Make hunger history

July 07, 2005|By Olusegun Obasanjo

LAGOS, Nigeria - There is a pain in the belly of Africa that just will not go away. It is gnawing at our development goals and undermining our economies. It is blighting the lives of the young and shortening the life span of the old, yet somehow it is getting forgotten.

What is this scourge that stalks our continent? A rampant virus with no cure? An insect that pricks our skin and poisons our blood? If it were so dramatic and captivating, it might gather more attention. In fact it is much more prosaic. It is, of course, hunger, that is the scourge of Africa. It is advancing rather than receding and consuming more lives today than ever before.

A hungry person is an angry and dangerous person. It is in all our interests to take away the cause of his anger. There is a saying in my country: When you take hunger out of poverty, poverty is halved. That is why it is so crucial today that we give top priority to ridding ourselves of this blight on development.

In this year when so much energy and good will have been focused on the campaign to "Make Poverty History" and the Commission for Africa, we should remember that hunger and malnutrition continue to kill more than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Food is the stuff of life. Without it, free trade, debt relief and poverty alleviation will mean little or nothing to the millions of African farmers who till the soil and herd their goats in remote rural areas far from the benevolent gaze of the developed world.

We should not forget that the alleviation of hunger along with poverty is the first of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, a firm commitment made by governments to "eradicate the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty and hunger in which hundreds of millions of people continue to live."

The grim reality we face today is that while global poverty dropped by 20 percent during the 1990s, the number of hungry people rose. In the second half of the decade, almost 5 million more people became hungry every year. Today, the total number around the world who know what it is like to go to bed hungry stands at a staggering 852 million.

What this means is that while there is convincing evidence of slow progress toward making poverty history, the underclass of hungry people is growing and the world is losing ground in its bid to halve the proportion of those who suffer from hunger by 2015.

In a country like Nigeria, carefully mapped-out policies have promoted food production, strengthened the agriculture sector, increased food exports and income and created employment for hundreds of thousands of people. The experiences and challenges of Nigeria are being shared with other African states.

As chairman of NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development), I have called for deep cooperation and collaboration with the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) and its partner agencies to strengthen agriculture, research and to share best practices to increase output drastically to reduce hunger. In addition, savings from debt and debt-servicing can go into these sectors that directly and immediately benefit the people.

The world must address the food needs of the most vulnerable sector of the underclass of hungry: the children. The WFP has put a price on what it would cost to eradicate hunger among the 300 million children, from Africa and beyond, who live with the grinding and debilitating symptoms of hunger.

Five billion dollars a year may seem like a sizable sum, but if it is carefully targeted at improving health and nutrition for the neediest 100 million children, it could have a seismic impact that rolls back hunger and sets the world again on track toward reaching that elusive first Millennium Development Goal.

The plan foresees a partnership between rich and poor nations. Increasing the food supply and simultaneously reducing hunger is a target across Africa, so developing nations would be encouraged to play their part, contributing food to the value of $2 billion to meet the needs of women and children especially through school feeding programs. For its part, the developed world would be expected to provide the balance of $3 billion.

It is a small price to pay for reaching a goal that seeks to propel Africa and the rest of the world out of poverty using a commodity that is one of the fundamental building blocks of life.

When I think of Africa today, it reminds me of Charles Dickens' character, Oliver Twist. Like him, Africa is struggling to extract itself with dignity from poverty and neglect. It is unacceptable that Africa may be forced once again to go to the top table at the Group of Eight meetings in Gleneagles, Scotland, and say, "Please, sir, I want some more."

It does not have to be that way. In partnership we have the opportunity to conquer these challenges to development in Africa and beyond. We cannot forget that hunger is the voracious handmaiden of poverty. If we do not destroy the one, we will never consign the other to the dustbin of history.

Olusegun Obasanjo is president of Nigeria.

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