and making people dependent on food they are unable to produce."

The NGO statement then proposed a six-point "new model" for food security, "based on decentralization," which would seek to: 1) strengthen the capacity of family farmers, "including indigenous peoples, women and youth"; 2) reverse the effects of "the concentration of wealth and power"; 3) promote systems based on "agro-ecological principles"; 4) emphasize that national and local governments have "the prime responsibility to ensure food security"; 5) deepen the participation of "people's organizations and NGOs"; and 6) establish an international law that guarantees the "right to food."