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World Hunger Down, But Not Enough

Response to 2008 food price spikes falls short

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The United Nations Tuesday announced that the number of hungry people declined to about 925 million.

That's lower than last year's peak of more than one billion, but still far too high, U.N. officials say. At this pace, the world will not meet the Millennium Development Goal to cut world hunger in half by 2015.

Progress on hunger was falling short even before food prices peaked in 2008 and food riots broke out. Garry Smith, who coordinates the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's response to the crisis, says the food price crisis made a bad situation worse.

"It was disastrous, in a way, that we added over 150 million people to the impoverished group around the world," he says.

The forces driving prices up included unusually low food reserves, competition from biofuels, and the influence of speculators on commodity markets.

High prices, less aid

But there was a longer-term factor at work as well, says policy director Gawain Kripke with the advocacy group Oxfam America.

"Over the last three decades, international donors providing foreign assistance have cut and cut and cut the amount provided for agricultural development," he says.

Aid for agriculture fell from about 17 percent of donor budgets three decades ago to less than five percent before the crisis.

"When food prices went out of control in 2007 and 2008, world leaders paid attention," Kripke says. "And at the G8 meeting in Italy, they made some new commitments for funding."

Led by the Obama administration, they pledged $22 billion at that meeting in July 2009. Several donors also set up a trust fund at the World Bank to direct funds to countries with the best plans.

Boosting agriculture

The 2008 crisis also got the attention of developing-world leaders, who experts say had been neglecting their farmers. A growing number have since increased their budgets for domestic agriculture support.

Many national leaders are also seeking to make the most of donors' renewed attention to agriculture. They are putting together comprehensive plans to boost food supplies. Five countries qualified for the first round of funding from the World Bank trust fund, worth about $230 million. Many more proposals are on the way.

But the World Bank's Chris Delgado says that creates a potential problem.

"There's been a tremendous effort by countries to really produce these peer-reviewed, inclusive, strategic plans," he says. "And my fear, and the fear of my colleagues, is that we're going to have a lot more really good proposals that we simply can't fund."

Diminished trust fund

That's because the trust fund is currently worth less than a billion dollars. And the $22 billion the G8 pledged overall turned out to be mostly re-packaged old money. Only about $4 billion to $6 billion is new money.

And the FAO's Garry Smith says donors have not given much information about where even that money is going. "We have to take their word for it in a way that the money's being spent and that good things are happening," he says. "It's very difficult to understand what those things are."

Even with the increased donor focus on agriculture, most estimates say tens of billions of dollars a year will be needed to make a dent in world hunger.

"The ability to use aid well has increased considerably" in developing countries, says the World Bank's Chris Delgado. "There's still more to be done, but what's lacking now at this particular time is not ideas or institutions so much as the funds."

World leaders will meet in New York next week to assess progress on the Millennium Development Goals. With the number of hungry people worldwide still hovering around one billion, experts say a major new investment will be needed to close the gap by the 2015 target.

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